The beginning of August was 'judgment day' for many aspiring barristers - offer day for both Pupillage Portal (the centralised pupillage online application system) and many non-portal pupillages. After a long summer of interviews the big question was whether all that hard work had been worthwhile - did that elusive pupillage offer await worthy candidates?
Needless to say, it was a dreadful waiting game, and only very few offers were made to a select group of candidates. I predict that as few as 450 pupillages were available this year to the nearly 1,500 candidates who successfully passed the Bar exam.
Sadly the offer of pupillage for many - if not most – (myself included) was a resounding no. However, as is often the case in most years, the archaic and clunky online pupillage portal system wasn’t kind enough to send out those important automated emails breaking the inevitable news to prospective applicants. What is worse than being rejected by an automated system is that chambers are, generally speaking, unwilling to give any feedback on applications. Much is being said about breaking down the barriers to entry to the Bar, with work being done for young candidates from deprived backgrounds, but what about those already stuck in the system?
The Inns aren’t able to specifically help students to secure pupillages. The Bar training course providers will take on anyone with the funds to pay the fees. So what support is given to those from non-legal families or backgrounds to become barristers? The answer is nothing. They must build their own personal network of contacts to try to help themselves.
For the masses the business of gaining a pupillage is a closed shop, no matter what anyone says. I was shocked to read comments published in Legal Week (5 April 2012) by a leading QC that stated: “In the past, people would perhaps view the Bar as a closed society of people whose parents had been lawyers or barristers, so they would enjoy a leg-up. I hope that has long ceased to be true now.”
If those at the top of this profession are blissfully unaware - and this is by no means a criticism, purely an observation of the learned QC’s point above - how is the system ever going to change? Perhaps the issue is that the system does not want to change, and the notions of social mobility are simply lip-service to those trying to break the system. The various Bar training course providers surely do this, and lead candidates up the garden path; I feel this has happened to me. If candidates are required to have a “really high 2:1” undergraduate degree, why are entry requirements to the Bar course set at the 2:2 level?
Another leading QC in the same article mentioned above stated the following: “We make it very clear that candidates will require at least a 2:1 degree grade, and really a high 2:1, to get a pupillage…”
This September will hopefully see the implementation of the long-awaited BPTC Aptitude Test. It will be interesting to judge whether this filter will curb the increasingly high number of candidates enrolling and passing the Bar exams, then failing to secure pupillage.
I cannot think of any other profession where the training element is so difficult to complete; the system in place is in dire need of reform. I have friends who are now training to be heart surgeons – yes, it was difficult qualify for the training slot, but it was not impossible, and the odds weren’t stacked against them. Their system accounts for the number of doctors needing to be trained up to consultant positions. If only the same could be said for the Bar.
So if the masses aren’t gaining pupillage places, who is? Pupillage numbers have been declining steadily for the past four years: in the academic year 2009 to 2010 just 460 pupillages were taken up, compared with 1,432 students passing the Bar exam. Only 32% of those passing the Bar exam made it through to the final stage of their training. With full-time fees costing an eye watering £16,345 to train to become a barrister in London, who can afford to buy a lottery ticket to such a career when the stakes are stacked up against you right from the start and the certainty of a job is so low?
The Bar Standards Board’s ‘call to the Bar’ statistics show that from 2009 to 2010, 44% of those called were from the black and minority ethnic (BME) group. That’s a good figure for a profession that purports to be fair, equal and diverse. However, in that same year, only 15% from this group secured a pupillage. This means that even though BME candidates are passing the Bar course, pretty much on par with their classmates, it appears to be far more difficult for a BME candidate to secure a pupillage. Sadly the picture gets worse: in 2010 only 10% of those practising at the independent Bar were from the BME group. What is happening to this underclass of non-practising barristers, who make the grade in the classroom, but are not being given a fair chance in the courtroom? Should we be seeking a refund from our Bar training institutions?
What improvements could be made for the thousands of barristers, like me, stuck without a pupillage? With ever increasing candidates, competition is ever more fierce - but it needn’t be. Why isn’t an assessed mini-pupillage incorporated into the Bar training course? These days even the competition for mini-pupillages is increasingly difficult! Mini-pupillages are an unwritten mandatory requirement in obtaining pupillage, stipulating that candidates should have completed at least five in order to be taken seriously.
If everyone eligible to do the Bar course was given the chance to spend some time in chambers, surely this would help lubricate the difficult recruitment process faced by many sets of chambers every year? Interviewing is an onerous task for chambers to undertake, and there is no HR department to help sift applications. It usually falls to newly-called barristers to make the initial sift, (and those without children) to do the interviewing, as many interviews take place on a Saturday. It is clear that the best candidates are not always chosen to fill those precious places for pupillage.
This proposed system would allow chambers to gain a proper sense of a potential pupil’s ability. Likewise, prospective pupils would be able to experience a real chambers environment, follow a barrister, see a working court, and witness judicial comments and real advocacy. I believe it would greatly assist and inspire students, and really help with social mobility, opening the Bar to far wider group of candidates. The whole recruitment process would be simplified, much like a vacation scheme run by City law firms. The idea would result in all candidates being able to complete their training, making pupillage an entitlement and not a privilege. Once pupillage is completed, tenancy would be the next challenge, however at least the client can make an informed decision about whether the barrister is any good or not.
My sole final-round interview for pupillage this application season lasted just 18 minutes. Is this really enough time to explain my position fully? I don’t think so. I admit I am not the usual candidate – half way through a PhD in law and a mature candidate (31 years old) at that. My pupillage application form weighed in at over 14 pages in length, I have a lot of experience to offer chambers, but I didn’t make the grade. After six years, and counting, I am still waiting for my chance to complete my training. But despite all this, I am convinced I have what it takes to make a successful barrister and am determined not to give up.
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