Sunday, 18 March 2012

Last year - Part 1 - Application Form

So, here's the first of three posts about the pupillage application process last year. As bright sparks will have noticed, the topic of this post is the application form. The second and third posts will be "Interviews" and "Results".

So, this time last year, I was completely unprepared for pupillage applications. I could barely spell pupillage. My days were spent temping in various mind numbing jobs, and two evenings a week I would head up to Bloomsbury for my GDL classes at the College of Law. I knew that pupillage applications were a couple of weeks away, and I'd heard all the statistics about how hard it is to get pupillage.

As an aside, when you apply for the BPTC, the first page of the form is petrifying. Effectively the page lists all of the pupillage statistics and finishes with something along the lines of: "You probably won't get pupillage. You will probably waste £16,000 on this course which will provide very little more than an ordinary masters. You are probably deluded in thinking that you're good enough to get a pupillage. You will probably die a resentful, bitter old fool." Okay, that isn't the exact wording, but it's as near as makes no difference. You then have to tick a little box that says you understand that you're an idiot, and you then get on with the form. Well, at least the Bar Council tries.

On that happy note, pupillage applications.

The pupillage form is an untamed beast. The Pupillage Portal - the central application system run by the Bar Council - used to be known as OLPAS ("The OnLine Pupillage Application System"). Many people still call the system OLPAS, and it's hard not to fall into the same habit. Chambers can choose to recruit via the Portal ("OLPAS sets"), or they can run their own application system (predictably "non-OLPAS sets"). Through the Portal you can apply to a maximum of 12 sets - for those who remember it, think of it as a sort of UCAS for legal recruitment. The Portal opens at the end of March every year, and closes at the end of April; there used to be two recruitment round a year, summer and winter, but that has now been abandoned in favour of a single, consolidated, session.

In the four weeks that the Portal is open, some twenty to thirty thousand applications will be submitted. Concurrently, non-OLPAS sets will also be running their own application systems. And here, dear friends, was my first mistake. Last year I did not apply to a single non-OLPAS set. I had no idea what I was doing - I'd heard about these non-OLPAS sets, but had also heard vague mutterings that they were mainly civil sets, so (as a crime geek) I didn't consider them worth investigating. This means I missed out on another 5 criminal sets. Well done me!

When the Portal opened in late March I looked over the questions, things like:

"Please provide details of your interests and any non-work related involvement. If relevant to your proposed area of practice, please explain in what way" (150 words)

"Brilliant!" I thought "I do loads of theatre in my spare time, that's got to count in my favour. Shows I'm not afraid of performance".

So I knocked out 150 words about how much I loved theatre and considered that to be great progress. I then forgot about the form for two weeks.

By the time I remembered that the Portal actually existed I had two weeks left to get everything done. I'd finished the BPTC application form in an hour or so, and so didn't think too much of the task ahead.

When I actually looked at the form properly, I realised just what I'd let myself in for. Two minutes later I'd called my temp agency and told them I wasn't available for work that week.

The OLPAS form, to quote Elvis, is a Devil in Disguise. The work that needs to go into it, even before you write a single word, can be daunting for a first time applicant - it certainly was for me:

Firstly you need to actually choose the chambers you're going to apply to. Yes, you can filter sets by area of practice and location, but in the case of London, that still leaves over 30 sets who say they do at least some crime.

Some crime. Not exclusively crime. Without researching the set properly, you have no idea how much crime they do. For instance, 1 KBW comes up as a crime set on the system despite being mainly a family set (albeit with a fair chunk of crime). Frankly, I'd be wasting my time applying to a set like that because I can't demonstrate any kind of interest in their other areas of practice.

Even looking at exclusively criminal sets, there are still around 20 to choose from - which is when you have to get tactical. Are your academics good enough for a top set, would you be wasting your time? Even if you got a pupillage at a bottom end set, would you be able to make a living? What is the award like at each of the sets? What sort of work do they do within crime? Fraud? Sex? Where do their pupils work in the 2nd six, mags or crown? Or at all?

Lots of questions to ask yourself, and, in the end, a heavy reliance on common sense and gut instinct.

I ended up applying for a mix of criminal sets. One or two top end, one or two at the very bottom, but mainly solid 3rd of 4th tiered criminal sets where I could make a career, if successful.

Next up you need to sort out your referees, find your old exam certificates (if you can't remember all of your grades - was it an A or A* in GCSE music? Or was it a B? God knows!), answer a load of equal opportunities questions, calculate your current level of debt (scary) and calculate your anticipated level of debt at the end of pupillage (spectacularly terrifying).

This is before you write your employment history and any legal work experience (mini-pupillages etc), with an explanation of why this will make you a better barrister, and what you've learned. And then comes the form itself, 5 or 6 questions, with fairly restrictive word limits, in which you have your chance to show off.

Over the next few days I gave it my best shot, and contacted friends for advice. The number one piece of advice I received was that the Portal normally crashes on the last day due to the number of people leaving it to the last minute, so try to get it all sorted out a few days in advance. This is still good advice.

The same friends also agreed to look over the form, having been through it all themselves. I didn't realise it at the time, but these friends were the difference between gaining interviews and suffering complete rejection.

I emailed off copies of my form to my friends and within a day I'm sure many of those friends were reconsidering our acquaintance. Although my form wasn't littered with spelling or grammatical errors, it was littered with bad jokes, idiotic comments and seeming immaturity. Within two days the form was completely rewritten. I couldn't believe the transformation. Gone were superfluous, unwieldy adjectives (still a feature of my style, as you'll see from this blog, sadly); and in their place was a tighter writing style that managed to convey a great deal more information in the limited space available - exactly the skill the form is testing.

A week before the deadline, my applications were ready to go. However, there was one final obstacle. If they choose to do so, sets can add an extra question to the form. Until you actually start the process of applying to any given set, you can't know that the extra question is there. Luckily, most sets don't use this feature; but 3 or 4 of the sets I was I'd chosen had decided to do so. This can actually put you in a tricky situation - do you spend the time writing more gibberish, or do you take the path of least resistance and find a set which does not have an extra question? I decided not to be a complete layabout, and to actually spend the time answering the questions properly - I'd chosen the sets for a reason, and so I should at least make the effort to apply to them properly.

Interestingly, a friend of mine who is on the pupillage committee for a civil set told me that one of their main reasons for adding the question is to actually deter applications from time-wasters.

So, 5 days before the deadline I sent my applications off into the ether, and the anxious wait began.

In the next 5 days I have both my opinion writing exam (4 and a half hours) and my drafting exam (3 and a half hours). I hope to get the next part of this series up soon, but forgive me if there is a delay.

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