In order to become a barrister one must first obtain (and successfully complete) a Pupillage. Pupillage is the final stage of training on the path to the bar and sees prospective barristers complete an apprenticeship before hopefully starting professional practice as a tenant at a barristers’ chambers. The competition for pupillages is intense, with near 20,000 applications being made for roughly 500 positions each year.
These daunting odds are further exacerbated when you look more closely at the statistics. The majority of those obtaining Pupillage come from a very specific demographic of the population - namely those that are white, privately educated, over the age of 25, and graduates of either Oxford or Cambridge. Unperturbed by this, however, I applied for Pupillage during my final year of university. At the time I was a 20 year old, state educated ethnic minority student at the University of York, and, despite the statistical odds, I was successful and obtained a Pupillage offer from a well-respected Criminal set. While the stars did align and I was lucky that one of the thirteen chambers I applied to invited me to interview, I firmly believe that with a strong work ethic, as well as York Law School and York Law Society by your side, you can do the same. In this short piece, I will briefly set out the three things that I believe are core to success at the bar: work experience, advocacy experience, and life experience.
I was the first in my family to study law and therefore knew little about how to become a barrister; outside of a cursory google search I was a blank slate. However, Chris Wilkinson and the YLS Careers Development team were absolutely fantastic in helping me out. They let me know of the wide range of things that I could do to improve my prospects of success from mooting (legal debating), to work experience placements (known as Mini-Pupillages), through to shadowing judges (a process known as marshalling). Excited about these opportunities, I set about getting as much work experience as I could.
I applied to a wide range of legal chambers' Mini-Pupillage schemes only to be met with a resounding silence, as the competition for these schemes are so high that it can often be difficult to get a response. As a result, I began networking with barristers to gain experience. As nobody in my family knew any lawyers, I would routinely ask anyone who casually mentioned that they knew a barrister if they could pass on my information. From this, I got four of the five total Mini-Pupillages I completed - the final one coming through an application Chris Wilkinson forwarded on to me directly. I even secured a marshalling placement, thanks to networking with a judge I met on a Mini-Pupillage. If one wishes to make it to the bar, I can not stress the importance of networking enough. While it may seem awkward and embarrassing to flat out ask a stranger to help you, the worst thing they can do is say no. Besides, if you want a career as a barrister you have to get used to asking the difficult questions and having conversations you may find awkward.
My second tenant to obtaining Pupillage is advocacy experience. While it is obvious that one must be a great public speaker in order to secure Pupillage, even the sharpest orators in the world will not even make it through a chambers’ paper sift if they do not demonstrate their ability. I debated extensively at competition level during Sixth Form and then began mooting while studying at university. The University of York has a fantastic mooting society that hold a wide range of moots, both run by the society themselves or by external organisations. Not only do moots give you an idea of how best to structure an argument and how to get points across well, but they also give you a brief insight into the profession and better equip you with specialist knowledge of the law. Furthermore, being part of the society (or the university's equally fantastic Bar Society) really helps to show chambers that you are serious about improving your skills outside of your studies.
Finally, it is important to remember that there are things in life outside of the pursuit of Pupillage. I vividly remember the fact that when I first met the head of my Chambers he did not ask me about my degree or mooting, but rather about the position I play in American Football. At the end of the day, the bar is very much a ‘people profession' and it is important to keep up your hobbies or pick up some new ones. Furthermore, the law - much like medicine - is seen to be a public service, and therefore it is important to help those that are most vulnerable in society. Volunteering or doing pro bono (free) legal work not only gives you a chance to better your skills, but it can also greatly assist in helping you to realise the societal importance of law.
I hope that I have been able to offer some guidance as to a career at the bar. It is by no means an easy profession to get into, but it is definitely worth the work and studying a degree at York puts you in a perfect position to achieve your goals. While the journey to Pupillage is often packed with highs and lows, I strongly believe that, with equal parts hard work and grit, it is definitely not as impossible as the statistics may suggest.