How hard is it to get a pupillage?
Aspiring barristers will have heard many stories about how competitive the Bar is, with the number of applicants per pupillage advertised increasing year-on-year. But why is the application process so competitive? What does it entail? How can you increase your chance of success? We answer your burning questions.
What is a pupillage?
A pupillage is a period of supervised work-based learning that takes place with an Authorised Education and Training Organisation (AETO), such as a barristers’ chambers or set. It’s the last component of Bar training and the final step towards qualifying as a barrister.
Why is the process of applying for a pupillage so competitive? Put simply, without a pupillage, you can’t be authorised to practise as a barrister.
Pupillages are normally 12 months long and are split into two ‘sixes’ or six-month periods. The first six is the non-practising period and the second six is the practising period.
Candidates undertaking pupillage are fittingly termed pupils. Pupils will normally have been called to the Bar before starting the non-practising period and must be called to the Bar before undertaking the practising period of pupillage.
Upon completion of the non-practising period, you will receive a provisional practising certificate. This means that during the practising period, you are authorised to supply legal services to the public. You can also ‘exercise rights of audience’. In other words, you can appear in court.
Finally, after the practising period, you must apply for a full practising certificate to begin practising as a barrister.
What happens after pupillage?
After completing pupillage, barristers can secure ‘tenancy’ (usually in the set where they completed their pupillage), which just means being accepted as a permanent member of chambers. A tenancy provides self-employed barristers a permanent base from which to operate.
AETOs are not actually obliged to provide tenancy following pupillage, so you might have to apply for tenancy elsewhere.
How to get a pupillage
A pupillage can only be obtained after completion of academic legal training and vocational training. Completion of the vocational stage is formally recognised when candidates are ‘called to the Bar’ by their Inn of Court.
Generally, the academic component involves completion of a qualifying law degree or a non-law degree plus the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). The vocational component involves completing either the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) or the new Bar Training Courses introduced in 2020.
Time constraints apply so aspiring barristers must start the vocational stage within five years of completing the academic component. After five years, your academic qualifications are considered ‘stale’ by the Bar Standards Board (BSB). Applicants can, however, ‘reactivate’ stale qualifications by undertaking the GDL.
Nowadays, the academic and vocational components can also be combined, and candidates can also choose to complete an apprenticeship encompassing the academic, vocational and pupillage components of Bar training.
Applicants must generally secure a pupillage within five years after completing the vocational component of Bar training. However, if you receive a pupillage offer after the five-year time limit, you can make a waiver application to obtain permission from the BSB.
It is therefore recommended that you waste no time in applying for pupillages given the competitive nature of the application process.
You can find a pupillage on the Pupillage Gateway, an online application system designed by the Bar Council. The majority of AETOs advertise and accept applications for pupillage vacancies on the Pupillage Gateway, as they are required to do so by the BSB’s Qualification Manual. Its submissions window opens in early January and applicants are allowed to submit up to 20 applications per year.
The submissions window usually closes in February, after which point AETOs begin to shortlist candidates and conduct interviews. Offers are usually made in early May and applicants have a seven-day window in which to accept.
How to increase your chance of success
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Bar Council’s August 2021 Pupillage Gateway report found that candidates with a first-class degree or Outstanding at BPTC-level were more likely to receive a pupillage offer.
Good grades are obviously important, and you should aim to achieve top grades throughout your academic life. But if you didn’t do as well as you’d hoped in the academic component of bar training, don’t worry: aim to improve during the vocational component.
The Bar Council’s report also found that applicants are more likely to be successful in their second, third, or fourth round of applications, being 50% more likely to get an offer than in the first round.
The message? Don’t be disheartened if you don’t receive an offer in your first application. Use the time between application cycles to hone your approach and improve what you have to offer.