Why you should read this guide
This site exists to help you get pupillage. It may also, from time to time, offer commentary on current issues of interest to the profession. Its authors may disagree about that and everything else. But its primary purpose is to help you find and obtain pupillage. As such, it serves to give you unvarnished advice, much of which you won’t necessarily like, chambers may not like, individual barristers may not like, and teachers of law may not like. Almost uniquely today, the Bar is a profession that doesn’t – cannot – mollycoddle aspirants or practitioners. It’s also a brilliant job, filled with excitement, variety, challenges and camaraderie.
We have tried to cover everything. Inevitably we will have failed. However, just so you know, Beheshteh (Engineer) is the primary author of the how-to-go-about-it bit. She got her pupillage at the first attempt, in a good set of chambers (that’s me speaking, not her), from a non-traditional background and without an Oxbridge degree. So, it’s worth while listening to her because that’s what most of you want, right?
I am almost exactly the opposite: my Dad was a Circuit Judge, I went to Oxbridge. I’ve practised in the provinces for 31 years. During that time I had 9 pupils, all of whom got tenancy (including one now in Silk – that’s how old I am), and I became interested in how to get pupillage (in my day you asked your supervisor and they said “start in 3 weeks”). That took me to education generally, and hence I now train for my Circuit and my Inn.
I started this site as an internet page in 1996 when I became pupillage officer in Chambers. It became a blog in about 2002 but, in recent years, I let it drift. That was partly because I was out of touch. Enter a young student who knew everything about pupillage today. It seemed to us that the combination of youth and experience might be helpful. Beheshteh does the nuts and bolts, I do the “what we look for” bit and we argue about all of it. There isn’t a right answer to everything, but what you get here is our best effort.
Now to the bits you won’t like.
Most of you won’t get pupillage. There are about 5,000 applicants per year and about 430 places. To enter this lottery, most of you will have been prepared to pay £17k+ but, oddly, not have thought about whether you have a real chance of winning. Like most lotteries, everyone believes that it could be them without believing the concomitant proposition: namely, that it probably won’t be. There are 2 ways to improve this position. One is to read through this site. That will give you a reasonable basis for judging your expectations. It will, hopefully, persuade you that without a good degree you are greatly disadvantaged, and that nearly everyone’s CV looks like yours, so you have to work out how to stand out (as to which, read on). The other is to apply earlier, before you hand the BPTC fees over. You may not succeed as an applicant from university (although, in our view, the profession should be thinking hard about changing that), but it will give you an idea of what to expect. So get some mini-pupillages and marshalling in and get on with it.
Now to the bits chambers won’t like.
The process is remarkably uneven. The best chambers have clear and transparent policies, easily accessible online and with clear markers as to what they are looking for. They may even – and they all should – publish their mark scheme. That would mean you don’t waste choices and effort. Unfortunately, most don’t. The worst tell you almost nothing. However, it gets worse, because some of the chambers with the best policies are essentially Oxbridge-only and their policies enshrine that approach. Some of the worst chambers for information are very good at taking people who would make great barristers. Many chambers don’t acknowledge pupillage requests, don’t tell you when you’ve been weeded out (they will all tell you if they’ve given you a pupillage), and don’t communicate very effectively. There are reasons for this: barristers have to make a living. They volunteer to assist with pupillage and it cuts into time that could be spent doing other things. At the publicly-funded bar, giving up an evening to pupillage may make a substantial difference to one’s earnings. All successful barristers work long hours and the thought of reading 200 pupillage applications after an 11-hour day isn’t a huge turn-on. But for you, it’s aggravating and upsetting.
Now to the bits individual barristers won’t like.
Many barristers see themselves as an intellectual elite, with enormous moral courage, taking on the cause of the underdog and bravely fighting for truth and justice. There is quite a lot of truth in that: we don’t care if our clients are pleasant, deserving, good or guilty. None of those things are our job. However, there is no doubt (and if you retain any, try talking to a barrister’s non-barrister spouse alone and discreetly) that the job promotes a certain … erm … self-confidence. In a few enviable cases that is hidden all the time, due to the essential goodness, modesty and general saintliness of the particular barrister. Mostly, it isn’t. And, like actors, barristers find that self-admiration needs to be fed. That means you. You don’t have to flatter to succeed, and most of us do realise that flattery isn’t required. But you do have to acknowledge that the person you are with as a mini-pupil or interviewee spends their life at the sharp end of some difficult stuff with nasty consequences if it goes wrong. The Bar is a collegiate and convivial place and being the butt of gentle humour (and not-so-gentle) is a common experience. But that is for colleagues and peers. Judgment is a critical part of the job. The person you’re with may be – or may be being – not someone you’d want to have a drink with. But try to be helpful and supportive. Even when your mind is saying something with four asterisks.
Now to the bits teachers of law may not like.
Law is a number of things. It is fascinatingly precise. Words matter. Justice collides with certainty; precedent with fairness. Most of you have 3 years to explore this. Then you have to qualify. This largely consists of stuffing you full of facts and “tools”. Then you meet clients. They only want to know a) if they’ll win; and b) what are the percentage chances (a concept to which they remain wedded, even when told that you believe there is a 58.33% chance of success). At which stage you will find that nothing you have done so far equips you to answer that question, save your in-built ability to make a wild guess and your (possibly in-built) ability to say “I’m sure” without blushing. Law teachers rather hold their nose when alerted to this. They are also prone to unwillingness to provide statistics on your prospects of successfully becoming a barrister, and this unwillingness becomes more pronounced the closer they are to the point when you apply. Neither of these things is helpful.
It is important to make it clear that this is all for you. We are not beholden to anyone. We accept no advertising. We have no sponsorship.
We may be wrong about things, but if we are, it is only because our analysis is flawed. It is not because we are cutting our cloth to anyone’s pattern or pushing any particular agenda. We hope to meet many of you on the barricades and some of you – an increasing number as this adventure proceeds – in court (as opponents – for the avoidance of doubt, as they say).
Beheshteh and Simon