Routes to the Bar · Which Chambers?

Help

The Portal is about to open and already the air is filled with the almost soundless susurration of steadily sharpening quills. I thought it might help to go through the standard questions on the form. Most Chambers do not say what they are looking for in anything like enough detail, so this is a way of assisting. It is, of course, only my view. Equally, these are not model answers. Rather they are pointers to what I would – were I reading your form, which thank God I won’t be – want to know.

At the outset I have three basic suggestions, which are so often ignored that I wonder whether anyone tells you to do these things. Firstly, ensure that everything you say is backed by a concrete example. Saying “I am a good researcher” is cheap and not terribly persuasive. Saying “when I was assisted X & Co to prepare a complicated submission to the District Judge I became adept at cross-referencing the case being cited to the relevant statute and then seeking support for our definition of the relevant term by using Stroud’s Judicial Dictionary” is much better. If you don’t know what Stroud’s Judicial Dictionary is then find out.

Secondly, check it for spelling and grammar. And learn basic grammar. A preposition isn’t something you end a sentence with. Apostrophes have a definite place and are not the grammatical equivalent of confetti. Exclamation marks do not assist you to make a pretty average point really exciting!

Thirdly, the use of long words and strained constructions do not indicate profundity of thought. Horses for courses please. Poetry is, “The moon, like a flower, in heaven’s high bower, with silent delight, sits and smiles on the night.” An application is, “You can see the moon very clearly tonight”. My first sentence would be better – in terms of an application – if it read, “The Portal opens in 14 days and people are preparing to apply to Chambers”.

Why Do You Wish to Become a Barrister? (150 words).

Do not:

  • Start with “I wish to become a barrister because”. They know what the question is and you have 150 words.
  • Start “Good question” either.
  • Fill the space with cliches about how it’s a wonderful job which allows you to assist the poor and disadvantaged. If that’s your motivation, say something short and link it to your work at the CAB.

Do:

  • Be restrained in your use of language. don’t waste words on reinforcers like “extremely”, “amazingly”, “hugely”.
  • Talk about yourself and why you want to be a barrister
  • Talk about the job and what appeals to you
  • Read this and the model answer in the comments section

What Areas of Practice are You Interested In and Why? (250 words)

This is where you demonstrate what you know about the area in which you want to practice. The first issue is whether you want to specialise or not. If so, you must be able to say what it is about that area which attracts you, and why you think it suits you. “My commitment to family law was deepened by my experience working for Barnardos and the knowledge gained via my subsequent qualification as a family mediator means I am sure that this is where I want to specialise”. Then go on to give examples of what you know are solid family law issues, your experience in seeing them (mini-pupillages, marshalling, court attendance) and why these things interest you. When dealing with that interest you should work in your own ability.

If you are not specialising the topic to address is the life that a mixed practice provides. “Although I accept that a mixed practice demands more legal research than might otherwise be the case, I am attracted by the emphasis on advocacy. My experience at the FRU showed me how the crossover between different disciplines can assist a client. I represented someone in the Employment Tribunal who was dismissed for hitting a workmate. I was able to show that he acted in legitimate self-defence”. Then go on to detail the type of issue that arises with a mixed practice and your own ability to research and assimilate.

Give Reasons For Your Choice of Chambers

Please don’t say, “Because you’re the best”. If you have been on a mini-pupillage this is your opportunity to show you picked up how the place ticked. You are talking about 2 things: the quality and breadth of work, and the atmosphere. Quality is the easy bit. Breadth is equally important – you won’t be going to the Supreme Court just yet, so it helps to know that the junior tenant has a steady diet of decent work in Bog End Mags. Talk about the work in a way that shows that you understand what makes for “good work” at the Bar. In other words, good professional clients, who prepare the work properly, identifying the right legal and evidential points, for clients who are not promised the world.

Atmosphere is a way to flatter your reader but – yet again – it must be more than platitudes. “I really liked the way everyone got on” is pointless. “During my week in Chambers I was with Mr X when he was against Ms Y. The legal argument got a bit heated, which was unsurprising given that the Judge had made it clear it was the only point she was interested in. I enjoyed the way that both counsel were able to convey their amazement that the other had the nerve to put their point. But it was afterwards, when we all went for a coffee (ah the days when it used to be a pint – do not put those words in) when the atmosphere in Chambers really struck me as different.”

If you haven’t been on a mini-pupillage then try and find a time you met someone from Chambers and talked to them. Don’t recite hearsay: “Everyone says you’re really good and my friend Jeffrey had a brilliant time when he was with you” will not help.

You can see, I hope, why mini-pupillages help. But you should be able to talk about the work anyway: a search of the website will be a good start. Then try entering the names of members of Chambers in Baili. Then look up the solicitors who instructed Chambers and say something complimentary: “Suited and Booted are known for their expertise in the law of markets and it is clear that they are strong supporters of a number of members of Chambers, as the recent case in the Chancery Division makes clear.”

You will note that, in respect of every question you are doing the same thing. You are saying “I know what is required of a barrister, I know what it takes to produce that standard, I have researched the area, I know how the job works and I am confident that I can do it – and here are some examples to show you I’m not just saying that”.

Why do You Believe You Will Make a Good Barrister?

More of the same – with examples. As a suggestion (only that) you might say something like “Having done mini-pupillages in 5 differing sets and taken the opportunity to ask every barrister and Judge I have ever met the question, it seems to me that the qualities which make a good barrister are these…” Then set them out – see here – and say why they apply to you – with examples.

Please remember good health, integrity and luck. The last is a chance for you to say something amusing. If it doesn’t make your friends (not your mother – your mother will laugh at anything if it makes you happy) laugh then play it straight.

Then, if you haven’t done it already, identify the experience and skills which will help. Please don’t use this as a place to repeat at length what has already been said. The poor sod reading your form has had enough. “I have already referred (not “alluded” – see what is said above about long words) to my experience in x, y and z and my skills as an a, b and c above. Obviously they help, but my experience is that endless repetition of them does not”.

And please don’t list a load of things which aren’t really pertinent but you are desperate for the reader to know about. “My experience as head girl of a 2,500 pupil comprehensive school in the inner city taught me how to handle both the conflicting egos of those who believed they were important and people who regard academic ability as useless,” might just – just – cut it. “My experience as Head girl taught me how to exercise authority,” does not.

This paragraph is, however, the place to say something about academic results affected by illness or family disintegration – both more common than might be assumed if my postbag is anything to go by. Don’t overplay it – pupillages are never, ever, given on the basis of a sympathy vote. But properly handled – and I am not going to be so crass as to venture a model answer – it can help.

Good luck.

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21 thoughts on “Help

  1. Simon, those are very helpful comments and certainly, as I move into upwards of my 70th pupillage application I shall utilise some of those suggestions.

    A matter I would like your opinion on are those questions at pupillage interviews that seems to be utterly random and pointless to the issue of whether the candidate would make a good pupil or not. Examples that I have personally faced include: “if you were stuck in a lift who would you like to be in there with?” [I answered: “A lift repairman”]; “what’s your favourite book?” [I said “Oliver Reed’s biography: Evil Spirits”]; and “if you were to take us to a restaurant which would it be?” [in Birmingham, I answered “we’d have any choice of excellent Indians to pick from”. At none of these sets did I achieve a second round interview!

    Frankly, I think they are demeaning questions, picked at random to unseat a candidate and if they test the ability to think on one’s feet then I suppose they may serve a purpose. My girlfriend thinks they are to see if the candidate is personable and for the panel to decide if they want this character in their chambers or not, and again I suppose they go someway toward indicating something of the individual’s personality if so, but for myself I am sure my answers say nothing about who I am or what I am like – I wouldn’t give those answers again, and I have toyed with whether I would decline to answer and instead hi-light that an answer would offer little about me and then perhaps say why.

    What’s your view on all this?

  2. Amazing post, Simon, one that will be of enormous assistance to aspirants this year – a year that I have the strangest feeling will be more competitive than ever given the times. Any and all resources such as this are extremely valuable.

    For myself, I have one or two concerns that are really making me hesitate with regard to application. Might I e-mail you and ask you for advice ?

  3. AYOT: will deal with when interviews come round. Remind me.
    Minx: yes.
    Ariel: thank you.
    Martin: I am happy to go boldly or to boldly go. Split infinitives are no longer considered to be a mortal sin. It’s the bold bit that’s important I think.

  4. I would, respectfully, add a further piece of advice. Well, two pieces actually.

    First (good grammar that, unlike “firstly”), do not claim to know things you do not know or believe things you do not believe.

    How many applicants for pupillage are in a position to know what area of work will appeal to them most? No doubt some have a well-developed dedication to a particular field but, I would suggest, far more really haven’t the faintest idea whether crime, personal injury, contract, professional negligence, boundary disputes or anything else will tickle their fancy. If you are not sure what will fit the bill for you in the longer run but have a general interest in some areas and a dislike for others, by all means say so but do not overstate your position. Many of those interviewing you will have entered practice thinking they would be the finest hire purchase lawyer the world has ever known, only to find that three or four years later they are only happy dealing with building disputes or sordid divorces. If you do not have a firmly held, and well thought through, reason for preferring a particular area of work do not pretend that you do.

    An understated case can only get stronger whereas an overstated case is a target for tough questioning from people who have far more experience of asking tough questions than most candidates for pupillage have of answering them. Remember you are a beginner and that means you are unlikely to know what will suit you best even a year or two into the job.

    Secondly, be yourself and show your personality rather than trying to adopt a personality you think might be attractive to your audience. You will be more relaxed, your answers will flow better and you will maximise the chance of showing whether you have the qualities the interviewing panel is seeking. If you don’t have them it is better for you to be rejected than to be accepted and find yourself in the wrong place because that will harm your prospects of progressing. You should never underestimate the importance of personality at the Bar, most barristers are briefed because solicitors like the cut of their jib rather than because they have supreme legal knowledge or brilliant technical forensic skills. Of course you need a certain level of knowledge and skill but neither of these qualities is anything like complete when you pass the exams. Your personality, however, is pretty much established by your early twenties so show it.

    Part of being yourself is to avoid jargon and tepid pat answers you think the panel might like to hear. Candidates who assert their dedication to “human rights and representing those without a voice” are ten-a-penny, they are like contestants in beauty pageants who claim to want to work with disabled children and sick animals. Everyone knows they really want to marry a premiership footballer and get as much cash as they can from flashing their boobs whilst never having to soil their perfectly manicured fingers with anything approaching work (beauty pageant contestants, I mean, not pupillage applicants … although there might be some). Most pupillage committees can smell flim-flam at a hundred yards, don’t give them the satisfaction.

    1. Apart from the firstly, secondly bit (where the thing that matters is to be consistent) I agree with most of this.

      The first point I wholly agree with. The second is correct at interview, and the final paragraph is really good advice, but the ‘show your personality’ point needs some caution because experience shows that inexperienced people (and some experienced ones) can try too hard to sell themselves. I have dealt with interviews before and will doubtless do so again, but test out whether you’re a bit too full throttle with your friends before you try it out at interview.

  5. Split infinitives: avoid. The reason? Not that a grammarian will shoot you these days, but that a 50-something barrister or judge might just bristle a bit, and you want to avoid any bristling at all. If you know the rule and that some people are sensitive to it, why on earth would you consider not abiding by it?

    Likewise, firstly. Avoid the word just so that nobody pauses at the top of one of your responses, just in case they’re distracted. They shouldn’t be, but they might be.

    1. Nah. Sorry but this is nitpicking. The aim of the exercise is to sound as much like you as possible. Obviously, if complimented on your appearance, for example, it is best to say a simple “thank you” than “I am really stylin’ the shirt/tie/suit combo aren’t I?”, but the limits are those of everyday language.

      That is because the point of the exercise is to make sense – which is grammar’s ultimate justification (rather than satisfying the urge of the anally inclined to say you’re doing something wrong). Once there I wouldn’t spend my time worrying about whether someone will take against you for using “firstly”. Firstly, I have never once encountered such a person – ever – in 25 years. Secondly because, if you did encounter such a person, would you want to be in Chambers with them? Thirdly, because your limited time is much better spent refining the substance of your application. Fourthly, because you want to communicate a sense of how you sound in real life. Very few people do this successfully in writing, but such chance as you have will be eliminated by focussing on the strict rules of grammar as they might be understood by a notional barrister.

      I don’t want people to be frightened by this. It’s wrong to think that your application is being checked for strict compliance: that misrepresents the Bar and the attitudes of pupillage panels. You need to sound professional: that means learning and applying the basics.Beyond that you need neither go, nor worry.

      1. we can agree to differ. i’d still advise anyone reading this who knows the rules of grammar to apply them, rather than debating whether or not to apply them and deciding against it.

      2. I have to say I agree with hardbitten. I was having a chat with a colleague who doesn’t work in law, but who did consider the bar as a career option. She is only 30 but said that she gets highly annoyed whenever she sees a split infinitive and thinks less of the person who wrote the text. If you know the rules, even if you think some of them are outdated or unnecessary, why not follow them? Not following risks an attitude dismissal from people like my (otherwise very friendly and personable) colleague. Why give people an unnecessary reason to reject your application?

      3. Thanks, Beth, for the agreement… If I might pick-nits even with you, I don’t even think these days anyone would use a minor transgression of an old grammatical rule as a reason to bin an application. It just might not help a borderline case, or might detract from an otherwise good answer by distracting the reader.

      4. I know what you mean Simon, but it’s a matter of practicalities. An interviewer might raise an eyebrow at “firstly” but will never do so at “first”; split infinitives might cause a quiet “tut tut” whereas the absence thereof will not; starting an answer with “basically” will boil the goat of many a person over the age of 45. Why take the chance of irritating people by using a questionable word or phrase when the English language gives you plenty of other options that will keep them happy?

        None of these grammatical and syntactic niggles might be of any significance in five or ten years’ time, but they are now.

        One consequence of pupillage applications being not only more competitive than in recent history but also subject to more bureaucratic scrutiny, is that more senior practitioners are involved at the earliest sifting stage when applications are first received in writing. It makes the writing more significant than ever and increases the chance of facing a pompous old pedant like me.

      5. I have to say I remain unconcerned about grammatical envelope-pushing, and I repeat the question about wanting to be in Chambers with people who think this is a useful way to select. Check the website – if it’s grammar is pure then act accordingly.

        I do agree with the point about “basically”. This has become the equivalent of a pause whilst someone thinks how to respond. Don’t do it: silence is golden.

      6. if only people were in a position to turn down a Chambers on account of them liking good grammar rather than the other way around!

  6. I now, of course, feel terrible for hijacking Simon’s excellent post with a seemingly innocuous question regarding split infinitives.

    As for the rightness or wrongness of it, I would be amazed if even a ‘senior’ barrister took umbridge at its use; but it seems Fowler had it right when he identified that class of persons who ‘betray by their practice that their aversion to the split infinitive springs not from instinctive good taste, but from tame acceptance of the misinterpreted opinion of others.’ If a reviewer of an application cannot decide whether the splitting is preferable to what otherwise would have been ambiguity or artificiality, then perhaps the candidate did himself, unthinking, a favour by inserting it.

    First, but not firstly, should have died out long ago.

  7. With apologies for further deviation, presumably how Simon meant to conclude his example was “seeking support for our definition of the relevant term by using Stroud’s Judicial Dictionary, at which point I realised that the firm had just wasted £862 of its library budget…”

    I was going to spoof a couple of entries, but I saw that an old edition is on Google Books and thought I might just quote a couple of random examples since the style does not seem to have changed much since then:

    “Each–
    a) A gift to “each” of two or more persons, [..] creates a tenancy in common.
    b) As to effect of “each” in a contract of bond; [list of authorities, no further elaboration]”

    “Earnings–
    a) “Earnings and property,” s. 21, 20 & 21 V. c. 85, mean honest earnings, not t
    he wages of prostitution [gives authority]
    b) “Earnings,” s. 2, M.W.P. Act, 1882; V. Re Poole, 46 LJ Ch. 803; 6 Ch D 736”

    Although the newest edition isn’t quite as bad at citing 19th Century cases without any explanation (and probably gives decent entries for these two terms), the ability of its editors to give obscure definitions first; miss major statutory or judicial definitions; and generally make you wonder why you even bothered to look, never ceases to amaze me.

    I quite like the new edition of Jowitt, though.

  8. Hello,

    Apologies for further deviation from the main theme of the post, but does anyone (here’s looking at you Mr Meyerson) have any advice on the content of cover letters. It seems to me that there are many potential pitfalls for the applicant for pupillage at chambers who use the cv & cover letter route. Any guidance or opinion would be much appreciated.

  9. “A preposition isn’t something you end a sentence with.”

    Is this a joke? Or are you unaware that “with” is a preposition?

    “A preposition isn’t something with which to end a sentence.”

    This is sound advice, but like most rules of grammar should not be followed strictly.

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