Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Last year - Part 2 - Interviews

Tomorrow morning I have the pleasure and delight of sitting down for nearly 5 hours, and knocking out a hand-written opinion. In celebration of the fact that we're not allowed to use computers, I thought there was no better preparation than typing up a blog post on last year's pupillage interviews.

After submitting your applications, the wait is almost unbearable. Whenever you are alerted to any kind of communication (whether the postman, an email or a phone call) your heart skips a beat. After a couple of weeks, though, you learn to calm down a bit. And then you get your first pupillage email. I recently rewatched Godfather III, and never before has Michael Coreleone's anguished: "Just when I thought I was out of the water, they pulled me back in!" been more appropriate. Just as you're getting over it, they get you all excited again. Worse still, the first email I received was a positive email inviting me for interview.

"But this is a good thing!" I hear you cry. No. No it's not. They get you all excited, they get you feeling all positive about your chances, and then they hit you with seven rejections in a row. If I fall over, I want to fall over when I'm firmly on the ground. Falling off a ladder hurts more. Getting a positive response puts you on a ladder.

My first pupillage interview was horrendous. When I arrived in the waiting room, there was already another candidate there ahead of me. I made a huge mistake by speaking to him. He was a 35 year old Army Major, with a first from Oxford, who had been working the last 5 years on Courts-Martial and had the quiet, softly spoken authority of someone born for the Bar. I immediately felt like a child in a fight with Mike Tyson.

Things went from bad to worse when I got into the interview room. A man on the other side of the table said: "So, I see you used to work at the Financial Ombudsman Service, that seems like a complete waste of time. Please do take a seat." The rest of the interview didn't go particularly well. I tied myself in knots over a question about the recent death of Osama bin Laden. Basically, I was completely unprepared for the whole thing. Interviews in the past were pleasant experiences: I was asked questions, I answered them, I got the job. Pupillage interviews are war. You are being tested by men and women who spend all day, every day, exposing lies and half-truths. Charm is pointless as they see straight through it. I, quite literally, had no idea what to do.

I hadn't taken up opportunities to have mock interviews, I hadn't listened to stories from others. I felt, honestly, like a complete amateur - and I was right.

At this stage, I must give some advice in the strongest possible terms: Even if you don't think you are yet in a position to win pupillage, apply anyway. You will get practice at filling in the forms, and, should you manage to scrape an interview, you will get invaluable experience of interviewing with barristers. With every interview I attended last year, I became better at it.

So far I had received one interview followed by seven rejections. Emails nine and ten were invitations to interview.

Interview number two was my first experience of an advocacy exercise. Half an hour before my interview slot, I was given a bundle of papers and told that I would be making a bail application. In my mini-pupillages the longest bail-application I'd seen was defence counsel saying: "Your honour, can I assume that bail is to continue under the same terms?", and then receiving a positive reply.

I had no idea what I was doing. Luckily, the set did give us some guidance (commission of further offences, interfering with witnesses and failing to surrender), but I was still woeful.

I made a better stab of the the second half of the interview (questions about me and my form), but I wasn't hopeful of getting a second round interview.

In response to the advocacy exercise, I went to a local magistrates' court for two days and watched dozens of full bail applications and pleas in mitigation (defence counsel attempting to reduce sentence). Having the opportunity to see how it was done in practice made me feel much more comfortable about the possibility of it coming up in interview.

And so on to interview number three. Yet again, there was an advocacy exercise, and it was again a bail application. This time, I knew I was doing well. 'd seen how it was done in practice and I was able to bring those experiences with me into the interview. I'd also learned to fight back against interviewers. They don't want you to doff your cap and act the deferential serf - they want people who will state their case, stick to their guns and defend a position. As I said earlier, pupillage interviews are war - panels seem to want someone who will fearlessly represent their client, but also someone who may be worth sharing a pint with.

I felt as if the interview had gone well, and I was quietly confident of getting through to the second round.

My predictions, in both cases were correct - Set 2 said no, Set 3 asked me to come back. So, I was in the final 5, competing for 2 pupillages. My chances had risen from 0.5% (1 in 200) to 40%. Good times.

And so, in late July (having received a rejection from set number 11), I turned up for the second, and final round, at chambers number 3. I was told in advance that there was going to be a plea in mitigation, some general ethical questions and there would be an interview panel of NINE people. Nine, all sitting round a table staring at me. Lovely.

I arrived at the set, was given my brief and started my preparation. I was the last up and it was approaching 9pm, so I was worried that the panel would already be tired and bored of seeing idiot-candidates. However, they could not have been more welcoming. they cracked open a bottle of wine, offered me a glass, and we got on with a bit of a chat. The plea in mit seemed to go well and we all got along swimmingly - certain members of the panel even ridiculed me for my choice of football team. Lucky me.

I came out of the interview feeling good, and not entirely depressed about my chances when the results were to be announced on August 2nd.

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