The Answer is ‘No – but it helps’.
I can say this with some confidence because I have actually done some research. The reason for taking the figure of 7 years call is that it is regularly used within the profession to denote junior members. I have taken a 2001 call date as the cut-off. I have assumed that everyone who went to Oxbridge will say so – there is a margin of error here but not, I think, a significant one. I am reasonably confident in my figures – national polls purport to show the nation’s attitudes by polling 1,000 people out of about 65m. I have looked at 612 barristers out of a total figure of 12,050 (per Bar Council website). Here it is:
- My own Chambers has 62 members. 13 are 7 years or less. 2 went to Oxbridge.
- No 5 Chambers in Birmingham has 206 members. 34 are 7 years call or less. 7 went to Oxbridge.
- Red Lion Court Chambers in London (a good criminal set) has 80 members. 14 are 7 years call or less. 5 went to Oxbridge.
- Fountain Court Chambers in London (a good commercial set) has 63 members. 5 are under 7 years call. All went to Oxbridge.
- 11 Stone Buildings in London (a good chancery set) has 45 members. 9 are under 7 years call. 5 went to Oxbridge.
- Brick Court Chambers in London (a good commercial set) has 66 members. 12 are under 7 years call. 9 went to Oxbridge.
- Doughty Street Chambers (a set in London with a strong emphasis on human rights) has 90 members. 17 are under 7 years call. 6 went to Oxbridge.
Overall I surveyed 612 barristers – about 5% of the profession. I deliberately slanted the survey I did to Chambers with a good reputation (including 2 of the ‘Magic Circle’). 104 barristers were under 7 years call – about 16%. 39 of those went to Oxbridge – about 38%. Both of those ‘Magic Circle’ sets have fewer members under 7 years call than the average – about 15%. About 85% of those people went to Oxbridge.
Removing the 2 Magic Circle sets alters the figures in this way. The survey is of 483 barristers (about 4% of the profession). 87 are under 7 years call – about 18%. 25 went to Oxbridge – about 30%.
I reckon this is about right. Obviously if your idea of being a barrister is being at one of the commercial sets in London then Oxbridge is pretty well a must. I find that personally disappointing – the work certainly requires real intellect but the thesis that 85 out of 100 people with that quality have Oxbridge degrees is one which not even those Universities would propound. If you are one of those who changes the mould, please let me know.
For the vast majority of the Bar – and of you – becoming a barrister is perfectly possible without an Oxbridge degree. Interestingly, the provincial Chambers I looked at comprise 268 barristers (still over 2% of the profession), have 47 members under 7 years call (19%) and 9 of those went to Oxbridge (20%). The lesson would appear to be clear – and the provincial bar is a happy place compared to London.
Of course, I do not know any figures for applications. It may be that provincial chambers get fewer Oxbridge applicants. Although, if that is so, unless those people are desperate to live in the most crowded area in Europe, experience 2 hours travel a day and ultimately make a choice between a family home a commuter distance from work or a ruinously expensive mortgage (if they can get one) to buy a flat in town, it does not say much for their intellect that they are not applying to provincial sets.
Seriously speaking, the figures suggest that, before committing to London (with or without an Oxbridge degree), it pays to consider very carefully what work you want to do. Nowadays I would say that only international commercial, shipping, patent and intellectual property are confined to the capital – and I’m not sure about IP.
This is your opportunity to be part of a trend. When I came to the Bar I was told that you could not do commercial work of any sort outside London. As a junior, my practice was a minimum of 33% commercial work, and there were years when it was 60%. Best of all, I didn’t choose to make it any higher – I always wanted a mix and took steps to ensure I had it. Nowadays the pressure to specialise is greater, but that simply makes a good provincial practice easier. And, if you genuinely have a choice between London and the provinces, remember to ask about Chamber’s expenses. These can vary between about 15% and about 40% of your earnings – and guess where most of the 40%s are taken…