Having returned from the Bar Council's 2022 Pupillage Fair only a few hours ago, I feel it is important to share some of the tips and advice I have received today, in the hope that it may help other students with their applications and with deciding whether a career at the Bar is really for them. Please do remember, however, that this is not an exhaustive list by any means (by virtue of being a 'top 10' list) and focuses on the bar as a career and application forms (as indicated by the section headlines below).
The Bar as a Career
1) Do not underestimate how difficult it is to get work in the first few years of your career. Whilst clerks will do their best to help with directing suitable work your way, it is ultimately up to YOU to market yourself. This will VERY likely mean having to attend seminars, conferences, and other such events, as well as utilising online marketing in order to spread the word of your services being available. If you think that work will naturally flow towards you, you are certainly mistaken.
2) ESPECIALLY in the case of criminal (and to some extent civil law work), you are unlikely to earn nearly as much as you imagine for the first few years. This can also be true in commercial and chancery sets, but to a far lesser extent. Several barristers made a point of highlighting the fact that you WILL likely earn poorly in comparison to your expectations, and that you may very well be sent all over the country to earn the money - even if based in a London set. Furthermore, do not forget to save as much as you can as, in criminal law especially (again), there are often cash flow issues (as cases are often dealt with a long time before you are paid).
3) You MUST be flexible as you start your practice. Whether this means taking on work which is outside of what you'd ideally like to work on, travelling to remote courts in the middle of nowhere for a minor hearing, burning the midnight oil working on an upcoming trial, or having to cancel plans, you must be prepared for this and accept it as part of your job. Of course, it is entirely correct that as you build your practice, the work/life balance becomes better than in other parts of the legal profession (as you are able to dictate somewhat when you do and do not want to work), but you simply cannot afford to be picky or demanding in these ways as you are trying to create your 'brand; and 'image'.
4) REALLY think about WHY you want a career at the Bar and WHAT you expect to get out of it. Whilst this may seem obvious, it transpires that many applicants have not actually considered this question. Consider what your strengths and weaknesses are. Are they suited more towards being a solicitor than a barrister, perhaps? Do you actually enjoy advocacy, or any form of public speaking for that matter? Do you want to specialise in such a way as can only be achieved at the bar? Are you going down this route because of a love of advocacy, or because of a passion for helping others, or are your motivations perhaps based in financial success? Your answers to these types of questions will often help you to determine the right path for you. I can tell you from personal experience, I have known students who have started their LLB, LPC, BTC, or other legal course/degree purely because they have visions of earning bucket loads of money and sitting in a swanky office. You know what happened to them? Not a SINGLE one of them is still pursuing a legal career, because it's HARD and takes GENUINE interest and passion to succeed. So, do think VERY carefully about your motivating factors, and make sure to at least TRY to be realistic with your thoughts.
The Application Forms
5) ALWAYS make sure you have some kind of experience to write about. It doesn't necessarily matter if you haven't completed any mini pupillages, as long as you have other advocacy/legal/debating/volunteering etc. experience you can talk about. Of course, it would be nice to have three of four mini pupillages you can talk about, but even being a course/club representative, a performing arts school student, in a job which involves asserting your position to others and/or convincing others of certain things etc. can often be more than sufficient, so long as you can speak about it convincingly.
6) Short and sweet, think of the application form as a written piece of advocacy.
7) DO NOT use generic answers that you've copied over from other forms. Also do not rush into answering the questions. Think VERY carefully about what the question is ACTUALLY asking you. For example, 'why do you want to work in commercial law' and 'why do you want to work at this set' are two VERY different questions, which should NOT elicit the same response. Moreover, do not simply list things they already know (for example, I want to work at X because you're known for commercial work and I'm interest in that a lot). Instead, tailor your answers, evidence your statements, sell yourself in such a way as to be irresistible - this inevitably means being SMART about your answers. Do not babble, do not construct lazy sentences, do not repeat yourself, do not waste words, never get things about the set wrong (by all accounts, many people apply to civil sets, for example, with their answers reading 'my love of chancery law' etc.), but also don't be boring. It is easy to blend in, it takes skill, determination and resilience to stand out, so make the most of your abilities and experiences.
8) Do not be complacent if you have stellar academics. Yes, having a First from Oxford and a Masters from Yale is impressive, BUT that alone will NOT get you a pupillage, or even a first stage interview. Academics ordinarily form around a quarter of the 'marks' up for grabs when assessing your application, so even if you have stellar grades, you still need other experiences to talk about and other forms of evidence to showcase your overall abilities and competence. Conversely, even if your academic achievements are not as brilliant on paper as you had expected, do not instantly be discouraged from applying. Chambers will take extenuating circumstances into consideration. Furthermore, if you have several things under your belt like working with a free representation service, being an intern at a legal organisation, perhaps being a legal researcher or secretary etc., then these will likely more than make up for the less than brilliant grades in your academic ventures.
9) Less is more. As it turns out, chambers do not want you to list every module you've completed at university or college, they do not want to see a breakdown of every school or sixth form award you received, and they certainly do not want to see long lists or paragraphs of information. Now, I knew this to a degree prior to attending the fair. What surprised me, however, was the extent to which 'less is more' is apparent in application forms (and in your CV). I had the pleasure of attending a one-on-one session with a barrister, who went through my CV and my last application form with me. I can tell you now that a good 30% of what I had written I was told to discard. This wasn't because the information was irrelevant, rather because I was telling them too much. If asked a question like "what did you learn from this", it is apparently much better to just bullet point two or three examples with evidence than to list six or seven things. In much the same way, listing out the twenty-eight modules I got a distinction in at college was deemed to be too much information. So, the key takeaway is to keep it light and succinct. Do not write more than necessary, do not do full breakdowns or paragraphs, and make sure it is engaging and easy to follow (especially if your courses or marking schemes are not the ordinary way of doing things, as in my case with going to college and having a distinction, merit, pass marking criteria).
10) For most sets, the key areas in which you are being marked are: advocacy potential, academic ability, evidence of interest in the set AND in their practice areas (and whichever you've said you personally are interested in); and evidence of an appreciation of life at the self-employed/employed (depending on who you're applying to) bar.
So, there you have it. A list of the top 10 tips from the 2022 Pupillage Fair. These tips specifically were chosen based on the importance placed on them by the barristers, as well as the number of students who seemed concerned about these things or wanted more clarity on how to complete application forms and the realities of a life at the bar. I hope you have found it helpful. Stay tuned for more articles soon!