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Becoming a Pupil Barrister Case Study

Sophie Clayton - Pupillage Case Study
Sophie Clayton

Wondering what the process of applying to become a pupil barrister is like?

Sophie Clayton tells us about her journey to pupillage – from her first steps on deciding to convert to law, to applying for mini-pupillage and gaining law work experience.

Read on to discover Sophie’s top tips on applying for pupillage!

Deciding to Convert to Law

I have never been the one in my circle of friends with the most effervescent political quip or the latest slant on a global crisis. However, I have always been the person who could break down a complex issue into bite-size pieces; the one who was empathetic and had a way with words. My ability to analyse words, behaviour and concepts is my standout quality – my USP. That’s how I justified taking the immense risk that is applying to the Bar to become a pupil barrister.

I graduated with a 2.1 in English after getting into Oxford by the skin of my teeth. I found it hard and a shock from the easy academic success I had enjoyed at school. I then worked at an online start-up in Shoreditch which specialised in pet-friendly holidays. Suffice it to say, it was not the glittering graduate career I had envisaged throughout those torturous months revising for finals. I quickly realised that my brain was dehydrated – that I actually missed the irritating excitement of tackling impossible problems.

I resolved to convert to Law. I had entertained the idea of becoming a barrister in my earlier years, but had packed it into a box and buried it deep after the reality-check of Oxford. I dusted it off and put my foot down on the nagging insecurities. 

Gaining Legal Work Experience

Luckily, I was able to work as a legal assistant before enrolling onto the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) – really an odd-jobs type of arrangement. The exposure to real-life legal situations was invaluable.

In my view it’s a necessary part of any prospective pupil barrister’s CV that they have seen how the law involves itself in real people’s day-to-day lives. Law school teachings are really in a vacuum – they are apart from the messy human reality of legal practice. I saw real clients argue, laugh and cry, and I think that brought home what practice would require.

The GDL year was a very busy one indeed. For anyone thinking about a career at the Bar, my advice would be to start building your CV as soon as you can. I did not do that. Essentially I had to start from scratch, and cram everything into the period before the Pupillage Gateway opened. I carved out a plan of attack – an unsophisticated policy of applying for everything and anything that drew my attention.

Applying for Mini-Pupillage

The first gaping inadequacy of my CV was that I didn’t have a single mini-pupillage to my name: ‘minis’ are something of a necessity and someone told me I would need three as a minimum in order to become a pupil barrister. I have since found out that isn’t strictly true, but three was a good number for me. I cherry-picked the family law sets that I thought looked the best, based on their website and student blogs, and applied only to those.

I took a lot of time to engineer my applications: I edited out all the cheesy lines, I was honest with why I was applying and I made sure my applications were beautifully written. On the minis, I was as down-to-earth as I could manage and tried to forget the intimidating imbalance between my position and the barrister I was shadowing. I was particularly successful at doing this at the chambers that eventually offered me pupillage: my mini-pupillage there was full of laughs, lots of stupid questions and no tactics.

Completing Pro Bono Work

I also got very involved with pro bono. Law school sent around emails and training day reminders and I signed up for as much as I could. I joined the National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) which is very flexible and allows you to work on real domestic violence cases. I became a social security representative for the Free Representation Unit (FRU).

I also joined Vocalise as a mentor, a Gray’s Inn initiative that sends aspiring barristers into prisons to teach inmates debating skills. That was my biggest commitment and I am now a Director of the programme, having fallen completely in love with what it does.  

Trying Mooting

Mooting was probably my most significant experience. My first brush with it was at a taster session held at Law School. I was terrible – nervous, stuttering, embarrassed. Yet that propelled me to get better and to be taken seriously. I entered the GDL competition and, after watching hours of Supreme Court live and practising in front of the mirror, I got through every round (to my disbelief) and ended up coming second at the final held at the Supreme Court itself.

I also competed in a moot at the LSE which centred on LGBT+ issues and I got the highest individual score. One of the judges became a sort of informal mentor to me after meeting her there – a formidable human rights barrister – and that made me hungry for success.

Applying to Become a Pupil Barrister

So, when it came to applying for pupillage, I had equipped myself with evidence to prove my abilities. That is all an application really should be, anyway – solid proof of all the talents you profess to have. I cut out everything that sounded haughty or cheesy, and emphasised what I had done to show that I could become a capable junior practitioner.

At interview, I knew and accepted that I would make mistakes and often sound like a novice idiot (which I definitely did – even more so at the two interviews I bombed). But overall I kept myself personable and confident in my views, whilst aware of the things I had yet to learn. I think that, and quite a lot of luck, is what finally got me my offer to become a pupil barrister. Good luck!


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