I’m writing this post as an exercise in self-reflection.
… and because, if I don’t, I may just go mad!
On my journey towards the Bar, I’ve attended a total of 13 pupillage interviews to date. That breaks down as 10 first-round interviews, and 3 second-round interviews. Obviously, I’m most proud of the second-rounders, since these were occasions when I made it to the final stage; competing against the determined, remaining few.
In other words, 3 days on which my dream job almost became a reality.
Very few aspirants ever make it to the second round; so, I know I have much to be thankful for. If I never get pupillage, it cannot be said that I wasted my time and money chasing a fantasy. But this blessing is also a curse.
The consensus among practitioners is that, if you’re getting second-round interviews, you’re definitely good enough… and you will succeed eventually. The trouble is, whilst I love making it to the second round, I also loathe it. Yes, loathe!
For me, second-rounders demand a great emotional investment, as well as an intellectual one. For instance, two of my second-rounders required me to research and write an advice — to be submitted in advance, then challenged at interview. This is to be expected. However, what few appreciate is the effort we must put in beyond drafting an advice.
If you truly want the position, your passion must extend to the chambers (or firm) itself. You need to get in tune with its ethos, and start thinking in terms of its values. You should be familiar with its most senior lawyers, feeling a genuine sense of pride in their accomplishments. Above all, you must be clear on what you can bring to the table, if given this rare opportunity to work alongside such people.
Sounds like the bog-standard drill, right? But in my experience, by the time interview day arrives, the heady process of falling in love has begun. For me, getting rejected after a second-rounder hurts… a lot. And the fear of knowing that hurt again (very soon) now drives my fingers to type.
Last week, I underwent the final stage in the recruitment process for pupillage and a career within the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). As I understand it, there are 30 places available, and 90 of us remaining from over 1600 applicants. Technically, that’s a one-in-three chance of success for everybody!
Overall, I definitely feel it went well, although I might have handled some aspects better. The big day comprised two elements: a written exercise, and a competency-based interview.
The written exercise was a pre-charge advice, to be completed within 45 minutes. This involved reviewing a small police file and deciding whether to charge the suspect with an offence (applying principles contained in the Code for Crown Prosecutors).
The competency-based interview involved a long series of questions, designed to elicit evidence in the form of CV-based examples — i.e. to prove that I’m capable of doing the job. I was interviewed by three senior prosecutors, who made notes as I answered.
With respect to the pre-charge advice…
What do I feel went well? —
The advice must be written in three stages: (1)evidential stage, (2)public interest stage, and (3)requests for further evidence. Unless the evidence currently available supports a realistic prospect of conviction (stage 1) then it’s not necessary to consider whether prosecuting would be in the public interest (stage 2). In any event, it’s necessary to consider what further evidence might be obtained to pass the evidential stage and/or improve the prospect of getting a conviction at trial (stage 3).
Having concluded that there was a realistic prospect of conviction, I made some nice points for and against prosecuting which followed logically from the facts, and which required an effort beyond skim-reading. I identified the biggest mitigating factor, and gave reasons why this did not outweigh the factors favouring prosecution. I also considered the bigger picture by acknowledging that the main mitigator could be relied upon by the defendant at sentencing.
Having concluded that a prosecution was required in the public interest, I produced a detailed Action Plan for obtaining further evidence. This was more than just a shopping list. I stated what further evidence was required, but also explained why it was required — thus demonstrating awareness of the bigger picture.
What do I feel went not-so-well? —
I took the three stages of my advice in reverse order: (3)requests for further evidence, (2)public interest stage, and (1)evidential stage. I adopted this approach because it made me start by looking for gaps in the evidence, then possible mitigating factors (which may not be obvious on the facts). However, by the time I’d produced a detailed Action Plan for obtaining further evidence, and typed a short argument with points for and against prosecuting, there was scant time remaining to discuss the evidence itself in sufficient detail.
I had just enough time to comment on the available evidence in broad terms, and to summarise why I’d taken the view that there was a realistic prospect of conviction. Worse… no sooner was the exercise over, I started to doubt whether the suspect should have been charged at all.
On the one hand, all I really had was the victim’s statement, and that of the arresting officer who formed a reasonable suspicion soon after, but didn’t observe any element of the offence directly. A bench of very fair-minded magistrates might acquit based on this evidence (assuming no further evidence were to be obtained).
On the other hand, the circumstances were such that if the suspect wasn’t to blame, then he surely knew who was. Yet, the suspect had refused to co-operate, and had given a “no comment” interview at the police station. Considering the bigger picture, therefore, if the suspect declined to testify at trial, he may be judged evasive and convicted per the prosecution’s case theory. If he did decide to testify, anything he later relies upon in court might harm his defence — since he could have mentioned it sooner.
Alas, I wasn’t able to discuss the evidence in detail. So, I must hope that these thoughts are found to be implicit in the points which I did have time to make. If they are, my decision to charge should not appear unreasonable.
That concludes discussion of my pre-charge advice.
With respect to the competency-based interview…
What do I feel went well? —
I was able to give solid examples from each of these past positions:
– Legal Assistant at a criminal defence firm;
– Tribunal Clerk at HMCTS;
– Intern at the Mississippi Office of Capital Defence Appeals;
– Intern at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (Ghana);
– Winner of a national mooting prize, as judged by a Law Lord;
– Master of Laws student, and writer of a unique dissertation;
– Transport Clerk and Internal Auditor at a haulage firm.
Thus, I hope this experience demonstrated a genuine passion for law (especially criminal law) and a commitment to public service.
I was asked to identify a current CPS priority, and explain how I see myself contributing towards it. The priority I identified was increasing the number of offences charged and prosecuted as disability hate crimes. Without over-elaborating, I referred to my own disability and experience of disability hate crime endured as a youngster. I expressed enthusiasm at the ‘democratic’ role of the CPS in visiting schools to raise awareness of disability hate crime, and promote empathy among today’s young people. However, I remarked that despite this good work, the hate element still goes uncharged in the overwhelming majority of crimes in which a disabled person was targeted. I backed this up with figures and statistics, and said that more needs to be done. I suggested that as a Crown Prosecutor, I could be instrumental in spotting and charging disability hate crime.
In my opinion, this was one of my strongest answers. The panel seemed impressed. One interviewer even nodded his agreement as I relayed statistics on the low number of offences that were charged as a disability hate crime last year, despite evidence that a disabled person had been targeted.
Aside from the competencies, this answer ought to have demonstrated certain ‘soft’ skills I possess — such as good communication, empathy and critical observation.
I could cite further answers that were well received, but for the sake of balance, I’ll move on to less certain ground.
What do I feel went not-so-well? —
I was asked to give an example of a time when I faced opposition, and to explain the steps I took to overcome it. I talked about how my legal training had once helped me to identify a procedural unfairness which my colleagues were unaware of and/or unwilling to challenge. I pitched my answer as an example of me being an individual — i.e. standing my ground in the face of adversity, as a fearless prosecutor might sometimes be expected to do. However, on reflection, I think they wanted evidence of me treating opposition as a chance to share my learning with others and work with the team, not against it. Alas, I could’ve pitched my answer this way too, since it was a complex situation requiring both tenacity and persuasion to bring about change. But I harped on the former.
If I’m right, I’ve probably lost marks under the ‘collaboration’ heading and given the impression of being stubborn. On the other hand, in a different example, I rounded-off by saying: “Above all, I learned that it’s possible to change peoples’ thinking by working with them, not against them.” So, I must hope that with three interviewers scribbling away, at least one noted this response as evidence of collaboration.
Of all the questions put to me, the “opposition” one stands out as a potentially wasted opportunity to impress. On the bright side, I can’t say that about any other question that was asked, although I might have strengthened some of my other answers by referring to ‘soft’ skills (such as adaptability).
At the end, I was invited to state any further evidence in support of my application. I declined, giving the standard “everything-seems-to-have-been-covered” response. On reflection, though, I might have further evidenced my commitment to public service by mentioning that since applying to the CPS, I’ve qualified as a representative for FRU (the Free Representation Unit) and won my first case. I might also have mentioned my time spent working as a volunteer case worker for Victim Support.
The latter is outlined in my CV (submitted with the application form). So, I must hope that it was picked up and duly credited during the sift.
My thoughts overall —
It’s clear to me now that for every negative identified, there are plenty of positives to outweigh it.
The CPS recruitment process has involved four stages, with different competencies tested at each stage. Looking back over the process, I realise that certain competencies were assessed numerous times, in various ways. It’s conceivable that marks gained at earlier stages may count towards one’s ultimate score. Thus, I’ll stop obsessing over my final-stage performance and try to take pride in my accomplishments overall.
Writing this self-reflection has helped to settle my nerves enormously. I’m feeling much more positive (and less anxious) than before.
And now, it’s time to make a brew and enjoy The Vampire Lestat — a novel I’ve been wanting to read for yonks!