No Pupillage · The BVC

Desolation Row (Lyrics Here)

I have the permission of the author of the question below to post my answer:

“Been reading your blog for quite some months now. However, unless I’m mistaken, there is something of an omission from the listings – what should you be feeling if you fail to get a pupillage the first time around?

I’m in that boat. Having done the Oxbridge thing, I went to City and did ok-ish on the conversion course (high commendation with a few distinctions). I got quite a few second round interviews (7 to be precise) but got absolutely nothing apart from a few reserve places that did not materialise. I was, and still am, pretty distraught over the failure and really don’t know what to do. For the sake of frankness, I feel pretty much locked into the BVC (having paid the cash, thanks to the beautiful deadlines for finding out about pupillage) and feel like a very undesirable candidate.

At the risk of turning your blog into a psychologist’s couch, what should someone like me be thinking? Is the second attempt going to be a fruitless one? Is there going to be any sort of discrimination as a result of the first failure? Having not set the world alight in my conversion course, am I now a less valuable prospect? Should I not apply to the same Chambers, as the outcome will be inevitable? What should I be doing for the horrible intervening year after the BVC?”

Good question.

I am not sure that I can tell you what you ought to be thinking. Surely that is a matter for you. Certainly, how you are feeling will have an effect on what you do. If you really are impossibly discouraged and despondent then it might be best to walk away. A second failure might be too much to take and your own peace of mind is more important than a job.

However, what I think you mainly mean is whether it is worth carrying on, given the matters you identify in your last paragraph. Do you only have one bite of the cherry? Well, back in the day (mine), not getting a pupillage was the end and you went on to something else. Plainly, this is no longer the case. There are large numbers of candidates and ever reducing numbers of pupillages. Some people get lucky second time – I know someone who got lucky the third. There is no reason to think that you are washed up as far as the bar is concerned, simply because you got interviews but no offers.

However, you do have to ask yourself whether the lack of offers is because of something you are doing. It may not be. It is perfectly conceivable that not yet being on the BVC, you lacked an edge that others had. You may not have done mini-pupillages, or researched the sets well enough, or missed out key points on the issues discussed at interview. Only you can say, but you need to be pretty rigorous with yourself about it. It clearly isn’t an academic issue given your qualifications: if it were there would have been no interviews. The grade achieved in the conversion course may be important for the magic circle sets, but it is irrelevant to anyone else. The real question for you is why you did not shine in interview.

This is an issue I used to force under my own pupils’ noses. If you lose a case, the temptation is to blame your client, your opponent, the witnesses and the Judge. It may all be true. But 99.9% of the time there is something which you could have done to make a difference. People who are going to be good barristers cannot afford to be frightened of the process of self-criticism which identifies what that is.

There is also a question of pride and where it fits into your perception of yourself. If the Chairman of the Committee (or the Judge) takes an instinctive and unreasonable dislike to you, what can you do to stop it happening again? I have encountered people who feel that the question itself dignifies the prejudice (as indeed it does) and therefore refuse to answer it. Such people are principled but tend not to make good barristers. When you do a case it isn’t about you – it’s about your client. If the Judge will only listen if you wear black and stripes, a plain white shirt and a collar starched like iron then the Judge is idiotic, but get out there and shop. Ditto in interviews – however much it wasn’t your fault, what can you do to change?

In reality of course there usually is something you can change and it usually needs changing. Unreasoning prejudice isn’t unknown in the legal profession but it’s a lot rarer than critics and disappointed applicants (not you) would like to make out. Equally, Judges do have irrational dislikes and they do, occasionally, try to hold people back. But I would say that for every ten barristers who attribute their lack of professional advancement to such causes, only one is right.

I know people at the Bar who have reasonable practices even though they are too fragile or self-obsessed to go through this process of asking what they did wrong. So one can’t say it is critical. But I think it is critical if you want to be really good. There is nothing more depressing than hearing a junior tenant seriously blaming someone other than themselves for a disappointing result (‘the Judge was just a bastard’ is different, providing that it’s clear they do not believe that this is the be all and end all) – save possibly when that person is another junior tenant or pupil.

My guess is that you will be able to identify things that could be better and make the necessary changes. My advice is to examine everything from your substantive answers to the way you dressed and ask whether you are satisifed. Your friends can usually answer the question, ‘what is it about me that would most turn you off’, although I would ensure that they knew you really needed an honest answer and that everyone was completely sober. If the process takes over an hour then the Bar may not be the right profession.

I don’t think you are damaged goods at all. I’m not sure I would reapply to the same sets, although without knowing which they were, it is impossible to say for sure. By and large, if they have rejected you then there is no particular reason to think they would feel differently next time round and the risk is that they feel the need to reach a consistent conclusion. Other sets do not need to know and probably won’t ask.

Update: Anna is a barrister in another set, who has interviewed for pupillage and says this:

We honestly don’t care whether people have applied to us previously. In fact, a couple of years ago, we took on a pupil who had lost out at the second round interview in the previous year’s OLPAS session. He is now a junior tenant. So if you’ve come quite a long way through the process at the Chambers of Your Dreams this year, but didn’t quite make it to pupillage, it is definitely worth checking how they view 2nd applications…

This seems to be worth knowing and I am happy to bow to superior knowledge.

If I were you and I got lucky second time around, then if I could afford it or could get a job to fund it, I would go away for a year. Any job you get to mark time is unlikely to be hugely enjoyable. I agree that the timing is unhappy and leads to this problem occurring with depressing frequency. If you need to work, then working as a paralegal is increasingly common and has the benefit of showing you how things work and introducing you to solicitors. Personally speaking, I wouldn’t be a candidate on The Apprentice.

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12 thoughts on “Desolation Row (Lyrics Here)

  1. To begin with, I would reassure your correspondent that if he or she got seven second-round interviews and more than one reserve offer, then he or she did a lot better than many – indeed, about as well as it is possible to do without actually getting pupillage. That may not sound comforting, but given that there are something like eight applicants for every pupillage, it means that her or she is clearly a far more competitive candidate than many.

    It’s also worth remembering that it is starting to look as if many, if not the majority, of pupillages are going to students already on the BVC when they apply. I haven’t seen hard numbers, but it is certainly the case that pre-BVC applicants are now a minority, whilst anecdotal evidence from BVC students is that the number of their fellow students arriving with pupillages is well below what even the limited number on offer would lead one to expect. The logical explanation is that most pupillages are now being awarded second time around. And if you were looking at two otherwise equally strong candidates, one of whom already had good marks from BVC studies, who would you be tempted to take?

  2. One thing my experience in legal education has taught me is some humility. I know that’s not very apparent from my posts but it is “distance travelled” that matters isn’t it? When I made may first (non-OLPAS) application during my conversion year, at the tender age of 48, I just assumed that I would be in the 40 that chambers were going to screen in person. Rejection was quite a shock. This wasn’t going to be the shoo-in that I had planned. More non-OLPAS aplications, including to sets that I was sure would salivate at my CV, and then the OLPAS round just before the start of my BVC year yielded no interviews. At least, this was all providing a new life experience.

    All the feedback about my applications said “impressive CV but we get lots of impressive CVs and there’s not much law there.”

    On the first morning of the BVC, with my cheque book on the bedside table, the alarm went, I put my feet on the floor and I asked myself “Am I going to write that 5-figure cheque?” Answer: “You have to be in it to win it.”

    Frankly, at the start of the BVC, hardly anybody has a pupillage already and you can’t work out why those people are so special.

    OLPAS during autumn of BVC year – nothing. More non-OLPAS – no.

    Summer OLPAS – “Never to be repeated offer”. Thank God I didn’t write that on the form but I was tempted at one point. The years are running out. I’m glad that I read War and Peace when I was young because I wouldn’t start it now. There’s only just time for two decades at the Bar. However, I did put at the bottom “I am not as scary as I sound.” (Wince! Don’t immitate this!) I was desparate and there had to be something putting people off.

    One first round interview and at the Chambers of my Dreams. Second round interview. Message from OLPAS “Application unsuccessful”. But you know, you always have that fantasy that Chambers will phone the following day and say “Doh! We hit the wrong button on OLPAS”. Next day, phone call from Chambers “Doh! We hit the wrong button on OLPAS. You are on the reserve list. All the offerees have other offers. What about you?”

    I had to wait 14 days before OLPAS sent the pupillage offer. I guess that the original offeree(s) didn’t even bother responding.

    Nelson D Rockerfeller said that a success is a person who’s picked themsleves up exactly one more time than they’ve fallen over. Someone else said that you’re never beaten until you say “I quit”. Ten grand is neither here nor there in a lifetime of the sort of earnings that aspirant barristers will make. Even if they fail ar the Bar, they will become management consultants, investment bankers, civil engineers or accountants.

    If you really want this, get some grit and don’t be defeatist. The people who get pupillage get it at the expense of those who gave up. You will need some iron in the soul on a long and hard professional career. Now’s the time to start forging it.

    If you just want a secure and prestigious job that is intellectually demanding, pays a lot of money and will give you terrifying early responsibility then go become a civil engineer with a large oil company. You’ll also get international travel, people watching to ensure that you maintain your work/ life balance and other people ensuring that your housing needs are met wherever in the world you end up working. Think about it!

    (Exclamation marks 5; semicolons 1)

  3. I was in this position this time last year. First class degree, distinction in the CPE, lots of interviews, lots of second round interviews, no pupillage. It was not an easy decision but I decided to do the BVC anyway. I did more minis, more mooting and more pro bono. Now I’ve got a pupillage at a really good set. It was my 21st application. It’s a year before it starts which isn’t ideal but you work for a long time so what’s another year, right? I hope it all works out.

  4. I was in a similar position to your correspondent . With a 2.i from Cambridge and a commendation from the conversion course, I got 5 first round interviews from my first OLPAS application and 2 second interviews. All in all, 11 rejections eventually turned up on OLPAS and on 1st August, when I was looking forward to knowing my fate for definite either way, I was instead told that I was on standby – 2nd choice – for the last set. As far as I was concerned no one was going to reject a pupillage offer and I would be facing a second round of OLPAS. As it was, the first choice did reject the place and I found myself with pupillage for 2009. But the point is, for a good few days I too was facing the BVC without pupillage – more work experience, more evening careers events and at least a year doing something other than being a barrister. I had to start thinking about whether I was doing the right thing…

    What I would say is that if this candidate got interviews, their OLPAS application must be up to scratch. So many people seem to get no interviews at all or just one or two. And if they got called back from the first interview, their interview technique can’t be too bad either. Of course, there’s always room for improvement and I would echo Mr. Myerson in saying you should evaluate what you think you did well and where you went wrong – in fact, I was asked at interview what my friends would say my worst qualities were and it was a useful exercise. But you shouldn’t be too despondent. I know from my own experience that, however well people tell you you’ve done, being “the reserve” just doesn’t feel good enough. But it’s so much further than many candidates ever get and it proves you have got what it takes – it’s just unfortunate that someone else did too. At that stage it’s just luck whether you‘re no.1 choice or no.2.

    I do disagree with Simon though when it comes to applying to a set for a second time. Of course it’s worth trying to see the situation from chambers’ point of view (consistent decisions etc) but there’s no harm in phoning and asking what the set’s policy on second applications is. If the answer is positive, I think applying again is a worthwhile exercise. I would have done it. I could have brought a lot more to an interview next year than I did this – more mooting experience, more mini-pupillages, the experience of the BVC. Plus, I really felt that my interview and presentation skills improved massively from one interview to the next. In my first interview I didn’t really know what to expect and was pleased just to get through the unseen presentation exercise. But I improved with every interview and I think the standard of the presentation I gave in my last interview helped my cause. In addition, if you got a good feeling about a particular set when you went for interview this year, apply for a mini-pupillage there and apply again through OLPAS – show that you’re keen and your enthusiasm will be noted.

    If you reapply to a few places, think laterally for the rest of the form. The set who eventually offered me pupillage were pretty low on my favourites list – I only applied to them to fill up the form when I realised another set wasn’t in OLPAS this year. But when I arrived there for interview I really felt comfortable and found that I had a fair few things in common with members of the interview panel. So when they did offer me a place, I knew it was the right thing for me.

    Of course, you could just change your mind and forget the Bar altogether. But if, when you think of yourself in 5 years time, you see yourself as a barrister, and if you can’t think of any other job you’d rather do, then stick with it. It might take you the whole five years to get there, but it will be worth it when you do. You’ve actually done extraordinarily well so far and other people hang on in there, rightly or wrongly, with a lot less.

  5. Anonymous said…

    If you don’t need to work the voluntary sector would be great in order to get experience in court or the Employment Tribunal.

    In order to get the full benefit, I would suggest taking on a proper case load. It is great experience and much better than most paralegal work.

    27 August 2008 20:27

  6. Just tagging a couple of things onto the end of the last anonymous comment:

    1. If you do get pupillage on the back of being a reserve, don’t get hung up about it. I was a reserve pupil, ended up being the only one taken on as a tenant and have now been at my set of chambers for nearly 6 years. Having now sat on several interview panels at second round, it genuinely is to some degree a matter of luck who places 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc. We only pick people as reserves if we would be happy having them as a pupil and I suspect that goes for most other sets too (otherwise, what’s the point?). You might be having a slightly worse day than the person who places 1st, or the problem question might be slightly less to your liking. Who knows? The point is that if you’ve got reserve placings this year, the likelihood is that you’ll get at least reserve placings next year, and that if you do, a first choice will turn the set down (of course, hopefully you’ll end up being someone’s first choice, what with all your additional experience!).

    2. We honestly don’t care whether people have applied to us previously. In fact, a couple of years ago, we took on a pupil who had lost out at the second round interview in the previous year’s OLPAS session. He is now a junior tenant. So if you’ve come quite a long way through the process at the Chambers of Your Dreams this year, but didn’t quite make it to pupillage, it is definitely worth checking how they view 2nd applications, as you will know your way round their system much better next year and may therefore perform better.

  7. That’s fine by me. I think you’re doing an excellent job here – I wish there had been something like this around when I was applying for pupillage.

  8. Your ‘horrible intervening year’ is a brilliant opportunity to get some real advocacy experience before you start pupillage. Do some outdoor clerking or secretarial temping, and fill the rest of your time doing employment and/or social security cases for FRU.

    You improve your cv, and have something meaty to talk about at interview. You improve your skills – people often say they learned more from one FRU case than from the whole of the BVC. You find out whether you really are cut out for the Bar: there’s nothing like trying it. You learn more from pupillage when you finally get it, because experience gives you some hooks to hang learning on. Your expensive BVC education doesn’t get rusty because you are practising the skills. You get to know others in the same boat – the FRU environment is very friendly and supportive, and a great deal of the best work there is done by people in exactly your position. You get to appear against practising barristers, and you never know – they may be on a pupillage committee. And when you’re first on your feet in court as a pupil or a new tenant, you’ll be through the worst of total-beginner nerves.

    And just by the by, you may even get the chance to right some wrongs.

  9. Dear Simon, here are a few thoughts for your correspondent.

    Anna and the last Anonymous are right – to the vast majority of chambers it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference if you have applied before. Most will not be keeping a record and may not even remember you. In some chambers the panels will change year on year and you therefore have a completely clean slate. Some chambers will even see it as a positive: you are clearly so determined to go there that you have re-applied – just ensure that you are constantly updating your CV so that they can see that you have improved if they do recognise you. While there is a great deal of negativity surrounding the BVC, one thing which it is fantastic for is giving you the time to boost your CV. Make the most of it with mini-pupillages, mooting, debating, FRU, voluntary work and all the rest.

    I was fortunate enough to be offered three pupillages the second time around by chambers which had previously rejected me (one without interview, one after the final round and one where I had made the reserve list). In one final round interview they said that they recognised me from the previous year and it did not seem to prejudice my application at all.

    As others have said before, most candidates do not get pupillage until the BVC. More frighteningly, most candidates do not get a single interview – you are already doing extremely well if you are getting invited for interviews (small comfort I know). I suggest that you try and do some mock interviews (most of the law schools offer them and if you cannot find a careers centre prepared to give you one, ask a friend with pupillage who you trust to be honest). It seems that this may be where you are tripping up and you might find that you are doing something very minor and easily rectifiable which could make all the difference.

    It is terribly disheartening to fail to get beyond reserve lists but I found that I was far more successful the second time around so do not give up hope. The only comfort at the time was something a wise barrister friend said to me: if you have made a reserve list, you have made the grade which that chambers sets for choosing their future pupils. You are good enough to get pupillage so do not be too discouraged and do keep trying.

    Also, I second NCunningham’s advice on FRU – it really is second to none as legal experience goes (and her LAG books are well-worth reading if you do decide to try it). It may also be worth having a look at the Inns’ international scholarships for your ‘horrible intervening year’, in particular the Harold G. Fox which sends two candidates to a litigation firm in Toronto for up to 10 months. Just a thought.

    Good luck.

  10. To the author of the question – i echo much of what was said above. i.e. take heart.

    I was in a similar position last year, and i can entirely identify with your feelings of despondency, frustration, irritation etc.

    If you got 7 final round interviews you are almost certainly good enough to get a pupillage at some point – the question is how hard to want to work and improve your chances, and how long you can be bothered to wait. Many other candidates are good too unfortunately – so what can you do between now and OLPAS 2009 to have an edge?

    This year I had about 10 interviews from my roughly 18 or 19 applications. 5 of those ended up being essentially final rounds (either second rounds or one-offs). And i got one at a good set.

    What have I done in the intervening year that made the difference?
    Some pro bono – i have to say not loads and loads, but enough that people asked questions at interviews and i had something to talk about which was moderately interesting.
    A bit of mooting – but if you’ve done plenty already then, to be honest, unless you’re into winning international competitions, i wouldn’t worry too much (other than it gets your confidence up).
    I arranged a decent gaff for my spare year – 12 months of relevant experience which i am now starting, and which chambers found attractive. The scholarships that Middle Temple do are good – Canada, the European Commission etc. There are decent “legal assistant” jobs out there (i.e. better than paralegalling) that will get you real experience. Look out for them. Or do a Masters – but maybe stick to Oxbridge or the Ivy League if the point of it is merely to build up your CV.
    A couple of minis (altho the set i’m going to actually i hadn’t done a mini at before Olpas – altho they invited me for one after i’d applied).

    Perhaps most of all (and this is anal and i don’t mind admitting it ) – i drew up a spreadsheet of every question i was asked in interviews (that i could remember), and that others were asked, and prepared a note-form answer that could then be tailored to the particular question on the day. It was a long document. Sometimes relatively easy questions can catch you out if you haven’t prepared – but if you have, you knock them back.
    Kept up to date with the latest legal goings on, not just in my area. I’m going into commercial law, but i still got questions on crime. I read articles, and wrote little primer sheets on the big current affairs and legal issues of the few months before OLPAS.

    Plan OLPAS like a military campaign – starting now. Identify your weaknesses and reinforce them. Really ram home your strengths.

  11. Thamesvalleyroyal—I realise it’s extremely unlikely you’re still following this post, but I was quite intrigued by your comprehensive approach to interview questions (i.e. compiling the ones you are faced with). I was wondering if you may still have that list of questions, as I think it could really allow me to focus my preparation. I can naturally come up with my own answers, so that section of your sheet can remain in your secret vault.

    You can contact me at g.e.meikle@googlemail.com if you do feel charitable. I’m sure you would be amply rewarded when you are reincarnated as a football star or a dictator in your next life:)

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