Estuary Chambers welcomes Benjamin Donnell, pupil barrister.
Benjamin has shared with us his experience on obtaining pupillage:
Should you study a law or non-law degree?
I decided that I wanted to be a barrister when I was in Sixth Form. It was from this moment that I focused on gearing my CV towards obtaining pupillage. For those aspiring barristers who, like me, decided to embark on the path to pupillage prior to university, the first decision to be made is whether to read law or a different subject at university. There is no right answer here; but it goes without saying that you should try to obtain the best degree classification you can. Attending a good university, whilst not essential, will assist when it comes to the pupillage applications. To this end, I cannot stress enough the importance of studying a subject that you are passionate about, as your chances of achieving high marks will be far higher if you actually enjoy turning up to your lectures. University should be an amazing experience where you feel engaged as a student. I decided to study law because I found the subject fascinating and was keen to hit the ground running with my legal studies. Others may wish to study a non-legal subject as an undergraduate and then do the GDL. In my experience, it does not matter what you decide to study as long as you obtain the grades that chambers are looking for. You can always demonstrate a passion for law later on in your path to pupillage.
What can you do to bolster your CV towards obtaining pupillage?
Academic achievements alone will not bag you the prized pupillage. It is important to build your experience as early as possible so that you can demonstrate to chambers that you have what it takes to not only be a good pupil, but also an excellent barrister. From an early stage I was volunteering with the Citizens Advice Bureau and participating in mooting to build practical skills, such as working with clients and advocating on their behalf. This not only provided me with useful examples to use in my pupillage applications but also improved my confidence in public speaking, working with difficult legal principles and helping clients work through emotional and distressing situations. I also ensured that I was actively involved with my university’s law society and served on its committee as Master of Moots. This was not only a terrific way to develop my leadership skills but also bolstered my social life as well!
How do you decide what chambers to apply to?
Alongside building my CV and working towards becoming a desirable candidate for pupillage, I also dedicated time to thinking about what practice areas interested me and thus what type of chambers I wanted to join. Mini-pupillages are a fabulous way of getting a feel for the different areas of law and finding out which areas match your skillset and interests. Further, they provide a great platform to meet barristers, network and gain an insight into the different cultures that different chambers have. I undertook several mini-pupillages in a broad range of practice areas and with various chambers so that I could eventually narrow down what I wanted to do. It became obvious to me that I wanted to work at a multi-disciplinary set that would enable me to pursue my interest in crime whilst bolstering this practice financially with family and civil work. In turn, this enabled me to target my applications towards this type of set.
What was your approach to pupillage applications?
Once I had a clear idea what chambers I wanted to apply to, I drafted as many applications as I possibly could. As every Bar hopeful knows, the ratio of pupillages to candidates is sadly not in the applicant’s favour. My reasoning was that by sending as many applications as possible I would increase my odds of getting interviews and in turn my chance of obtaining pupillage. Of course, this is not to say that I hastily sent off applications haphazardly. Every application sent into chambers should be completed to a high standard. I read my applications multiple times over before passing them over to friends and family to get their final approval. Trust me, you do not want to experience the dreaded feeling of reading your already submitted application only to find that it is dripping with spelling mistakes and blatant errors.
When it comes to drafting pupillage applications, it is important to not only evidence your experience but to also link it back to why it will make you a good barrister. As one barrister colleague said to me, it’s one thing to state that you worked as a bartender in 2012, but you also need to spell out why this experience will make you an excellent barrister in your application form. It may be that you had to deal with difficult customer complaints or you were balancing this job with your academic studies, which in turn has equipped you with the necessary skills for managing your busy practice at the Bar. A lot of chambers will have set marking criteria for their pupillage applications and the markers will have to mark hundreds of applications whilst attending court and preparing for their other cases. By spelling out why your experience will make you an excellent barrister, you will make the markers job easier thereby ingratiating yourself to them.
How do you prepare for interviews?
Rachel Scott has written a fantastic piece on her top tips for preparing for pupillage interviews: http://www.estuarychambers.co.uk/news/pupillage-interview-top-tips and I echo them here. First, I ensured that I knew my application inside out and was prepared to defend elements of my experience or discuss any gaps in my work history. Secondly, I tried to enjoy the experience. This may sound strange but if, like me, you become nervous during interviews, this feeling can be overwhelming and cause you to tense up and undersell yourself. Do not do this. You know (or should know) that you have what it takes to become a barrister by virtue of the fact you are sitting in the interview room. This being the case, you should see this as an opportunity to get to know the panel and demonstrate your talents. The panel wants you to succeed, and once I realised this I began to approach the interview as something to be positive about. As a consequence, I found that my nerves were soon melting into the background.
What if you are not successful?
After what felt like hundreds of interviews and applications, I had my fair share of unsuccessful attempts. It is only natural to be disheartened when this happens (I know I certainly was); however, it is important to see this process as a learning curve. As Winston Churchill famously pointed out, “success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”. I certainly believe that with every rejection letter received, I became a better candidate because I was getting better at the pupillage process. If you are getting through to the second-round interviews it often comes down to a bit of luck, the interview panel and how you feel on the day. Do keep developing your experience and plugging holes in your CV. Resilience is essential for succeeding at the Bar, and there is no better way of demonstrating that you have what it takes than to keep getting better, stronger and applying despite the knockbacks.
In between pupillage rounds, I worked as an advocate attending county court hearings. This was a fantastic way to get some real-life advocacy experience under my belt and was a talking point in all my interviews. I am sure that this experience was one of the main reasons why I was offered pupillage.
Almost every barrister I have spoken to will say that it took them a few years to obtain pupillage and those who got it straight away are definitely in the minority. Ask for feedback, turn what seems to be a negative into a positive and remember that although it may seem like an impossible task, for those willing to weather the storm, the Bar is an attainable and extremely rewarding career path.