Having been asked to expand regarding interviews, I have dug around a bit and present the results below. Please note – this is a far from scientific sample.
Most Chambers have some idea of what sort of work they want the prospective pupil to do. They are also looking for specific qualities. Normally these include academic aptitude, aptitude for the job, motivation and the all important ‘clubability’ – or ‘will work well as part of a team’ as it is now known in these PC times in which we rejoice.
Academic aptitude is not necessarily a 1st class degree. I suspect that in some of the ‘top sets’ (as they like to think of themselves) it does mean that. But, having been in this game for 20 years and having been against a fair number of people from these sets I have yet to meet a case which requires a 1st class degree. You may have guessed that I do not have one. And I wasn’t even this close. Still, there are some areas of law where bursting with brains helps – providing it is aligned to other qualities. More important is an orderly mind. So I wouldn’t peddle your academic qualifications above all else and expect to succeed – one of the very worst interviewees I ever saw had an Oxbridge 1st. They were so convinced they were correct that they had omitted to include a reverse gear in their toolbox. We said, ‘don’t call us’.
But, as I have said below, it’s easy to weed people out by saying a 2i or above is required. So, if you got a Desmond, get a letter from your academic tutor saying that it was all the fault of the hayfever/sad death of your hamster/physical inability to revise without inflicting gbh on yourself – and attach it to the form.
Motivation should be self-explanatory. This job has risks. Acknowledge them and say why they appeal. Then bore in on the town and the specific set. Be in a position to answer basic questions. Saying you want to come to Leeds because you’ve always loved the castle indicates low motivation.
Job aptitude is a little like motivation. It is your opportunity to show that you can be a barrister. Normally you are asked a test question – this seems to be the pattern in most chambers. The answer is unlikely to be legal. The problem is practical or ethical and is aimed at eliciting your response to a real-life situation where you have to think on your feet, under pressure. Do not moan about this – it is what really happens.
The best advice I can give is to slice up the problem into its component parts; work out which one comes first and give your honest view. Yes, your judgment is being tested and you may get it wrong. Better in interview than with a real client (I appreciate that you may disagree about this). Take your time if required – I know people at the Bar whose instant decisions are almost always wrong. But the good ones always buy the time they need. Don’t fall into the trap of looking for visual clues to the right answer – there almost certainly isn’t one.
Clubability is the issue of whether you will get on and fit in. Please do not take a stand here on the basis of sexism/racism/anti-semitism/anti-islamism/anti-moronic fascists for an all-white Britain. Of course there are racist barristers – and sexist ones, etc. But the Bar is actually a pretty meritocratic profession and heading in the right direction. Barristers have a number of things in common: they are at the sharp end and like it, so they tend to have egos and believe they are right. They do serious work with serious consequences, so they tend to take themselves seriously. They are a small profession, so they tend to have in-jokes and like gossip. And – shock horror – they look for people who will adapt easily to the culture.
Now, you may or you may not enjoy this type of atmosphere. You may or may not be offended by it. But everyone in the Chambers is self-employed. They are not paying you (except for your pupillage award) and they are not assessing you for a partnership. They are looking for people to work with others and take Chambers forward. They are entitled to decide that based upon their assessment of you and of Chambers. And that applies across the board: there are well known ‘left-wing’ sets of Chambers. Try being interviewed there and saying that you want to dedicate your personal life and professional abilities to prosecuting welfare cheats.
So, you may be discriminated against – I truly hope you are not and I believe you should complain if you are – but you may also just not give a very good impression. Don’t assume the former until you can dismiss the latter.
Also, my own personal view is that really good barristers are not hugely egotistical, self-regarding or dependant on gossip for their own self-regard. And that might be a good way to assess whether you want to be in the Chambers who are interviewing you… But sadly, the boot is usually on the other foot.
All necessary information is usually obtained through question and answer. I hear that there are some Chambers who set a written question or test. Information would be helpful, but I suspect that this is nothing more than a convenience for busy people who find it easier to read it than to see it. Ultimately there is an interview, and it’s not just what you say, it’s the way that you say it. My best advice is to relax and be yourself. Humour is fine if gentle, well-judged and not your primary motif. Otherwise be polite, play it straight, and try to be you – on your best behaviour obviously, not down at the pub with your mates, half-pissed going on falling-over and hooting over the hilarious sight of someone trying to eat crisps through their nostrils.
I do recommend asking to spend a day or so in Chambers before saying yes to an offer – most sets have some sort of arrangement like this these days. It is a way of meeting the junior tenants who may be more congenial company for you. It is a way of seeing whether the people get on, where the social centre lies and whether you like what you may be joining. Some Chambers have bullies, some have cliques. If you have more than one offer (lucky soul) you may actually be in the position of having to turn a set down. Even though moving Chambers is more acceptable than it once was, it is sensible to approach the decision on the basis that these people will be your colleagues for a long time.