Common questions

Questions in this section arise both at application and interview stages.

Please note – what follows below are just thoughts as to how you should approach these questions. The questions do not reflect and are not intended to reflect the questions asked by any particular set or sets of chambers.

Golden Rule

Your answers must always be clear and structured.

Additionally, your answers should always tell the audience why you would be a great barrister, whether or not that is what is actually being asked.

Ethics questions

The best answer will identify the relevant issues, apply the core duties and demonstrate a common sense approach.

All candidates are expected to know how to answer ethical questions, whether they have completed the BPTC or not. Chambers say that they bear in mind that some candidates have not done the BPTC yet, but it’s questionable as to how true this really is. If you are a BPTC student, you know what to do.

If you are not on the BPTC, how do you handle ethics questions?

City Law School produces a Professional Ethics Handbook. We would strongly recommend that you get hold of a copy of it. You will really need to put in some hard work on this – don’t give the interviewers a reason to ditch you.
You need to know the Core Duties, be able to identify what a problem is asking you about, and be able to talk through clearly the steps that you would take in the given scenario.  
You need to know the following (non-exhaustive list):

  • Your duty to the court and the rules around not misleading the court.
  • Situations in which you *may* return instructions vs. situations in which you *must*.
  • Times when there may be a conflict of interests or where you may not be able to remain independent
  • What to do/say when your client refuses to give the court a piece of information.
  • Example of professional misconduct that must to be reported to the Bar Standards Board.

How to talk through a problem

  • First, think – who is my client? Is it the person in front of me or my solicitor?
  • Think about your overriding duty to the court [CD1] and whether this will affect the advice you give to your client.
  • Identify the key issues.
  • Ask yourself: what common sense advice would you give?

Remember, particularly with lay clients, that they are people who do not know the court process and so may be stressed or scared. It’s important to answer the question at interview as if the client was there. This may mean being robust or gentle, depending on who the client is and the particular scenario. Adapt accordingly.

Addressing your non-law degree

Q: “I see you studied history at undergraduate level. Why was that/What did you learn/How does it relate to your decision to do law now?” Variations of this question can include “Why didn’t you do a law degree?” or “What was the point of studying X?” or “Why did you pick another career first?”

It is perfectly acceptable to say that you did not want to do a law degree because astrophysics was an abiding passion, but you must then say why you want to do law now – and “I didn’t get into CERN so I thought I’d try you”, is unlikely to impress.
This question is about both what motivated you in the past and what is driving you forwards today

How to answer this question:

  • Start by remembering the competencies necessary to become a barrister.
  • Then, think through the major skills you picked up on your degree / in your previous career.
  • Link the two.

If you link them well and don’t over-complicate it, you should be able to satisfy any version of this question.

Competency question

Q: “Tell us about a time where you saw a barrister in court whose advocacy was poor, and what would you have done differently?”

You need to explain:

  1. What the advocate did/said that wasn’t great
  2. Provide reasons for why the words/action taken wasn’t great
  3. How you would have done it better

Never name the barrister in question!

You have to answer this question with respect for the advocate – who is, at all times, more experienced than you.

You need to be able to pinpoint exactly what part of the advocacy was poor and why. You should also explain why you think the advocate did it that way – this shows respect. Then, you can explain how you would have done it better. Candidates frequently get tripped up by the last part of this answer; think of it this way – if you can’t find a better way of doing the same piece of advocacy, you should find a different example.

Again, as with every question, structure must guide your answer.

The open-ended question

Q: “I see you took on a FRU case; tell us about it”

Use the STAR method: (S)ituation, (T)ask, (A)ction, (R)esult

Situation: set the context for the story
Task: what you were asked to do
Action: what steps you took
Result: what this resulted in

Make sure that the result was ‘tangible’ and that you have articulated how you go to the result

Remember the competencies required to be a barrister and be specific in your answer. This article, written by a careers coach, provides a non-law example of this method: Competency-based interviews

Commercial awareness

Being “commercially aware” has become a key indicator of a prospective pupil’s employability.

But what on earth does it even mean? And how can you demonstrate it?

“Commercial awareness is a phrase often used but rarely understood. I think it really matters. What it means (to me at least) is understanding what it’s really like to be at the Bar, and that means understanding that every chambers is a business. You need to demonstrate an awareness of the need to build a practice, and try to show how you might go about doing that. You should also realise the need to network with solicitors (particularly trainees) and if you have done a job which involves this or similar skills – mention it.”  – Barrister, Call 2009.

Typical commercial awareness question:

Q: “What kind of practice do you see yourself having in 5/10 years’ time? “

Know yourself & developments in your area of law.

You have to answer this question with tactful authenticity.

If you are absolutely sure about where you see yourself in 5/10 years’ time then, by all means, tell the panel your vision – although you will have to justify this and be able to explain how you will get there. This is pretty hard to do. The more mature candidate will caveat their answer with an acknowledgement that commercial trends and personal circumstances may shape your practice in ways than you may initially have envisaged.

There is also a difference in the sort of answer expected, depending on the type of chambers. A specialist set will want to know where you see yourself within the specialism. A generalist set will want an acknowledgment that exposure to lots of different types of work may set you off on a track you don’t currently anticipate. And do not forget the role of luck, chance, misfortune and serendipity.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts to help you formulate an appropriate answer:

  • Think about what type of practice you want to build for yourself, and how you intend on doing so. By 5-10 years Call, you will have developed relationships with solicitors. Will you also want a direct-access practice? Will you want to start specialising in more niche practice areas? Do you want to specialise in one particular area or only represent a certain type of client (e.g. only prosecute/defend) etc? If applying to a common law set, focus on more than one area of specialism. 
  • Can you be specific about a type of work you would like to focus on within your general area of practice? If so, it is important to explain to the panel why you think this particular topic is interesting to you and/or will bring in business for chambers. Relate it to your own past work experiences, if possible.  However, when looking at chambers’ websites, don’t make the mistake of honing in on the one barrister who, for example, practices aviation law and then announce that you will grow chambers’ practice in that area. (Remember, chambers’ websites are written for solicitors, not aspiring pupils.)
  • It’s important to be realistic when you answer this question. If your dream is to build a clinical negligence practice doing lucrative, high-value cases, you need to acknowledge the obvious fact that this will take a lot of time and requires doing ‘bread and butter’ work first.

Please note, it is also perfectly fine to be unsure about exactly what kind of practice you will have down the line. You must, of course, be open to the areas that your interviewing set specialises in and make it clear that you are capable of steering your future practice through the constant waves of commercial flux that is the Bar.

Law reform question

Q: “If you could amend, repeal or introduce a law, what would it be and why?”

This is a classic question and a perennial favourite – both at application and interview stages. It is really important not to give a generic/boring answer to this question. It is also essential to have researched this area of law thoroughly in order to give a good answer to this question. A good answer has legs and goes beyond superficial engagement with the topic.

Legalising drugs / reforming assisted suicide laws are standard answers. Every fourth candidate over the past few years will have said that. These answers will cause you two problems: first, they won’t be engaging and so the panel are unlikely to remember you. Second, the panel will know these stock answers back-to-front and be ready and waiting to tear apart your arguments with ease – and yes there are arguments both ways, so if you think yours is irrefutable, you aren’t ready for interview.

You want to try to be one step ahead, so that the panel has to really listen to your answer and engage with your arguments. This will be refreshing and memorable. Therefore, it is recommended to research areas of law which are ripe for review or introduction. Perhaps you want to change the age of criminal responsibility or introduce new hate crime legislation? Alternatively, do you want to introduce new legislation on driverless cars or AI? Did you write something interesting about this yourself in a dissertation or an article? If so, this is a prime opportunity to weave it into your answer. The Law Commission website may also give you some food for thought.

Another approach is to cover a topic that isn’t yet the subject of legislation. Do you think that those paid with public money ought to be compelled to use public services? Do you believe that politicians who pretend reality isn’t applicable should be shot at dawn? Should civil servants responsible for unreasonable decisions be personally liable? Should conciliation and mediation be available for criminal offences? 

“There is no point in just writing a discursive essay on the rights and wrongs of a particular piece of legislation. The best candidates will offer a solution and are able to defend their position at interview.” – Barrister, Call 2009

NB: you should also use this approach when asked ‘how would you change X system’ -type questions.

Next page: Drafting your answers