Whilst having a chat the other day with some law students, the inevitable question of how to answer the ‘usual’ pupillage interview questions came up. Having been on our Chambers pupillage committee for five years, and now still normally doing one evening of first round interviews, I’d like to think that I’m not completely ignorant. However, I’m certainly not going to put myself forward as an authority on how to answer questions and get that elusive pupillage and that’s not what I’m doing here.
It did remind me of when, back in the mists of time (well, 2001) I was applying for pupillage just how annoyed I got at some of the questions that were asked. Questions like the ones below. Their aim was, I suspect, to give the impression of being a chambers that asked thoughtful, tough, quirky and insightful questions that would challenge an interviewee. Instead they would just come across as boorish and unimaginative.
Whilst it may be amusing to ask ‘if you were a dog, what sort of breed would you be?’, the thought process of any answer isn’t go to tell you anything about the candidate. And in the absence of any evidence that Labrador fanciers make better barristers than beagle lovers, it’s not really going to take you very far in selecting a pupil is it?
I’m not talking about questions that are out and out illegal (or ones that if they’re not, should be) – fortunately the days of asking a woman if they’re intending to have children have gone. I’m talking more about questions that made my heart sink when I was on the other side of the table and having to come up with an answer. The answers are neither revealing nor helpful. A first round interview is 20-30 minutes, the second round longer perhaps, but not by much. Chambers that waste precious minutes asking the sorts of questions set out below should really know better.
(1) Why are you applying to this Chambers?
“Er, because there’s a chance you might give me a pupillage.”
It really is as simple as that. If you were internet dating and asked ‘why pick’ me to someone you’d just met, don’t expect a declaration of undying love or even a commitment to you after the second drink. If you received the honest answer: that you looked vaguely decent and there were things we had in common, you may not like it. It’s a bit like that with a pupillage application.
There’s already been a paper sift where 85% (or more) of candidates don’t get to an interview. Do you really think you’ll catch someone who wants to be a tax barrister but ticked the wrong box and ended up applying for a criminal chambers by accident? What do you hope to achieve by asking this? Be realistic, chambers aren’t like football teams where they have a loyalty to you already. The candidate has applied to at least 11 other OLPAS places, and probably others ones as well. The honest answer is that they would probably be just as happy at other places, it’s just they think they might get in here.
(2) Why do you want to be a barrister?
“I don’t, I’ve wasted £20,000 on the BVC for a laugh. I just applied to your Chambers for a bet.”
Again. What does this question achieve? Everyone has an answer for it that they can give chambers if asked. It will never be the truth, which will be a hotch potch of different reasons, some good, some bad, some that are impossible to articulate. But you know what the candidate will say and can probably lip synch along with it as it’s given. ‘Never ask a question you don’t know the answer to’ may be good advice for advocacy, not so much for an advocate who is interviewing.
(3) Why do you want to be a barrister rather than a solicitor?
“Gosh. That’s a good question. I’m glad you asked me that. You know, I’d never thought about it before, I might just go and apply for a training contract after this.”
A variant on question (2), more subtle certainly, but just as bad. There’s probably questions similar to this on the application form, but, in any event, do you really think that someone will have shelled out all the money for the BVC, and then invested blood, sweat and tears in numerous re-writes of the OLPAS form, without having thought this one through properly?
(4) Why should we give you a pupillage here?
“I don’t f@*king know – give me the application forms for all the other people you’re interviewing, and I’ll tell you.”
In fairness, at least this question is trying to find out something sensible – who the candidate is and what makes them tick, as well as giving them an opportunity to say who they are. It just could be phrased a bit better. As you learned on the BVC, focus the question to get the answers to cover the areas you want.
(5) What do you think you’ll get out of a pupillage here?
“A practicing certificate and a tenancy? And an end to all these incessant questions.”
The actual answer is set out above. The problem about this question is that it is not about finding out what a candidate has to offer, it’s more about getting the candidate to say what they think of Chambers. The only answer you will get is something about the opportunities for development, and how great Chambers is. Yawn. It’s nice to hear maybe, but it takes the selection process no further.
(6) What is your biggest strength and weakness?
“Strength – dunno really. I’m quite bright? Weakness – I’m lazy, got a borderline personality disorder?”
This question is certainly not confined to law, but featured in (from memory) all of the interviews that I attended. It is lazy interviewing – no-one is going to be honest, everyone will say a weakness that is actually a strength, and all you get from it is to watch the interviewee squirm a bit before giving an answer that they’ve learned off rote. Pointless and a waste of everyone’s time.
(7) Which other Chambers have you applied to?
“None of your business. But if I have to answer, then the usual ones you’d expect for someone applying to your place.”
Why are you asking this? Going back to the on-line dating analogy, you sound like that slightly desperate person trying to get their date to say they like them and they’re much nicer than the other people from that website they’ve met. I think that it’s an inappropriate question in any event, but again, what do you hope to achieve by asking this? Do you gain useful information? When you get the answer, how will you use it? Unless there’s a pretty good reason for this and you can justify what you will learn from the answer and how you will evaluate it (and you almost certainly can’t), don’t ask it.
And finally, have you got any questions for us?
If you’re the one being interviewed, you’ll often get asked this at the end. If there’s a question that you actually want to ask, then great, fire away. But don’t feel you need to make one up. Either way, don’t ask anything like “why do you like working in this chambers” – it’s just as bad as the ones above. To perfect the art of advocacy requires to know when to stay silent and not ask unnecessary questions. Show the panel that you understand that.
These are just some of my own bugbears. Am I barking up the wrong tree – are these questions actually fair game? Any others I’ve missed?
NB – usual disclaimer about this being my own views, not of any chambers I’m associated with, not meaning to cause offence, and don’t rely on what I say , etc, etc, apply.