When you decide to pursue a career at the Bar, you may find some people advising you against it, from career advisers and university lecturers to barristers on mini-pupillages.
The early stages of gaining pupillage
Many argue that the Bar is very competitive and that very few people secure pupillages. You’ll ignore their advice, thinking that you have what it takes to become a barrister and that you are going to prove them wrong. You’ll get offered one mini-pupillage after another, lulling you into a false sense of security.
After getting your 2:1 degree from an ordinary university, you’ll successfully enrol on the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), with a false sense of achievement that continues to feed your career aspirations. After all, the BPTC is said to be a very demanding course with high entry requirements, so being accepted on the course must mean something, right?
You finish the BPTC and, after a couple of pupillage interviews, none of your pupillage applications are successful. You’ll have to take a year out before the next application season rolls round, but you discover in the meantime that you can’t get the job you want in a top law firm.
Finding alternatives in the meantime
After such a demanding and highly acclaimed course, you are told that you are not experienced enough to be a paralegal. At the same time, you can’t secure legal admin or secretarial positions, because firms need someone “more permanent”.
You end up in a dead-end job at the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), a small solicitor firm or a call centre, and then it hits you: with a patronising “barrister” title, significant debt and the struggle to make ends meet with your laughable wage, what on earth was the point? You’ll have no one to blame but yourself – everyone told you not to do it!
If two years ago someone said that that this was going to happen to me, I’d think they were on a different planet. As hard it is to believe, this is how many of the BPTC graduates end up after the course. When I say it’s hard, I mean it.
I have experienced the ups and downs of the pupillage chase, having made applications for three years already. To succeed, you need something more than a passion for the law, determination to succeed and any other clichéd nonsense. You need solid evidence on your application form.
How your degree affects your chances of gaining pupillage…
To get interviews, you need a first from an established university (people might tell you otherwise but having a degree from Oxbridge makes things easer). A good 2:1 will do only if you also have some impressive extra-curricular achievements.
With a borderline 2:1, 2:2 or a third, don’t bother. Find a better use for the money that you’d spend on those BPTC fees. If you failed to demonstrate your academic abilities, it doesn’t mean that you won’t excel in other careers. After reading all those glossy brochures about a career at the Bar, however, you will know well enough yourself that chambers put a great degree of importance on academic excellence.
For things like mooting and debating, you’ll need evidence of your achievements in the form of prizes, scholarships and awards. Listing participation in a university society is meaningless. This is expected from all applicants, so you will need something really unusual to stand out from the crowd.
You might be surprised to find that things like managing a bar in Paris and motorcycle racing have helped people’s applications in the past! Those chambers like a daredevil, it would seem…
However, if you are thinking about doing a Masters or Ph.D, unless it is from Oxbridge, it’s unlikely to make a huge difference to your application.
Legal work experience…
Mini-pupillages are essential, but they add little weight to your application. Don’t bother with the legal secretarial jobs, clerking and support staff positions, because, let’s be honest, all you do is audio-typing, filing, answering the phone and making tea.
Valuable work experience is where you get to attend court hearings, undertake research and do some written advocacy. Needless to say, it is pretty difficult to get something like that as an undergraduate. This may seem quite obvious but don’t lie on your application by changing ‘legal sec’ to ‘paralegal’ and so on – you may get found out and it’ll significantly reduce your chances of an interview.
Believe it or not, having a High Court judge as one of your referees adds weight to your application! But it goes like this: you either know a High Court judge, who is willing to supply a reference, or you don’t. Marshalling with a judge may help, but don’t get your hopes up.
So there you have it: the path to the Bar is a gruelling, often heart-breaking venture. Should you still wish to pursue it, however, then not only are you incredibly dedicated and persistent but you will also be doing so without the common misconceptions – a great advantage for any aspiring barrister.