A pupillage interview is a test of how well you can tailor your skills, qualifications and experiences to demonstrate the skills required of a good barrister.
You need to know your past achievements (and failures) inside out, and then think about how they can address the skills that a barrister needs.
Prepare a real example to explain to your interviewer for all of the skills required for the role of a barrister: intellect, self-reliance, flexibility, determination, teamwork, research skills, oral advocacy, persuasion, conflict resolution to name a few. Be ready to eloquently demonstrate how you fit the bill for each.
Most pupillage interviews also include questions on current affairs or topical debates. you might hear questions like: What is Brexit’s biggest impact going to be?
These are harder to prepare for, but you don’t have to solve Brexit, the housing crisis and world hunger in two minutes. What you do need to do is say something sensible, clear, and structured.
Talk through your thinking, from one logical point to the next, and be prepared to stick by your answer (assuming it is sensible!) if it gets criticised.
These types of questions test how quickly you can think and how you react under pressure. There is no requirement to come up with innovative and original thoughts (though if you can, go for it). What is more important is to explain your position simply and clearly.
In this situation, you are given a fictional set of facts and questioned on the legal issues which surround them. For example, commercial sets often provide the background facts and terms of a contract and then ask questions based around the interpretation of those terms; and criminal sets frequently provide a set of facts from which the interviewee is required to make a plea in mitigation.
These types of problems tend not to assume a high degree of legal knowledge. The questions are said to test how the candidate reacts under pressure and whether they can produce logical, coherent answers. That said, a sound knowledge of the basic legal principles in play can be invaluable in a pupillage interview and should not prove too arduous to acquire if you are aiming to practice in that area anyway.
The ‘evidence-based’ or ‘competency’ questions are a common pitfall for interviewees. A typical question would be as follows:
“Tell us about a time where you had to work as part of a team to achieve something. What steps did you take?”
This presents an opportunity for the interviewee to give evidence of their advocacy or of some other skill which relates to being a barrister.
The best way to tackle these questions is by using the S-T-A-R method, which stands for Situation – Task – Action – Result. First, outline the situation. Give a specific and concise description of the context. Second, state the task. This means the outcome that you were trying to achieve. Third, describe the actions that you took or the contribution that you made to achieving the outcome. Fourth, state the result and what it demonstrates about you as a candidate.
It is important to stress that this is only a guide. Think of it as a skeleton argument for proving why you have the requisite skills for pupillage.
Read on for some examples of questions that could come up and advice on how to combat each one.
Why do you want to be a barrister?
The classic, and yes, you will likely get asked this. Know you answer off the top of your head and practise making it sound sincere and spontaneous. As stated before, make your answer personal to you, drawing in experiences that only you have had.
What are the three main selling points on your application?
Don’t assume they’ve read and remembered everything you wrote! Of course you remember them, that’s inevitable, you’re the one who spent hours writing it after all.
But this is a good thing – it means you know what your main strengths are (that interesting work you did for your uni pro bono society springs to mind, or that sports competition you trained for and won, or that essay you worked through the night on that got a prize) and can recite them in your sleep.
What is your greatest weakness?
With this question have to demonstrate self-awareness, self-criticism, and maybe even a capacity for humour!
As long as you come up with something plausible (NOT ‘I’m a perfectionist’ – that’ll get you marked down straight away) that, again, is illustrated by an example from your past, you’ll be fine.
Why are you applying to this chambers?
You’d be surprised at the number of people who cannot answer this simple question. Do your research, know what it is they do, and then tailor something from your own past experiences to demonstrate how you’d be good for their work.
What is your opinion on the death penalty?
With this question, pick a side, conjure up whatever evidence you can, and defend it to the teeth. They’re not interested in what you position you take, just how well you can argue it. As always, practice makes perfect.
Most of us haven’t worked as an Amicus in the USA so don’t have that much experience directly relevant, but we’ve all heard about Sandy Hook or the more recent Florida shooting. If you can tie external examples into your answer you will be demonstrating exactly what lawyers have to do on their feet in court, and be that much more impressive for it.
What is your communication style?
This one comes directly from personal experience. It’s an odd one, but fairly easy to answer in hindsight. Don’t just go for empty adjectives that you think describe you – tell them of a time you had to communicate something to someone in challenging circumstances and how you did it.
What are the greatest challenges facing the modern bar?
Ideally, you’ll have already done some thinking about the position of the Bar and how it needs to adapt in the future. With this question, they’re not only checking how you can think on your feet, but also whether you take an interest in the wider world of the law beyond study and research.
If you can tell them of that specific case you saw on a mini-pupillage that proved the difficulties facing modern barristers (maybe the opponent was a litigant-in-person denied access to legal aid, or maybe your counsel simply hadn’t had time to process all the papers properly), you’re home and dry.
What one area of the law would you change and why?
It’s a good idea to choose something from an area of the law that this particular Chambers practises in (it looks a little bizarre if you argue for changing evidentiary procedures in criminal fraud trials at a commercial set, for example).
What do you enjoy doing outside of the law?
This is a chance for you to show how interesting you are. Be honest, but don’t go too crazy in an attempt to stand out. Likewise, if you say “I read the news and keep up to date with current affairs” you’re likely to be forgotten the moment you walk out of the room.
Is there anything that you’d like to ask us?
Prepare yourself a list of questions beforehand and memorise them. A lack of questions implies a lack of interest and won’t bode well for your application.
There we have it. If you can think up your answers to these example questions, keeping to the advice above, you’ll massively increase your chances of passing a pupillage interview. Good luck!
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