Having experienced the disappointment of coming so close to pupillage last year, I resolved to come back a stronger, more prepared, candidate. I sat down in January and made a list of things I could and would do in order to increase my chance of getting interviews.
Now, I write this while the Portal is still open, my mind may change between now and April 26th. Further, as someone very obviously without pupillage, my advice means absolutely nothing - please don't rely on anything I write here - but it may, at least, prove interesting. This is not a post about "how to write an application form", rather I prefer to think of it as "how to prepare yourself for writing your application form".
1) Conduct a post-mortem
As I've said previously, last year I was invited to interview at 3 Sets. Looking them up at Legal 500 and Chambers and Partners, there was nothing the Sets had in common. One of the Sets was absolutely at the top of the rankings, one was middle-tier and was was completely unrated.
My instant reaction was: well, in that case if I'm getting offers from across the spectrum, then surely the biggest determining factor is luck.
Considering there will be dozens of broadly similar candidates, with broadly similar results and broadly similar backgrounds, there's no surprise that luck will play a part. If luck is the major factor, you might as well write your form and keep your fingers crossed.
However, I decided to delve deeper - I looked at the selection process of the 12 chambers I applied to.
Although ever pupillage committee will have their own little quirks there seem to be two broad approaches - the objective and the subjective.
The objective approach is called the 'grid system' by some Sets. This isn't exactly how it works, but effectively, a mark scheme is designed by the members of the pupillage committee, and application forms are scrutinised purely in line with its contents. For instance (and I'm inventing this criteria, I have no inside track) you might get 10 points for a First, 6 for Two:One and 3 for Two:Two. You might get an extra couple of marks for going to a Russell Group University. Maybe 5 if you went to Oxbridge. You might get 5 points for conducting cases at the FRU and the same for winning a mooting competition.
Of course individual checkers will have their own interpretations of what you've written, but by placing a distinct 'mark' next to a candidate's name, the idea is that there is a more transparent system for selecting interviewees, with the top 10% (or whatever) getting invited to come meet the panel.
The subjective approach places a great emphasis on intuition. The idea is that experienced barristers know what to look for in pupils, and they can get a general 'feel' for candidates after reading their form. The result of scrutiny is usually a simple 'yes' or 'no'.
Despite the potential for it to be an unfair system, I actually do prefer the subjective system - I think it improves access to the Bar. In my opinion, it is much more likely that a candidate with a Two:Two will be invited for interview under the subjective system as those checking the form will have the opportunity to read between the lines and spot something truly special. The mark scheme in the objective test is, obviously, designed subjectively (!) by someone, somewhere, so all it does is remove an element of discretion.
Now, I'm lucky in that I have friends at 10 out of 12 of the Sets I applied to last year. And here's where the post-mortem begins:
It turns out that at ALL three sets where I was invited to interview they used the objective system. In ALL of the seven other Sets (all of whom neglected to invite me for interview) they used the subjective system. What does this mean?
The simple conclusion is that all of the necessary information is in my form. When it gets 5 points for this and 5 points for that, it comes out fairly well, because the pupillage committees are looking for it, finding it, and putting a tick in a box. However, when they have discretion under the subjective system, there was obviously something about my form that meant I wasn't getting the credit I feel I deserved.
The information in my form was obviously flawed in some way - either it wasn't clear, wasn't interesting or wasn't appropriate. Having reviewed last year's form I've identified various areas that I want to improve - I want my form this year to have more character (last year it was fairly anodyne, bland and tautologous), I want to put less emphasis on what I now consider to be irrelevant extra-curriculars (heavy emphasis on theatre, etc, far too much emphasis) and I want to sign-post the form to a greater extent (ensure skills are brought to the fore, highlight the themes in various sections).
I found going back through the form, trying to work out why it might have worked for some Sets but not others, helped me in two ways. Mainly, it allowed me to design a better approach to the form this year, but it also allowed me to relive some of the experiences and put some of my demons to rest.
2) Rewrite last year's form
Yes, I know that this year's questions are identical to those from 12 months ago, but we only discovered that last week.
A month ago I decided to take an empty copy of last year's form and fill it in completely from scratch. My reasons?
Although we didn't know this year's questions, there are only so many things a pupillage form can ask. I know that friends who apply to both OLPAS and non-OLPAS sets find every form they complete slightly easier than the last as they are 'getting their eye in'.
I suppose the simple answer is: 'practice'. I sat down wanting to get my head into pupillage-application-mode, and a fresh look at last year's form seemed to be as good a way as any.
The happy side effect, of course, was that when I discovered the form was an identical copy of last year's I had a head start.
3) Assemble your Brain Trust
For me, I think this could be the difference between success and failure. I mentioned in a previous post that friends last year were kind enough to have a quick glance over my form, rip me to shreds and rebuild me into a better candidate.
This year I have been putting together a group of 15 or 20 people who will all be looking over my form - all of whom, hopefully, will be able to suggest improvements.
My Trust, so far, consists of:
5 barristers (3 of whom are on pupillage panels at Sets I have promised not to apply to)
4 BPP Tutors (all still in part time practice)
2 current Pupils at Sets I'm applying to
The Oxbridge Shark (who has now secured Pupillage at a top commercial set)
2 friends who work in recruitment
2 future parents-in-law
I am, of course, most worried about the comments from the parents-in-law ("WHY ON EARTH ARE WE LETTING THIS IDIOT MARRY OUR DAUGHTER?!?!??!?!?!?"), but I'm sure overall the group all know me well enough to be able to tell me when I'm being an idiot, and when I've got something right.
Sadly, the only downside is that if I get pupillage I will owe all of them a bottle of something expensive
4) Give yourself time off
When undertaking written work, I'm not the idiot who leaves everything to the very last minute. Neither am I the studious sort who will have everything ready two weeks before a deadline, happy to bask in the resulting free time. I usually find myself submitting work 2 or 3 days before a deadline.
However, I also find myself going back to the work a week later, having had my mind on other things. When returning to work it often feels like it was written by someone else entirely, and I can spot dozens of things that I would have liked to have improved. I don't mean typos or grammatical issues - although this blog is littered with nonsense, when I'm in 'work mode' I actually concentrate - I mean turns of phrase, and nuances of language, that I would like to adjust and refine.
What does this mean for my pupillage form?
Well, as I would ideally like to submit 3 or 4 days before the deadline to avoid the inevitable server meltdown, it means I need a very-nearly-final draft ready 10 days before the deadline. So, if I have a version of the form ready for the 16th April (two weeks from today), I can then forget about it for 5 days or so, and then come back to it with fresh eyes, ready to tear myself apart.
This might not work for everyone, but perhaps even the act of creating an artificial (nearer) deadline might spur you on?