COVID-19 and pupillage

A recent Bar Council survey found that up to 30% of chambers are changing their plans by either deferring or cancelling pupillages starting in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus.

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) has said that 'while we recognise the challenging times that Authorised Education and Training Organisations (AETOs) are facing we encourage them to do all they can to ensure that pupillages continue during this period.'

They have however recognised the 'understandable concern about the impact of the COVID-19 situation on those due to commence pupillage in autumn 2020.'

Because of this the BSB have waived the requirement that 'only those who have been confirmed as having successfully passed a BPTC or BTT may start the non-practising period of pupillage. The waiver is granted on a one-off basis to this year's cohort of students who were expecting to take their final BPTC or BTT assessments this spring but were unable to because of changes to timetabled exams and assessments due to Covid-19.'

Under the waiver students will be allowed to progress to the non-practicing stage of pupillage but will not be allowed to partake in the practicing stage until they have completed their vocational training.

A number of chambers have also postponed their mini-pupillages scheme. These include Brick Court, Fountain Court, One Essex Court, 3VB and 7KBW. Blackstone Chambers is however enabling students to complete mini-pupillages via remote working.

If you're worried about how these changes affect you keep checking the BSB, individual chambers and Inns of Court websites for more details.

The final hurdle before qualifying for a career at the Bar, pupillage is where you gain practical experience under the supervision of a barrister. However, be prepared to face intense competition to gain a place at chambers

What is pupillage?

Following successful completion of a new Bar course (previously the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), of which final enrolment took place in September 2019), pupillage with an Authorised Education and Training Organisation (AETO) such as a chambers, is the final step to becoming a barrister.

Just like an apprenticeship you'll gain practical training under the supervision of a barrister or barristers. Usually lasting 12 months, the pupillage is split into two six-month periods of on-the-job training, known as 'sixes'. Equivalent to a solicitor's training contract, you need to successfully complete the year to be able to practice as a barrister.

As part of Future Bar Training, the Bar Standards Board's (BSB) programme of regulatory change, some of the rules governing pupillage will change. These new rules will introduce increased flexibility by allowing 'pupillages' to be known as 'periods of work-based learning' with a view to encouraging a wider range of AETOs to offer this component. This 'work-based learning' could, for example, be offered by employers providing training to future members of the employed Bar.

A mini pupillage is a short period of work experience in a set of chambers, BSB authorised body or another type of AETO. This type of experience can be incredibly useful as it provides an invaluable insight into life at the Bar. What's more, the contacts you make when undertaking a mini pupillage may be able to offer advice and assist in finding pupillage opportunities.

When does pupillage start?

As mentioned, the on-going COVID-19 pandemic will affect a number of pupillages due to start in the autumn of 2020. If you're worried about your pupillage arrangements contact your chambers for more information and advice.

Pupillages usually start in September or October one year after being accepted by chambers. You should start looking at what's available at the beginning of the second year of your law degree (or the third year of a non-law degree). As a general rule, apply for pupillage at least a year in advance.

The Pupillage Gateway operates one application season, which opens around January each year and closes early February. Chambers using this system then make offers at the beginning of May, which is about 17 months before pupillage starts.

You need to register your pupillage with your Inn and the BSB. You usually need to complete a pupillage registration form and submit it to both parties as soon as possible.

What's involved?

The 'first six' of a pupillage forms the non-practising element, where pupils spend six months shadowing a barrister - or different barristers for two three-month periods. You'll accompany them to court, conferences and consultations, as well as providing assistance with their papers.

Pupils' work includes research and drafting opinions and arguments. Some will be assessed exercises rather than anything that's seen by a client. Later, there may be work for other members of chambers - including 'devilling', where pupils prepare opinions for barristers to use as their own. Formal training in advocacy and advice must be fitted in too.

In the second six, the practising element, a pupil will have a provisional practising certificate and will be able to provide legal services to the public, under the supervision of their pupil supervisor(s). Depending on what sort of work their chambers do, this is the time when pupils begin to appear in court. Opportunities for advocacy will be much more frequent at the criminal Bar, while those in commercial sets tend to focus more on written opinions, pleadings and other paperwork.

Pupils are also required to complete an Advocacy Training Course in their first six months and Practice Management Course in their second.

However, the most important part of pupillage is when pupils find out whether they have tenancy. This decision may be based on a supervisor's assessment of the pupil's work, or it could include some formal advocacy exercises. Some chambers take on more pupils than they have tenancies, so not all pupils can be taken on. Check what policy each chambers has.

At the end of the practising period, you need to submit a certificate from your supervisor certifying that the practising period has been completed. If the Practice Management Course has also been completed, the BSB will give you a Full Qualification Certificate.

You then need to apply for a Full Practising Certificate to start to practise as a barrister.

Am I eligible for pupillage?

Graduates must beat tough competition to make the transition from student to tenant (established barrister) in chambers or an employed barrister within a company or firm. The main stages of training that you must complete are:

  • Work experience - From mini-pupillages in chambers to pro bono work, this is the first step on the way to the Bar.
  • Academic stage - An undergraduate degree in law (LLB) or alternatively an undergraduate degree in any subject followed by the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).
  • Vocational stage - choose from a number of new Bar courses, usually one year of full-time study or two years part time. (Previously the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC)).

You then do your pupillage before moving onto the final stage to obtain tenancy in a set of barristers' chambers as a self-employed barrister, or to go into practice as an employed barrister.

There is tough competition to land a pupillage, with applicants far outweighing places. You will need to be realistic about your options and gain as much experience as you can in order to stand out.

How much will I be paid?

In January 2020 the BSB announced new minimum pupillage awards. Pupils in London will receive £18,866 per year, while those outside the capital will earn a minimum of £16,322.

Chambers often pay more than the minimum but awards will vary between chambers and practice areas.

How do I choose chambers?

Before you apply for your pupillage you need to decide on the type of chambers you want to work in. Ask yourself do you want to work in common, criminal or commercial law? Do you want to spend lots of time in court or are you happier in chambers? Some firms will work across all three areas while others will concentrate on just one.

It's not just about the work, you also need to make sure your lifestyle and personality are a good fit for the organisation. Look at their website and social media channels to see what they're about and what other people are saying about them.

You also need to make sure that you get the location right. It's not all about London-based chambers and with tough competition for places it's definitely worth looking outside the capital. When looking at locations make sure you consider living costs, travel costs, the type of work they have and the clients they deal with.

To find out which type of law would suit you carry out work experience and mini-pupillages to get a feel for different chambers.

Bear in mind that it's as much about you choosing chambers as it is about chambers choosing you.

How do I apply for a pupillage?

The majority of chambers accept applications through the Pupillage Gateway. Applicants may submit up to 20 applications through the Pupillage Gateway.

All chambers advertise on the gateway website, but some require you to apply directly to them with your CV and a cover letter. Get tips on writing a legal CV and cover letter. Those that require you to apply directly may advertise at any time of year.

Each application must show that you know the chambers' work, and have the skills, knowledge and interests that they're looking for. It's the quality of your application that'll help you get to the Bar, so crafting it should take hours rather than minutes.

Pupillages are usually advertised 18 months in advance, but it can sometimes be as little as six months or as much as two years.

What if my pupillage application is unsuccessful?

Getting a pupillage is an extremely competitive process. If you're unsuccessful the first thing to do is ask for feedback, because if you don't know where you went wrong how can you improve?

While rejections are painful you should use the year between now and when you can next apply to build your experience through mini-pupillages or shadowing a barrister to give you more of an insight into the role. Find out more about law work experience.

Find out more

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