As you progress through your degree, you will have a fairly good idea of whether a career as a practising lawyer appeals to you. The choice then becomes which branch of the profession. It is essential that during your degree you experience both sides, if only to eliminate one and to underline your preference for the other.
Don’t feel constrained to make a choice of which area of law you would like to practice in. It is probably too early. I would advise: keep your options open. Your interests may alter as your progress through your degree and Bar School.
There is often a snobbery in relation to publicly funded work. Many potential lawyers take the view that legally aided work is not glamorous nor as well remunerated. Whilst it may not be as well paid as an equivalent civil position, there is nothing as exciting and challenging as criminal practice, where your efforts will have a direct impact on the freedom of the individual, or in family law where your hard work may impact on a vulnerable child’s future.
During your degree try to undertake as many mini-pupillages and solicitor office placements as possible. Virtually all chambers welcome mini-pupils and recognise its importance in attracting the next generation. Don’t assume that only vacation schemes in commercial or ‘magic circle’ firms are of value. Spending time in a High Street solicitor’s firm is just as valuable on your CV; it’s the experience and skills that you pick up that matter. Doing so may reinforce your view that family or probate law is not for you. It may equally whet your appetite for, and reinforce your instincts about, the area in which you wish to practice and the sort of organisation you want to work within.
Not all experiences have to be formal, one or two week affairs. If circumstances only permit a few days in chambers or a solicitor’s office, that is still of value. It’s the volume and variety of experiences that you accumulate that will equip you for the pupillage or training contract interview a couple of years down the road. During my degree and whilst at Bar School, I undertook 14 separate mini pupillages. These were in a variety of sets covering different disciplines. I also spent time within two different solicitor’s offices. This enabled me to deal with the inevitable “How do you know you want to be a barrister, when you haven’t experienced the other side of the profession” questions during pupillage interviews. Many of your peers will swear blind that they have not engaged in this process, but the reality is they are all busily accumulating experience and you must not get left behind. Personality matters, be yourself don’t attempt to present the image of what you think a young barrister or solicitor should be. Chambers or firms want to select candidates who are going to “fit in” with the team.
The competition for pupillages and training contracts is immense and so it is essential that you enhance your application as much as possible. Most of your competitors will have a strong academic background: good A’ Levels, a 2:1 or above from a good university and it is essential that you can make your application stand out from the crowd. This where your legal and other work experience really comes into play. Your extra-curricular activities are also of benefit. Working in a bar or a charity shop etc., reflects a range of skills that any young lawyer will need. Don’t be afraid to accentuate the positives.
For aspiring barristers, it is essential that you maximise your opportunities for advocacy, both oral and written. Most people will engage in mooting and debating at Law School. Volunteering at a local law Centre, Citizens Advice Bureau or through the Free Representation Unit are all invaluable ways of securing real, practical experience. Involvement in such activities shows genuine commitment, rather than just voicing an idealistic “I always wanted to be a barrister.”
Judicial shadowing is very useful experience that can set you apart from your competitors. It is not an easy thing being in company with a Circuit Judge or equivalent and can be quite intimidating for an undergraduate. However, if you can see beyond that, it will provide you with first hand experiences of real court cases, from a wholly different perspective. Most Crown Courts are happy to assist undergraduate and Bar Students with such “marshalling” opportunities. A polite and focussed letter, setting out your career-path and reasons for wanting to shadow a Judge, addressed to the court office is usually all that is required.
When you come to apply for pupillage or a training contract, the fact that you may have spent time within that organisation at an earlier stage makes a huge difference. It shows that you have genuine interest in that chambers or firm. In my chambers we often receive pupillage applications from candidates who profess to have a love for the city and our chambers yet have never set foot in Birmingham!
Be authentic in what you say in applications. The fact that you have spent time at the organisation and have now made a formal application shows interest and commitment to it. You are applying from a position of knowledge and can comment upon the organisation’s ethos and practices, link it to your own qualities and express why you know you will fit in.
Don’t be put off by any notion that a career at the Bar is the exclusive preserve of the elite or the privileged. The modern Bar – whether it be criminal, family or general common law is diverse and inclusive. You do not have to be from a particular background, public school educated or have a posh accent. Securing pupillage and success thereafter is entirely based on merit. If you are good enough you will get in and thrive.
Gurdeep Singh Garcha Q.C.
Citadel Chambers, Birmingham
The writer is a criminal practitioner, Head of the Pupillage Committee at Citadel Chambers and a Warwick Law School Alumni.