DG Academy understands that many law students find it difficult to know whether they would prefer to become a barrister or a solicitor; and what to expect after they do make their choice. Beth Nunnington interviewed a former Cambridge University student, Sally Gore, who is currently enjoying a successful career in family law as a barrister and is also on the recruitment committee for her Chambers.
Barrister Or A Solicitor? Sally Gore Chose Barrister And Hasn’t Looked Back Since:
Sally attended a mixed comprehensive school in Sheffield then completed her degree in Law and Modern Languages at King’s College Cambridge. This was followed by masters degrees at Cambridge and McGill University in Montreal then finally a Ph.D in Cambridge. Sally took the BVC part-time during her Ph.D and then did pupillage in London. She now lives back in Cambridge and specialises in family law, mental health and public law at 14 Gray’s Inn Square in London.
Q. Why Did You Choose To Do Law As A Degree?
A. I applied to University to do modern languages but before I’d finished my A-levels I’d decided that I wanted to do law. I wanted to do something that was intellectually challenging and also vocational. Also I had already decided that I didn’t want to be a linguist (or a scientist) and that I wanted to work with people. I was lucky in that it is fairly easy to change courses mid-degree at Cambridge so I did a year of French and Italian followed by two years of Law.
Q. What A-levels Did You Do? Did They Help?
A. I did French, Maths, English Literature, Chemistry and General Studies. Having interviewed applicants for Law at Cambridge and more recently people who apply to my Chambers for pupillage, I can honestly say that A-level choices don’t matter hugely, although it is probably best to pick academic subjects. I suppose English lit helped a little bit with essay-writing. French was useful in a roundabout way – it got me into a good University (one of the first things Chambers look for when considering applicants for pupillage), my LL.M at McGill was taught in both French and English and I have also undertaken research projects etc that have required a knowledge of both languages. I’m glad I did a broad mix of subjects.
Q. How Did You Choose To Become A Barrister Or Solicitor?
A. It was a very last minute-decision. I had already applied to do the LPC then I decided, on the day that applications closed for the BVC in 2004, to apply for that aswell. I’d never been sure about which I wanted to do. With hindsight, I definitely chose the right one for me. I have never liked being told what to do and I dislike hierarchy and having to be deferential to somebody just because of their position so I don’t think I’d last five minutes as an employee. Seriously, sometimes it takes all of my powers of concentration to stop myself rolling my eyes and hissing in response to some of the things that judges say to me. Being self-employed also gives you the freedom to choose (up to a point) when you work. I also like the variety of work we have, the Court work (as a family barrister I’m in Court almost every day), and the opportunity to think in-depth (sometimes) about the law.
Q. What Was The Best Bit About The BVC (Now Called The BPTC)?
A. Finishing it?! I did the BVC part-time at weekends during my Ph.D so, although this involved hard work and could be quite heavy-going at times, the course is very vocational so it was good to have that contrast between academic research and thinking about things in a more practical way. It goes some way to providing a bridge between academic studying and actually practising law.
Q. What Was The Worst?
A. Apart from having to spend regular weekends in a classroom in central London for two years, there is a sense that there is a lot of spoon-feeding on the BVC. I think the technical term is ‘Mickey Mouse’. I was lucky in that I was doing it part-time so it was very condensed. We had much less teaching time than the full-time students but even so, I had a sense that some of the skills they were trying to teach us could only really be learned once you were actually doing it. It’s a bit like that saying about how you only really learn to drive after you’ve passed your test. Exactly like that in fact.
Q. How Easy Was It To Obtain Your One Year Pupillage?
A. I was very lucky in that I was offered a number of pupillages in my first year of applying (the difficult part for me was the pupillage itself). Most applicants are not so lucky and should not necessarily be put off by this. In my experience of sitting on my Chambers recruitment committee, the norm is for applicants to go through at least 2 – 3 rounds of applications before they are successful. I think the time that this takes enables people to build some really useful experience on their CVs which in turn makes their applications stand out in the way they need to when applying to sets that have approximately 200 applications per year for two places which is roughly what we get at 14 Gray’s Inn Square. That experience, whether it is volunteering abroad or working in a solicitors’ firm or in another legal role also often gives applicants the confidence, poise and experience they need to be able to demonstrate in a pupillage interview.
Q. Where Did You Do Your Pupillage? Good/Bad Experience?
A. Probably best that I don’t answer this one! I did, however, do a further four months’ pupillage at 14 Gray’s Inn Square which was an extremely enjoyable time. Five years later, I still appreciate how lucky I was to end up here. Every Chambers has its own ethos and values and I think the choice of Chambers is a very personal decision. One size definitely does not fit all!
Q. Why Did You Do Your PhD?
A. I had enjoyed my M.Phil and LL.M courses and I wanted the opportunity to do some really in-depth academic research in law. I felt that I had never had the opportunity to truly do that in my undergraduate dissertations and even my M.Phil and LL.M courses. I admit I also really, really liked being a student in Cambridge.
Q. Would You Recommend A Masters / Ph.D / Both?
A. Nowadays, the Bar is so competitive that a large number of applicants for pupillage have done some further study. I think that my additional academic studies helped me to get pupillage interviews quickly, and, at the end of pupillage, applications for third six pupillages. Everyone has to have something that makes their CV/application form stand out. So with hindsight they have benefited my career. That said, a Ph.D in particular should only be done if you really want to. The amount of work involved is immense and most people take years and years to complete theirs so it is not something you should do just for CV points!
Q. Was It Worth The Hard Slog?
A. Yes. A well known law lecturer at Cambridge always used to tell students not to even contemplate the Bar unless there was absolutely nothing else they could envisage themselves doing, and even then to think twice! Clearly with my last-minute slightly ambivalent BVC application, I didn’t take that advice but now I can’t really see myself doing something else. Although there are horror stories about the Bar, funding etc. most of them are grossly exaggerated. Those same horror stories were doing the rounds 10 years ago when I was making decisions about my career. There is still room at the Bar for people who are able and who genuinely want to put the work in.
Q. Is Becoming A Barrister Harder Now? What Would Be Your Tips For Struggling Law Students?
A. It may well be harder. There is no denying that the cuts in public services are hitting the publicly funded Bar as much as anyone else. It is also incredibly competitive. At 14 Gray’s Inn Square, we have even had to close applications for mini-pupillages for the time being because we were getting on average four – five applications per week.
In terms of advice, the first thing I would say is that people need to be realistic about their prospects of success. Obtaining a place on the BPTC is still not particularly difficult but it is incredibly expensive. An applicant’s academic record is the first thing that Chambers recruiting pupils will usually look at and, with so much competition for places, there is a limit to how much applicants can compensate for a less than excellent academic record by work experienceand extra-curricular activities.
Also, the brutal truth is that applicants have a shelf-life. Whilst it is very common for students to spend 2 – 3 years applying for pupillage, some applicants have been through many, many more rounds of applications than that and there comes a point when there is little more they can do to enhance their prospects of success.
Work experience and extra-curricular activities are also of interest to Chambers sifting through hundreds of applications.The best applicants will use these to demonstrate their commitment to and interest in their chosen areas of law. For example, if you want to do family law, target your mini-pupillage applications at sets that specialise in this area. If you want to do crime, don’t do a masters’ degree in International trade law. Voluntary work is also important to Chambers doing publicly funded work – both for organisations in this country and abroad. This is also an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to your chosen field.
When applying to Chambers using Pupillage Portal, take plenty of time with your application. Spelling / grammar / punctuation mistakes or silly cutting and pasting errors will really stand out.Also, put plenty of time and thought into your free text answers. Applicants who only submit minimal answers and do not appear to have spent much time or thought on their application are unlikely to make it through the first sift.
Some applicants, once they have submitted their application, will bombard the sets they have applied to with requests for updates on the progress of their application, notifying us of further updating information etc etc. They need to remember that the people dealing with these communications are busy barristers and they have several hundred applications to deal with. Imagine if every applicant did that! It is incredibly difficult from a practical point of view, not to mention questionable from an equal opportunities perspective, for us to get into correspondence with individuals whilst their application is pending.
The views expressed here are the interviewee’s own and are not those of any organisation.DG Academy also interviewed Sally about her career as a family barrister.
You can follow Sally’s professional twitter account @AdultCareLaw and check out her blog www.silentwitnesses.wordpress.com
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