Further Degrees

M.A.s and Other Further Academic Degrees

This seems to be a big issue out there in the real world. I claim no real expertise – Cambridge gives you a free MA if you can stay alive for 3 years after you graduate. Maybe they feel that surviving the college food qualifies you for something. I went back with a group of my friends in gorgeous June weather (an ironic thought as my garden is currently 6 inches underwater and the dog’s rubber duck is floating serenely under my study window). It was so nice by the river, drinking beer that there was a serious discussion as to whether the ceremony was worth going to.

However, in those far-off days the Bar was expanding. Nowadays people are looking for an edge and there is much debate about whether an MA provides it.

I have done some research on this and there are some clear conclusions. Unfortunately, they are the ones you could probably guess for yourself. Firstly, if you can do something like the BCL, or go to Harvard or the Sorbonne it helps. I suspect that is more because of what such qualifications say about your intellect than about what you learn on the degree course itself. If you want to go to one of the top commercial sets then you will either need such a degree or you need to have the top first in your year.

However, from there on down, there are no indications that having an MA is of material assistance. At middle ranking commercial sets, top criminal sets and top family sets the only MAs in sight are Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, The Sorbonne etc. And, even then, they are few and far between. The picture is the same at top provincial sets – if you get the chance to do the BCL etc then do it. Otherwise, given the number of people who do not have one, an MA does not seem to be an issue.

If one looks at poor sets (no names – it’s more than my life is worth) then an MA is equally absent as a distinguishing mark.

Those findings match my own views and those of other people at the Bar to whom I have spoken. An MA, unless it speaks for you own intellectual prowess or (just possibly) it is bang on the money in terms of the area of law in which you wish to practice, is not going to get you a pupillage.

That isn’t to say don’t do it. The acquisition of knowledge for its own sake is one of humanity’s noblest endeavours. If it helps you, interests you or answers a long felt need then by all means go ahead. Just don’t expect it to give you an edge when you apply for pupillage.

I ought also to say that an MA – or any post-graduate degree – doesn’t make you a better advocate either. Part of the problem today is that barristers are specialising too early. That means that those doing non-criminal and non-family work are not being trained in how to really get at a witness (unlike their Heads of Chambers, who almost invariably started off with a mixed practice). The net result is that whilst a lot of legal points are taken and Skeleton Arguments groan under the citation of authority for basic propositions, the actual business of extracting the facts and challenging the evidence is generally done better at the Criminal and Family bars than elsewhere. That, I am confident, will be a deeply unpopular view. Nevertheless, I hold it. Another post, another time…

As to what does give you an edge. It’s still the usual (see below). A good degree; a good University; an interesting CV. In no particular order I list below some of the things that candidates did which made them stand out when I, or the people who I have consulted for this piece, interviewed them. These were things done after University, either because the people involved wanted a break or because they couldn’t get a pupillage:

  • Worked for the guys in the USA who try and save death row prisoners
  • Qualified as a foreign lawyer
  • Spent a year working with earthquake victims in Armenia
  • Ran a Student Union
  • Lectured in law

41 thoughts on “M.A.s and Other Further Academic Degrees

  1. I’d like to think that I have an interesting background which has given rise to a reasonably interesting CV – but the only trouble is that OLPAS doesn’t give the wannabe such as myself the chance to demonstrate these matters, unless they have the great good fortune to demonstrate this at interview. Doing the things you suggest are very very interesting and desirable things to do but ultimately they cost money which the vast majority of us sorts from the university of the sticks dont have, groaning as we are under the weight of student debt. A masters therefore seems like the cheapest and most viable alternative……

  2. I agree the Olpas form is dire – although if you can stick your blog on there (thus compromising your anonymity I accept) you will do yourself a bit of good. But I don’t think an MA is fit for the purpose you want it to meet.


  3. do you think, then, that there any alternatives on this front?-other than breaking an already broken bank to do the sort of things you suggest ??

  4. Did you say “lectured in law”? Is that what counts as interesting, dynamic, exciting and worthy?


    Good grief – you are easily impressed.

    Well – I know the chords to “WonderWall” – is that any good?

    Oh – and the words – “Today is gonna be the day…..”

  5. Get a scholarship to do it – you can certainly do that for the earthquake thing and the death row thing. And if you lecture THEY will pay YOU.

    Or work as a paralegal and aim for contacts. I just don’t think the MA is worth it if it’s only to help get a pupillage.

  6. Depends what sort of lecturing. I would ask rather than guess. Anyway, dismissive comments about the people who produce lawyers are pretty thin stuff. Lecturing at a decent University demands skill, committment, professional knowledge and discipline – all of which are useful to a barrister. It’s too easy to sneer. And too easy to dismiss people who fail to sneer as pompous.

    Personally I would rather memorise Monty Python than Oasis. But both occupations tend to mark out their practitioners as sad and middle-aged. If so, that won’t help you get a pupillage unless you have doen something else with your time. On the other hand – it does make you SOUND like a barrister…

    1. I said that it could help you stand out and that the qualities demanded were useful. I haven’t changed my mind about that. But it doesn’t, of itself, entitle anyone to interview.

      You may be being discriminated against on the basis of age. But your basic proposition – expressed elsewhere – that a 2:1 and a VC means that you get interviewed is way off base. Most sets only start thinking about interviewing if those things are achieved. That normally leaves about 150 candidates for 15 slots. You need far more.

      Lecturing is one thing that can help if your work is any good (barristers are consumers of academic law and judge it on whether it helps them in their prep), but it isn’t necessarily enough. You have said a great deal about why you haven’t got an interview but all of it is attributed to the profession’s failure to spot talent. I would like to know what you think it is about your cv and your approach that is preventing you advancing further.

  7. I’m glad to see Simon sticking up for academics.

    I would tend to agree with your views on the perceived worth of an MA, although I do think it slightly tainted by the quaint Oxbridge notion of giving one for free if you wait a few years and pay 10 quid (and thus you think less of real ones). Those who go on to study for a specialised LLM at a top ten law school (and do well) should be given brownie points for doing so. I think it also rather simplistic to distinguish between a BCL and, for example, an LLM from the LSE simply because the former is studied at Oxford; it is a lazy distinction that tends only to be made by people who went to Oxford (and coincidentally sit on interview panels).

    It’s also interesting to note that people who lecture in law will invariably have a postgraduate degree, which is required by the university and one of the essential factors in gaining such a lectureship.

    On to some questions then: if not an MA, what about a PhD? And what about being published (in the LQR, LMCLQ, whatever)? Are they factors above and beyond an MA that would lead you to offering someone pupillage?


  8. A doctorate makes you an academic in my book. That certainly helps make you stand out. Whether it leads to pupillage depends on what we do compared to what you do.

    A good LLM might (just) help. It would need to demonstrate exceptional academic ability though – too many MAs simply require you to have the money, which is why they aren’t great currency.

    Being published would help, providing it was on a topic that Chambers was interested in. Again, the journal would have to be a decent one.

    1. I don’t have a doctorate (too long and too lonely an existence while continuing to live as a pauper) but I do have two masters degrees (an LLM and an MSc), I was for five years a university lecturer, and I have a list of published academic work that fills two A4 sheets.

      40+ pupillage applications and no pupillage to date. In fact St Ives Chambers in Birmingham had the audacity to question my commitment to the law as I’ve done a few unrelated things previously. I smiled sweetly and reassured them as best I could. I wish now that I had told them that to question so dismissively 12 years of involvement in law as student, lecturer, and (BVC) student again and £30K of debt to show for it was more than just slightly insulting.

      The poster above who demeans academics so readily ought to (a) try to get an appointment as one, and (b) try to do the job. I’d like to hear her view on it after that, but only after that.

    2. Everything you say may well be correct. However this blog focusses on pupillage and how to get it and most MAs don’t help. Practitioners tend to the view that, if you are doing the sort of work which requires a further degree then you ought to have obtained one designed for the brilliant. And, if you aren’t doing that sort of work, you don’t need anything.

      That’s the way of it, I’m afraid. I am sorry you are offended but your stance is illogical. I am telling you how the profession perceive your MA. You are offended because I have an MA from Cambridge for which I did nothing. The one is nothing to do with the other. I say I am an MA because the rules as to academic citation state that you cite your last degree – it means little, as I readily admit but it is still what I am. I don’t trade on it at all.

      Your comments have a common theme. You are frustrated that your achievements don’t get you what you want and what you think you deserve and I am sorry about that. I have no way of knowing whether your sense of entitlement is justified or not, but it doesn’t improve anything to take shots at straw men.

  9. Having looked at the entry requirements for the BCL (a first class degree) and you are not getting interviews – then it would be your interview skills that need to be refined. I was not even aware that such a degree existed.

  10. Many of the things you suggest would indeed seem to be very worthy and would no doubt set individuals apart from the crowd. However, some of these opportunities will be very limited in number. Also, on a practical level, many students I know (and I imagine many of those who read and comment on your posts) are people with other commitments – family, mortgages, jobs, etc. It would no doubt be impossible for them to swan off to the USA to try and save death row prisoners or spend a year working with earthquake victims. What advice would you give to students who are not able to do many of these things, given that they may already be at a bit of a disadvantage due to their age? L2B 🙂

  11. Hmmm – more difficult. It may be that your previous life will have to speak for you. But I still don’t think that an MA will help…

  12. I’d be interested to know how many of the pupils taken on by your chambers in the last 10 years have been truly ‘unconventional’ – ie those who are career changers later in life, or have families, etc. Do you have many applications from such people? Do they get interviews? Have applications of this type increased at all in recent years? L2B 🙂

  13. 4 (out of 20). I think they are becoming more common and I favour it myself. I am happy to interview people who have done something else first. As you know, I think that it takes a certain emotional maturity to do the job well and people with previous careers are just as likely (perhaps more likely) to have what it takes.

  14. Maybe its my perception alone, but it appears to me that Chambers are expecting mautre applicants, who despite having a career before moving onto Law, to have completed a number of mini-pupillages, mooting, paralegal work, marshalling etc. I am not saying that mature applicants should be exempt from demonstrating a commitment to the Bar, but one ought to bear in mind that shifting careers mid-stream, especially into Law, in itself is evidence of commitment.

    In my previous career I was a research engineer. I am about to complete a PhD in engineering that I pursued even whilst reading for the GDL and BVC. I have not had interviews as yet. Somewhere in between studying, and inventing, I should have done a mini-pupillage (I’ve just arranged a couple for later this year, and will be arranging marshalling etc, as time permits).

    I’ve even considered doing a LLM degree, but at my age and financial debt, this is impractical. As I’m having an unusual whinge, I have even been applying for paralegal work. No joy on the legal related work front.

    Do I need to hide my qualifications just so I could get basic legal work experience? Perhaps I have to. Whilst I have every confidence that I would eventually secure pupillage (no bets on when though), the financial pressures of having to repay my student loans are already here. What’s a guy to do?

    Prospects at the Employed Bar appear just as grim as the Independent Bar.

  15. Thank you Simon. I am interested in IP Law mainly, but contentious work involving technical subject matters (IT, construction,product liability, clinical negligence) also appeals to me. Having said that, there isn’t an area of law that I would say is hands off. Its just a matter of liking one area of law more than another. I’m working on my own blog too, but I got to get my thesis done and submitted first [If you want to know all about replacing wires in cars with flexible printed circuits, I’m your guy!].

    I’ll add to the chorus of those reading your blog. Sometimes, all we need is a little encouragement and advice, and this blog certainly fills a void, or if I may indulge your honour, a lacuna. All the best.

  16. Simon,

    Thanks for your excellent blog, the sheer number of comments on each post show what a great resource this is. This post particularly set me thinking and I have come up with some belated stats which I have put up at http://publaw.blogspot.com/2007/08/pupillage-and-postgraduate.html

    Any comments gratefully received. Sorry for this being such a late contribution, but it took a while to get round to gathering the info. I’m not sure that it really prooves anything, but do please let me know what you think.

  17. ‘As to what does give you an edge. It’s still the usual (see below). A good degree; a good University’

    when you say a good university what unis would that include (like a top 10 list)

  18. Hey Simon,

    This blog is really useful, thanks.

    Speaking of standing out, I completed the BVC in 2006 and the following October I moved to Queensland with my partner. After 4 months of searching unsuccessfully for legal work (they don’t recognise the BVC here, or our law degree for that matter) I finally got a job in a legal committee of the Queensland Parliament. We (the committee) deal with any law reform in Queensland, constitutional and administrative law review (Information commissioner, Ombudsman, Judicial Review and FOI laws), as well as working to increase participation in democracy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Wow, this was a real steep learning curve, but it’s great too, and after initially taking me on for 3 months to write a paper on the selection of Judges, they asked me to apply for a longer position, until Feb 2008, when I can apply again for the position to be extended.

    I think my CV is ok as a circuit judge had vetted it for me (I have a min-pupillage, marshalled often with a circuit judge, solicitors, and I spent my spare time at, uni and beyond, with a local prosecutor in the Mags; all in the North East), I have a 2:1 (from Teesside Uni) and a VC from Northumbria, and I really believe that I can be a great barrister. I want to practice in the North East Circuit and I am focusing my applications to these sets, but I’m still getting rejections left, right and centre.

    What more can I do? Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated!!

  19. I’ve been reading this for a while and it really is an excellent resource. Just wondered, though, aside from the obvious ‘top ten’ masters (and I would dispute Sorbonne in that category), what about foreign institutions where you gain perhaps more than you would in the UK? Specifically, I am looking at the brand new LLM in International Legal Studies at the University of Vienna; in addition to obtaining an LLM, the chance for me to greatly improve my spoken languages would be invaluable. Is this a bad plan?

    Many thanks for any suggestions!

    1. OK, I’ve got into both the BCL and the Cambridge LLM. I have a scholarship for cambridge not for oxford and want to be a barrister. is the bcl really so much better that i should turn down the scholarship? Or perhaps the Cambridge LLM is thought to be one of the other great ones like Harvard, the Sorbonne? i went to an ex-poly and want to get this decision right so as to maximise cv benefit.

      i know this has been touched on before, but any new opinions would be much appreciated.

  20. DMW I’m afraid I agree with Simon. A sense of entitlement does come across in your posts, not least because you specifically say (either here or on another post) that you feel that your lecturing experience should entitle you to an interview at all sets where their work is relevant to your lecturing. This is just unrealistic. You are, I think, massively overestimating the practical value of having lectured and more importantly massively underestimating your competition.

    I do strongly think that the BVC should not be undertaken by anyone who has not yet obtained pupillage as the situation is ridiculous now and there is so much disappointment/frustration out there. However, I think that even if someone had pointed out the statistics etc to you at the outset by way of a bright red warning sign (which I would support), you would have assumed that you would get interviews, and taken the BVC anyway. Your complaint is not so much that there are so few places for so many applicants but that you are not in that few.

    I sift applications – we interview about 50 applicants. About 30 have firsts from well-regarded unis. The next 20 would usually have high 2.1s from well-regarded unis with a few firsts (and perhaps firsts in our particular areas of practice). We could fill all of our interview slots with firsts if we wanted to, but there are always others with impressive stuff – winning national or international mooting competitions (which I’m afraid I would rate higher than a few years of lecturing), a former career as a solicitor in the relevant area, other really outstanding academic or personal achievement etc. One of our last pupils was 46 years old. Crucially, he did not convey a sense of entitlement/arrogance in his application or at interview, which is something which I think is more common in older applicants (whereas excessive nerves/naivete is more common in young applicants). Remember we could almost all have played the gender/race/social status/age card.

    On a more practical note, you will not get interviews in provincial sets if you have no links to the area. Good luck.

  21. Hi, at the risk of turning you into my personal therapist:
    I’m doing the BCL but didn’t get a scholarship.
    I’d love to know how they give those out. (Maybe you do?)
    Anyway my degree’s good 2nd in year but i’m from Ireland – and my Uni though good (there isn’t the gap that people seem to see in the UK at home) prob won’t be recognized by many over here.
    I’ve applied for mini-pupilages at a couple of top commercial sets.
    Got an interview for one, waiting for the result of another
    But looking at their sites, it’s obvious that everyone they’ve hiered in the last couple years had scholarships by the truck load
    Even if I get a mini-pupilage, do I really have a chance of getting in or will they be influenced by my lack of an oxford scholarship.
    Clearly, I don’t think they should be but will they be?
    I ask as I want to be realistic in making my applications.

    1. G,

      I was in a similar position last year.

      Scholarships are given out by the faculty and colleges. Faculty scholarships will go to the strongest applicants (usually undergrads from Oxford or Cambridge). The major college scholarships (Trinity and Merton offered significant awards) will generally go the same way. Some colleges offer smaller awards and they may have their own criteria for these (it’s not unheard of to be on a BCL scholarship from college by virtue of being the only BCL student at the college).

      I don’t think having a scholarship for reading the BCL will matter much. More impressive would be prizes for performance on the course. If you can get a distinction, this will look very impressive and even the top sets will take note.
      Best of luck!

  22. Dear Simon
    I have only just discovered your blog and I must thank you for such an honest opinion and felt that I had to comment.
    I am a mature student, who based on family commitments and financial pressures created by going back to university has been restricted in my choice of university balanced with the requirements of 3 children 🙂
    My university is not within the top 10 list, yet our course is exceptional, as we are doing the Mlaw, it incorporates the masters elements in with the degree; admittedly this means that our work is more complex (obviously my own personal opinion) but it does mean that we get a greater understanding overall, which I may be niavly assumed, would be of a greater comodity to the outside when the time came to applying for pupillages.
    However, I am slightly perplexed in that there is a huge amount of pressure in respect of obtaining mini-pupillages and the such and it seems that previous work experiance doesn’t amount to much unless you have the mini’s and marshalling in addition to volunteering work etc so I am now faced with a situation that I have to attempt to fit these elements in despite having 16 yrs of working life representing my employers in repossession cases (as I’m advised that due to cases being held in closed court/chambers it doesnt amount to much!!) to say I am now slightly frustrated is an understatment.
    I apologise as I do not wish to come across as a pain, however I would be most grateful for any advise that you could give.
    Kindest Regards FLM

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