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The pursuit of pupillage

updated on 23 November 2022

*A previous version of this article went out under the wrong author's name. The LawCareers.Net team apologises for this error which has now been rectified.*

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It’s that time of year again. Yes, Christmas, but also pupillage application season. I remember all too well sitting at the dining room table drafting my pupillage application after the Christmas dinner had been cleared and while my family were watching Eastenders. Don’t feel too sorry for me, I was doing so with a suitably Christmas-y gin and tonic and a slice of M&S Chocolate Yule Log. Having very recently completed the journey myself, I’m writing this article to help you along the yellow-brick path to pupillage.

Whether you’re tentatively toying with the idea of becoming a barrister or are completely committed to the cause, the first step, in my view, is to get some experience and exposure to life at the Bar.  

Mini-pupillage

A mini-pupillage is where you shadow a barrister(s) from a set of chambers for a short period of time (eg, three to five days). This is a great way to see what the profession is all about. You’ll be able to observe barristers in conference, hearings and trials. You may also be able to participate in activities. For example, you might be asked to prepare advice or to bullet point important themes to be included in a closing submission. Some are assessed, and others are not. It’s sensible to undertake a range of mini-pupillages in different practice areas and cities.

Court visits/marshalling

Mini-pupillages are becoming increasingly difficult to secure. One way to gain exposure without the need of a formal mini-pupillage is to attend court and sit in the public gallery. This will allow you to see an array of advocacy at your convenience. You may be invited by the judge to marshal. Marshalling is a great opportunity to better understand what judges find impressive in a barrister.  

Mooting/advocacy

Mooting is usually a mock appeal where two advocates argue a point of law in front of a judge. Advocacy exercises may involve mock hearings such as for sentencing or bail. Before embarking on a career at the Bar, I was a proud thespian and confident public speaker; advocacy is a different practice entirely. Gaining experience in engaging the etiquette and formality of advocacy is extremely beneficial. Your university and your Inn (see below) are likely to have opportunities for you to gain experience of advocacy, including residential weekends and competitions.


Pro bono/volunteering

Pro bono work is where one provides legal advice/representation without charge. These experiences help you to hone the skills and attributes required to be a good barrister. You may be able to find such opportunities at your university or your local court.

You can see a list of pro bono initiatives on LawCareers.Net. You can also find out how to find the right pro bono scheme for you via LawCareers.Net’s Oracle and LCN Says.

Internships/work experience

One question you’re bound to be asked at some point during the process is: “Why do you want to be a barrister and not a solicitor?” Without understanding the role of a solicitor, it’s hard to answer that question genuinely. I undertook a two-month internship with a law firm in America and I also worked as a litigator within a law firm prior to becoming a pupil barrister. Those experiences were essential in helping me decide that a career at the Bar was for me, and in developing my understanding of the working relationship between barristers and solicitors.

Whether you studied law at undergraduate or completed the Graduate Diploma in Law, if you’ve decided to become a barrister you’ll need to complete a Bar Course. If you've yet to commence the course, investigate the scholarships that the Inns of Court provide. There are four Inns of Court: Lincoln’s Inn, Inner Temple, Middle Temple and Gray’s Inn. Combined, the Inns have funds in excess of £4.5 million per year to award aspiring barristers. Each Inn has its own identity and application process. You can visit their respective websites to find out more.  

In respect of the course, the learning curve from your previous studies to the postgraduate course is steep. My top tip is to focus on the syllabus in relation to the centralised assessments; that is after all what you’ll be examined on. Then read the additional recommended reading to help contextualise the concepts that you’re learning. Fully immerse yourself in your studies; prepare for seminars, observe your colleagues, take on board any feedback you receive and critically analyse areas for improvement. The more you engage with the experiences your institution/Inn offers, the more of a rounded candidate you’ll be when applying for pupillage.

Turning then to pupillage applications, massive kudos to those of you that are applying pre-Bar course. I was amazed to discover on my first day of the Bar course (then the Bar Practice Training Course) that there were students who’d already procured pupillage. Generally, you need to obtain pupillage within five years of completion of the Bar course. While you don’t need to apply prior to commencing the course, it is plainly advantageous to do so; you get two bites at the cherry before the five-year clock begins to tick. If you’re already on a Bar course or have completed a course, don’t worry; most barristers obtain pupillage following the Bar course and after two or three application rounds. I first applied for pupillage the year after I finished my Bar course. I was unsuccessful in 2019/20 but received the elusive offer of pupillage in 2020/2021.

Head to LawCareers.Net’s Application hub for all our advice on acing your applications.

From Monday 28 November 2022, prospective pupils can browse the Pupillage Gateway (the website where pupillages are advertised) to see the current vacancies in advance of the gateway opening on 4 January 2023. Once the gateway opens, you’ll be able to apply for most pupillages through the pupillage gateway portal. The deadline to apply, in most cases, is 8 February 2023. I appreciate that you’ll likely want to celebrate the holidays and see in the New Year but do set aside some time to get ahead on these applications. It can be a stressful time and so if you pace yourself, rather than putting it off until after New Year, you’ll be doing yourself a favour.

The panel that’ll be reading your application form will want to be assured that you’ll be a good barrister. My top tip is to create an audit of all the skills and attributes that a good barrister has and give an example of when you’ve demonstrated each of those skills. Once you’ve done this, you can weave each experience throughout the form to leave the panel in no doubt that you’ll be a good barrister. Once you’ve completed the form, proofread it. I have Microsoft Word and use the read-aloud function as I find it easier to hear a mistake than to see one on the page. Also, enlist a friend or relative to read the application form for you. This will ensure that the narrative sounds like you; forget about what a barrister should sound like. Society is diverse and the Bar should be too!

If you secure an interview, many congratulations! Competition is fierce at the Bar and to get an invite to interview is something to be proud of. In preparation for the interview, make sure you know where you’re going and how to access Chambers, especially if your interview is on a weekend. If your interview is remote, make sure you test your systems to ensure everything is functioning well. For the interview itself, try to adopt the STAR technique when structuring your answers: situation, task, action, result. This is a helpful way to provided concrete examples of the skills you possess in a competency-based interview.

In preparation for the interview, it’s also worth enquiring as to whether it’ll be an interview, an advocacy exercise, or a hybrid. It’s also worth asking how many rounds there are likely to be; some chambers will have one round, most will have two rounds, but some will have three or more. The more prepared you are the better. Your university/Inn is likely to offer mock interviews, so take advantage of them. Pupillage interviews are quite different from other traditional interview processes you’re likely to have experienced. Entering the interview with an idea of what’s coming will give you confidence.

I’ll be honest with you; the road ahead is a labyrinth. There have been times when I’ve felt completely overwhelmed. I’ve been troubled with imposter syndrome; fearing that a biracial, West Country girl like myself has no business wearing a wig and gown. I’ve felt defeated and at the lowest of lows but the highs – graduating, being called to the Bar of England and Wales, and obtaining pupillage –  offer you an incredible sense of pride and achievement. Perhaps most importantly, the friendships that are formed in the crucibles of the process are ones that I treasure. I’m now one month into pupillage and can honestly say all of the sacrifices made were wholly worth it. Think Will Smith at the end of The Pursuit of Happyness. Go forth and get that pupillage!

Emilene Davis is a pupil barrister at Albion Chambers. She's specialising in criminal law. You can connect with her via LinkedIn or Instagram.