Before qualifying for a Bar career you'll first need to complete pupillage - but be warned, competition to gain a place at chambers is intense so you'll need to be well prepared

What is pupillage?

Following successful completion of the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), pupillage with an Authorised Training Organisation (ATO) such as chambers, is the final step to becoming a barrister. The one-year apprenticeship 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.

When does pupillage start?

Pupillages usually start in September or October one year after being accepted by the chambers. You should start looking at what's available at the beginning of the second year of your law degree. The Pupillage Gateway operates one application season, which opens around January each year and closes around the middle of 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 Bar Standards Board. You usually need to complete a pupillage registration form and submit it to both parties as soon as possible.

What's involved?

For the first six months pupils will shadow a barrister - or different barristers for two three-month periods. They accompany them to court, conferences and consultations, as well as providing assistance with their papers.

Pupils' work will normally include 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, 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.

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 available, 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 Bar Standards Board 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 - The Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) is one year of full-time study or two years part time.

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?

Each pupillage is funded by the ATO at a minimum award of £12,000, which is split into £6,000 per six months. Pupils can earn more money from the casework that they take on in their second six months.

Awards will vary between chambers and different practice areas, with some offering up to £70,000 or more. For example, the highest pupillage award in 2017/18 is £72,500 provided by Atkin Chambers.

How do I choose a chambers?

Before you apply for your pupillage you need to decide 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.

'Choosing a chambers is a difficult task, not least because most aspiring barristers would take any pupillage offered and run,' says Lydia Pearce, pupil barrister at Broadway House Chambers.

'My advice is to think about what type of working environment you'd like to work in. I wanted to join a chambers that was committed to equality and diversity and championing female talent, that's why I chose Broadway House,' adds Lydia.

It's not just about the work you also need to make sure your lifestyle and personality are a good fit for the firm. 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 best you should carry out work experience and mini-pupillages to get a feel for different chambers.

'I have learned that it's as much about you choosing a chambers as it is about a chambers choosing you,' explains Lydia.

How do I apply for a pupillage?

The majority of chambers accept applications through the Pupillage Gateway. The online form asks about your work experience and personal aspirations, and can be sent to up to 12 chambers.

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 keep in mind that this may not be the worst outcome,' advises Lydia. 'I applied to a variety of chambers and never got to the interview stage, but now when I meet their practitioners and pupils I know I wouldn’t have fitted in.'

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.

'If you're looking for a career at the Bar the chances are you're already well qualified, with lots of interesting experience, but so is everyone else. You need to know what makes you stand out from the hundreds of other applicants in order to be successful,' says Lydia.

There's no limit to the amount of times you can apply but you must start pupillage within five years of passing the BPTC.

Lydia's final piece of advice is this: 'Keep going. Do not be put off if you haven't landed pupillage on your first application.'

Find out more