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.

Mature Entrants · Other Sites · Qualities Required · The BVC · University · Which Chambers?

Diversity


Counsel Magazine has an interesting article by Andrew Neish QC, dealing with the lack of diversity at the so called ‘magic-circle’ sets. I’d like to link to it but Lexis-Nexis thinks I should pay to do so and, as I get my paper copy anyway, I won’t. If  you or your institution has an account then this is the link to the click-on.

The proposal is not one I like – to choose additional random candidates for interview. It strikes me that this is not so much diversity as tokenism. But at least the problem is being looked at, which is better than ignoring it, and an email address is provided for comments and contributions. However a more focussed, more interesting and more thoughtful examination of the same issue is Lawminx’s letter to a pupillage committee. Minx’s idiosyncratic style isn’t to everyone’s taste, but the Bar ought to read decent points made by non-traditional students. We might learn something.

Meanwhile, as the time arrives for the Portal gates to creak open, I cannot stress the need to research your choices too much. It is not enough to want to be a pupil at the particular set, or to want to do the work they do. Get on the website, look at the cv of every tenant under 7 years call and compare yourself. If you don’t match up, don’t apply. This will have the consequence that you won’t waste an application – the sets which are weighting their selection system to prioritise 1st class degrees from 10 Universities (of whom 2 are preferred) need not be troubled by you.

If there is to be a debate here, then it should be an honest one. As Andrew Neish points out, it isn’t really arguable that only people with 1st class degrees from 10 Universities can handle the complexities of commercial law (although – as he doesn’t say – it is hugely flattering to believe that this is the position). He may be wrong about that – I am not qualified to comment. But, if that qualification isn’t necessary then sets who find themselves unable to recruit different candidates should be explaining why.

If you are in doubt about whether to make an application, contact Chambers and ask them how they score the different qualities they seek. There is a world of difference between a Chambers giving a 1st 20 points out of a 100 and a 2.1 14 points and a Chambers giving a 1st 55 points and a 2.1 20 points. Both might say that a 2.1 is a minimum requirement but only one of them is offering you a real chance to let your extra-curricular activities catch up.

In times of recession people pull in their claws and barristers are no exception. Chambers are less inclined to take a chance on what they don’t know and less inclined to offer pupillage at all. It makes it even more important for you to match yourself with the right set. The debate about whether we approach diversity adequately is for another day as far as your application is concerned – although comments are welcome as always.

Meanwhile, if you are a “non-traditional candidate” (this normally means that your A levels – if they exist at all – were a long time ago and not brilliant, and that you have actually succeeded in a real job since then) then try and correlate your real life successes to what you perceive as necessary to success at the Bar and relate one to the other. Somewhere out there – if you do it properly – there might (just might) be a set of Chambers which is prepared to back you, rather than to take what is – let’s face it – a chance on someone fresh out of the BPTC. Just make sure that you emphasise your intellectual flexibility: I know of very few Chambers who believe that the BPTC turns out a product which is fit to practice and it therefore follows that we need to teach you. Don’t fall into the trap of allowing the pupillage committee to wonder whether you are able to learn.

Interviews · Routes to the Bar · Which Chambers?

It’s That Time of Year Again


Last year I invited comments about the way in which Chambers dealt with applicants.  The results proved interesting and I published those too, together with a follow up celebrating good practice.

I would like to repeat the exercise this year, both because it provided people with an opportunity to say what they think, and because it measures what has changed (if anything). I am interested in acknowledgements, arrangements for interviews, interviews, application forms, rejection letters and general behaviour (last year a lot of people were upset by failures to respond which are simply rude).

Can I suggest a minimum expectation below and then – below that – a more than minimum expectation which should, in my view, be the minimum.

  • An Application Form which allows you to differentiate yourself from the crowd insofar as you are able to do so.
  • If applicable, a reasonably prompt acknowledgement, which arrives within the time stated.
  • Arrangements for interview which are flexible enough to accommodate one alteration.
  • A process which sets you at your ease and gives clear clues as to what is demanded from you by way of manners, dress (formal unless specified otherwise) and timing.
  • An interview in which you feel you are given an adequate opportunity to convey your personality and ability to the panel (even if you didn’t actually do it).
  • A rejection/acceptance/invitation to second interview which arrives when they said it would.
  • A rejection/invitation to second interview which explains why you didn’t make it in terms which allow you – on a good day – to feel that it was not the same one sent to everyone and which avoids unhelpful platitudes such as, ‘The field was very strong this year and we took someone else. Bad luck.” As a rough test, if the letter could be written today, it’s unacceptable.
  • If feedback is offered, a personal conversation of no more than 10 minutes – or 2 emails – which actually address why you didn’t get it and leaves you with good ideas for future changes. I do not think feedback ought to be offered as of right: it is incredibly time consuming and no one pays the Chambers to give it to you. But if it is offered, it ought to be real.
  • Courtesy.

You will note that eccentricity (the interview with the Smarties on the table is a classic), brusque questioning, strict time limits, brief letters and failure to acknowledge your application are all ok on their face – even the last. The yardstick I have adopted is that expectations are properly generated and managed. If a set isn’t going to acknowledge the applications of those not called for interview that’s fine: but it must say so and must give a date by which, if you haven’t heard, the answer is no.

Now to the things I would like to see. If anyone experiences any of these, please tell me:

  • Information about what qualities are required. I don’t mean the usual ‘bright applicants’. I mean a specified class of degree (not as a ‘normal’ thing), specific subjects, particular extra-curricular experience (such as a mini-pupillage at the Set) and anything else which prevents you wasting an application.
  • Information about what the set are looking to see demonstrated in the application form and in interview. When I apply to be a Recorder or a QC I am told what it takes to get the appointment. I must display ‘competence’ in particular areas and I am encouraged to give specific examples to demonstrate it. There is no reason why pupillage interviews shouldn’t be the same.
  • Information about the subjects that will be covered. Insofar as possible, the interview should test what the job tests. Therefore, the questions should not ordinarily be given away because responding to questions is part of the job. However, most barristers don’t go into Court to deal with a professional negligence case and then get asked about parents who refuse blood transfusions. The interview doesn’t much replicate the Court experience if that’s what happens.
  • A tour of Chambers which can be very brief provided it takes in how to find someone if you are lost, and the location of the lavatory.
  • Feedback which tells me what I lacked, as a result of which I didn’t meet the competencies, and/or why I wasn’t taken on because of what successful candidates demonstrated which I did not.

Let me know and feel free to quote me. I am bound to say that I don’t think Chambers will necessarily take the slightest notice, but you should feel entitled to back up your request for minimally decent treatment. Anyone brave enough, when asked if they have any questions for the Chambers, to ask why they are not adopting best practice as set out above, will win a gold star for courage and should report back immediately. Do NOT do so unless you believe you are not irrevocably compromising your chances. This is not a crusade, it is an attempt to make things better. It does not require martyrs but if you are given the opportunity and can take advantage of it, then go ahead.

Interviews · Routes to the Bar · Which Chambers?

A Bit of a Kicking Back


Part of the problem with having email on at home and in Chambers is that it sometimes gets lost in the mix. Last week Kris emailed me having not been able to post. What she said was this:

Dear Simon
Unfortunately, I don’t seem to be able to leave a comment on your blog today. Normally, I’d forget it – but you may need to hear it – or not!

The following is what I tried to leave:

Wow.

I’m glad you’ve got it all in hand. Silly me.

As for your presumption of my having an entitlement mentality – you can guess again. I started out swabbing decks in the Navy, having barely scraped through school. I got my 2.1 and LL.M at a respectable (I call Russell Group) School. I even got my dissertation published in a law review – and am amazed that academics continue to refer to it. So thank you, but I understand the Bar, and the world generally, doesn’t owe me a living.

I had 10 years’ experience working for solicitors, including taking cases to appeal. I hit the buffers without a practising certificate. I was encouraged by my barrister line manager and others I’d briefed that I had what it takes to do the business as a barrister. I’ve done the mini-pupillages and I continue to volunteer.

I’m a nice girl and I don’t hold grudges – even though it will take some time to forget the telephone slam-down by the BSB. (I suppose the Head of Education at my Inn shares my “entitlement” mentality too.)

I’ve had enough. Even I had to accept my usual “If I took ‘no’ for an answer, I’d still be a seaman in the Navy” kick this in the arse drive was getting me nowhere.

You think I’m the Lone Ranger? lol. Herewith a link <http://www.pupillageblog.com/?p=281 Will you single him out as a deluded inadequate or will somebody please now wake up and join the dots?

Thanks for your offer of assistance re the BSB. I’ve taken your earlier advice and secured my qualification as a solicitor some time ago. I am genuinely grateful for your steer in that regard.

Firstly, nice to hear from you and I trust that you don’t mind that I have posted your comment. It seemed to be that, having ripped into you, your reply should be readily visible.

Secondly, of course I accept that you have worked to get where you are. I don’t, however, accept the points you make on the thread below. I have followed the link you include here, and have found an account of a lousy interview. We are not arguing about whether some interviews are poor – I have made my own view clear about that issue on a number of occasions, and tried to suggest ways in which the Bar could improve. But bad experiences do not equal institutional policy.

Like it or not the tension between funded pupillage (small number of applicants selected, playing field as fair as we can make it) against unfunded pupillage (much expanded numbers – although not as large as some of you think – but much easier for those who have money from family or previous career) will not go away. In my view you cannot square that circle by complaining that funded pupillages are given to white males from middle class backgrounds. Not only is it not so, but most Chambers are trying to expand their selection procedures. That an individual – however deserving – didn’t get pupillage, doesn’t prove the contrary.

I have also heard from Nicholas Green, the Chairman of the Bar for 2010. He says (slightly edited to exclude irrelevant information):

Thank you for your email and for forwarding on the feedback you have received on the pupillage award, which I read with interest.  All pupillage regulations (including the amount of the award) are dealt with by the Bar Standards Board.  I have spoken to Valerie Shrimplin (the Head of Education Standards) at the BSB about this issue to understand the extent to which funding is being considered by the ongoing review of pupillage.

I am assured that your email and the attachment will be passed to Derek Woods QC, who is leading the review of all aspects of pupillage.  The issue of funding, including the amount of funding, is being addressed in the review.  I am afraid that I cannot say much more than that at this stage, as the review is not yet finished (and I have not seen a draft).  I am told that the report will be considered at the April BSB meeting.

As for any advice to prospective pupils I am sure that there will be a number of proposed reforms arising out of the Derek Woods’review which will be of interest.

So, the people running the profession do listen and respond. No one is pretending it’s perfect, but the Bar is trying to improve its own communication and standards. Watch this space in April…

Interviews · No Pupillage · Which Chambers?

Wall of Shame Update


wallA source sings to me that Lamb Chambers (on neither the wall nor the buttress and so previously in a neutral position) has gone straight to the top of the buttress of acclaim charts by sending out the following rejection letter (so far as I can tell to all unsuccessful candidates).

Lamb Chambers regrets to inform you that your application for pupillage at these chambers has not been successful. There were well over 200 applicants for just 2 places and with such stiff competition it was inevitable that we would have to reject many very strong candidates such as yourself.

We must apologise for the tardy manner in which your application has been considered. We encountered insuperable problems with the OLPAS system this year and in the end were obliged to print off and sort all applicants by hand. The automated method for notifying applicants of the progress of their applications was unworkable and as a result we are obliged to transmit all email rejections individually.

Lamb Chambers is unlikely to subscribe to OLPAS next year and if you too have been inconvenienced by this system then we would like to extend our apologies on behalf of the entire Bar to you for submitting aspiring pupils to such an appalling ordeal.

And so say all of us – but in this case someone actually has said it. Good.

In an ideal world the authorities would establish what happened with the Portal and publish it. This is not a call to identify anyone responsible, but rather to demonstrate that what went wrong has been understood and sorted. I have always supported OLPAS as a system (see my very first post of all) but I think Lamb Chambers (who make the position clear for all to see here) have got this one right. Better go it alone than another year of a collective effort going so disastrously wrong.

What is needed now is urgent reassurance that next year will not just be better, but that it will be perfect. Otherwise OLPAS is in trouble. And I still think that would be a shame. There is plenty to be said for making the system a level playing field. However, at the moment the field may be level but it’s also muddy, treacherous to negotiate and full of clods.

Interviews · Mature Entrants · Recommended Reading · Routes to the Bar · Which Chambers?

The Path to Pupillage


3259575881_d6bfaf2fb3You will all have bought this, of course. If not, it is available here – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Path-Pupillage-Guide-Aspiring-Barrister/dp/1847034012.

However, if you have not bought it and you have a little time to go, then you may want to hold off for a while because the authors are planning a second edition. Having both been taken on (Vol 2 – The Trials of Tenancy?), and put on their respective pupillage committees, they would like to know what you would like to know. If you have an idea to contribute please email them at pathtopupillage@gmail.com which is an address created specifically for the purpose.

The new edition will be updated and will have additional chapters dealing with how to convert from being a solicitor, the bar as a second career, how to deal with more than one offer (I assume this is not only about getting ecstatically drunk and losing all your friends), third sixes and alternative careers. If you can think of anything else you would like to know about, email and tell the authors. The same applies if there are people from whom you would like to hear – the book has a number of quotes from practitioners and the judiciary. Whose words of wisdom would assist you?

I don’t normally do puffs, but this is a genuinely useful book and if you are thinking of the Bar then you should read it. You can help make it even more useful. My own two pennorth is that I would like to hear from two people, both of  whom had a standard degree and a standard CV and one of whom got a pupillage. Was it just luck that made the difference, or is there something that can be done to make every applicant stand out to the right Chambers? I would also like to hear from people who didn’t make it and who would not now go through the process, about why they didn’t stop when the odds were so obviously against them (I don’t simply mean numerically speaking). There are a lot of you out there saying something like, “I know I haven’t really got the grades or the CV but I’m sure that it will come right for me”. Most of the time, I’m afraid, it won’t. When those people have spent £12,000 and 3 years of their lives and are not barristers, what advice would they have given their younger, more optimistic, selves?

Finally, given the debate that has been raging here, I would like a Chapter about how to make the most of modern application procedures. Chambers may not adopt them, but I wonder if, even so, a candidate could make more of themselves by utilising the latest knowledge. There must be professionals out there who would be willing to be quoted.

Alex and George tell me that they will update the Chapter on OLPAS and the PP. I advise the printers to use acid proof paper.

Interviews · Routes to the Bar · Which Chambers?

Pondering


I have been wondering what Chambers could do to improve the process of applying.

Firstly, they could make clear what they are looking for and how they assess it. If you apply for a Recordership or for Silk you are given a list of ‘competencies’ you have to demonstrate. It seems to me that a list of qualities that a set looked for in a pupil would help the Chambers and the applicants. It would provide a guide to the judgement of the applicants and more information than the PP form. At the same time, Chambers could publish their scroing systems for interview. It would be interesting to see how each set prioritised various skills and it might help people hone their applications.

Secondly, the PP could be adjusted to automatically keep applicants in touch with what is happening. It should record which Chambers meet target dates and send out a standard message when they do not. Applicants would not be in the dark and Chambers would not be able to ignore commitments.

Thirdly, Chambers ought to undertake the internal exercise of measuring up the quality of the pupil eventually chosen against the questions asked and the composition of the pupillage committee. This is a long term programme and it would necessarily be private. But there is no reason why sets should not see how good their own techniques are and start to keep some data so that an assesment can be made.

Fourthly, when Chambers take a pupil on, the first task of the person in charge of pupillage and the new junior tenant ought to be to debrief the new tenant on their interview, their pupillage experience and the weaknesses that are perceived. That is not to say that this is the be all and end all. But it is the one chance a set of Chambers has to understand how its procedures are perceived from the other side.

Fifthly, Chambers would ideally give feedback to rejected interviewees. This is tricky because if you interview a great many applicants it becomes impossible. But the default position should be that feedback will be given and Chambers should have to explain why they will not. Chambers should also ask for feedback from candidates. My hunch is that a number of the complaints made below would not be tolerated by Heads of Chambers who knew that it was happening on a regular basis.

Sixthly, the Bar should try and ensure that the small minority in the habit of dismissing every criticism as whinging do not run pupillage selection processes in their Chambers.