Interviews · Oxbridge · Qualities Required · Routes to the Bar

Integrity – The Paid Directors Speak Out

aniseed-humbug1Charon QC has interviewed a Mr John Foster from Oxbridge Training Contracts. Feel free to listen.

Mr Foster stoutly defends his business. He agrees that he makes money from selling applicants information to assist them in applying to Chambers. He agrees that he pays young barristers and pupils to provide that information. He did not contact the Bar Council before he began advertising those services.

He suggests that those barristers making money from this are (his word) altruistic. It is a strange altruism where a member of the Bar makes money from providing information to aspirant barristers.

He suggests that it would have been better if the Bar had contacted him for a more profound (his phrase) understanding of what he is doing. I was unaware that there was a difficulty in understanding the way in which he makes his money.

He suggests that applicants who have a family member who is a barrister get this sort of service in any event. My own experience is that this is nonsense. The essence of application forms and interviews is that you give answers that sound like you – not your mother.

He does not say that he encourages applicants to disclose that they have used his services. In my view, every Chambers should now ask this question and applicants who tell lies in interview should not be offered pupillage. If pupillage is obtained via an interview in which a lie is told then the pupillage or tenancy should be terminated as soon as that lie is discovered. This, really, is the acid test. If this activity is consistent with integrity, no applicant should fear the truthful answer.

He does not say that he has drawn any professional conduct issues to the attention of his paid agents, or to his clients.

However there are a couple of things to come out of the interview which are important. Firstly, it is about time that all members of my profession offered their services to aspirant barristers in a genuinely altruistic way – that is in a way which does not mean they make money from it. The Bar runs speakers for schools – a system by which barristers go into schools and explain the job to people. Inevitably some of those people want to come to Chambers and want advice as to University choices. We should be giving that advice – all of us. We should be getting involved in educational events in the Inns. Chambers ought to be offering some assistance to mini-pupils in terms of CVs and covering letters and should be publishing what sort of thing they are looking for. Every professional appointment now requires the candidate to speak to competencies. There is no reason why Chambers should not make their requirements public. Pupils and junior tenants should be going back to their BVCs and running ‘This is What Worked For Me’ clinics – and Chambers should be ensuring that they get there. No barrister ought to refuse to take mini-pupils – which means that Chambers can maximise the numbers they can take.

Many barristers do much of this, but clearly a greater effort is required. I regard the proposition that Oxbridge Training Contracts are operating altruistically to fill in the gaps left by those who do not have contacts within the profession as humbug – but it is in the Bar’s interests and it is right that no one should be able to even suggest such a thing.

Secondly, that there is a world of difference between ‘model answers’ (which of course the people who have paid for them are not allowed to use) and true help. I don’t help anyone by giving them a model answer – even if they do tinker with it before they submit it. Help means that a close look has been taken at the individual, their attainments and interests, their potential and their expectations; all of which has culminated in advice. It is one thing to suggest a tweek to an already written CV, or an answer which takes the information the individual had already assembled and suggests a way of ordering and emphasising it. It is another to write the CV or the answer whether the individual has done any work or not. One thing encourages the individual to work and think. The other does not. One thing is altruistic and focussed on learning. The other is commercial and focussed on money.

I am not suggesting that regulation is required to define the one and/or differentiate it from the other. We are talking about integrity here – if you can’t recognise it when you see it, or its absence when you don’t, then you shouldn’t come to the Bar. And if you are altruistically suplemmenting your earnings by doing this then stop it. Remit your earnings to the Barristers’ Benevolent Association – anonymously if need be; tell your Chambers you would like to run a free termly clinic for all mini-pupils; give out your email and say ‘contact me if you want any help’; speak to schools; and tell OTC to go away. You’ll be a credit to your profession.

Meanwhile, if Mr Foster would like to get in touch I promise to publish – unedited (within the bounds of legality and taste) – anything he sends me. Although I will also provide a response. This, if he believes in his case, will not worry him.

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25 thoughts on “Integrity – The Paid Directors Speak Out

  1. He does not say that he has drawn any professional conduct issues to the intention of his paid agents, or to his clients.

    You might mean “to the attention”? Feel free to delete this after reading.

  2. From the outside looking in, as a bar student, I feel that any number of individual barristers (and judges) are extremely accommodating to aspirants. My experiences when attending my Inn for dining and other events have been nothing but positive. I am not sure this is altruism and expect that some members of the Bar might be more inclined to see their input as them looking to promote and sustain the quality of their own profession.

    Where, however, the Bar is woefully lacking is through its collective input and supervision (now via the BSB) of the academic and vocational stages. There is a vast oversupply of aspirants, many of whom lack the academic, generic or personal skills which are vital to an aspirant’s chances of long term success (and, conversely, the future survival and prosperity of the Bar). The weaknesses of the BSB are, in my experience, most apparent at the vocational stage which, I venture, other professions would consider to be nothing less than an embarrassment.

    The current system is over reliant on the late entry of the Bar proper into the process, at which time the Bar can seek to cherry pick the best candidates for pupilage, and leave the rest to rot. I am unconvinced that this late sift is not a high risk strategy. Some of the lesser quality candidates will always get through (with or without the aid of external assistance) and, for a profession which is small in number, the risk of dilution of the brand is a big one to take.

    If there is a need for input from the Bar, it must be lower down the food chain. Higher standards of integrity, academic and generic skills are needed (of both students and the educational providers). One could say this early input would be for the timeous benefit of those hopefuls who are wasting their time, and that it would, therefore, be altruistic. But, equally, one could say this is as much for the benefit of the Bar itself.

    Individual members of the Bar making the effort will do no harm, but the effort would be appreciated mainly by those students who least need the benefit of the input. The problems will remain until the Bar gets its act together as a single body and ups the standards throughout.

    As regards the current issue, I certainly do not care for the existence of Oxbridge Training, and their like, but what concerns me far more is that there are students so poorly equipped by their schools, universities and vocational trainers that they have either the need, or the desire, to turn to this type of service.

  3. Thank you for your excellent posts Simon and for drawing attention to the integrity question of OTC. As always it is a relief to have someone who is unafraid to speak out.

    For those reading this who feel that they do not have the contacts and would therefore consider using such a service, get in touch with you Inn and ask for a sponsor. I can speak for my own Inn, Middle, which has an excellent sponsorship scheme involving practitioners of all levels of Call. If you are struggling with applications, you can then ask your sponsor.

    Further, there are a number of clinics, workshops and talks coming up arranged through law schools and the Inns which, as Simon says, offer free advice from qualified practitioners and careers advisers who are not hidden behind a cloak of anonymity.

    I have found that this is a career where everyone I have met has been keen to help and offer me advice. I started with no contacts or family connections and was able to make my own. It didn’t cost a penny.

  4. I am not a Barrister but I am a stronger believer and supporter of the Bar and its need to remain independent.

    There are two issues here for me, firstly the ethical issue of such assistance; which I feel is border-line. However, it is my experience that to one degree or another this type of practice has always gone on – it is only now coming to the forefront because money is involved. There are always people who will do unethical things – thats why Barristers have a job. It is up to the BSB to regulate the issue or campaign the regulators who can control this issue. On a relevant tangent, it does indicate that the students need more support along the way or there would not be a significant market for such services.

    The second issue is that of the financial gains the OTC are making from the aspirants; however to balance off this argument the Bar Council in 2007 received £577,000 in validation fees for education and their surplus for the same year was £494,000 (www.barcouncil.org.uk/aboutthebarcouncil/annualreports/). The Bar Council can control the number of BVC places offered each year so we do not have a minimum of 2500 new applicants (Simon Myerson’s estimate on this site) for the 190 pupillages on offer this year (pupillage portal as of today).

    Excellent site Simon, thank you for doing it.

    On a relevant issue for this site, how much training and guidance is given to those Barristers recruiting and interviewing? For me this is a more prssing issue – better trained interviewers will weedle out the cheats (as they often do already).

  5. Mr. Foster is clearly missing a trick here: surely he should be selling back to chambers the details of all customers who engage his services as a warning to them! Although of course if he was capable of creaming it off both ends he would probably be in practice himself rather than being reduced to a mere parasite.

  6. I listened to the podcast and he needs to get real. It is quite obvious what people will do with the work with which they are provided, and that it is cheating.

    However, the point he makes about this being pretty much similar to someone’s Barrister father looking over the OLPAS form, or the careers adviser making some significant changes to an answer, is a fair one. What IS the difference? You pay thousands to go to a particular BVC provider, a fee which includes career help. I know of people who have had answers significantly altered by paid professionals. I think the problem is that Oxbridge Training Contracts does it so blatantly. In reality there is little difference between what they do, and what a careers adviser does. The only slight difference is that OTC are charging vast sums to people with little hope of ever getting through an interview. But again, in reality, that is what the BVC providers have been doing for years.

    On a similar note, and I hope this isn’t cheating, I have put up some questions from interviews I have had on my blog –

    http://fissilingual.blogspot.com/

  7. Simon – Thank you for referring to the interview.

    Clearly – this is an important issue, as is the wider (and possibly more problematic) issue of the essay writing service where students pay substantial amounts for a ‘model answer’ and may well be tempted (in breach of the contractual arrangements between him/herself and Oxbridge) to submit the model answer and pass it off as original work.

    Given that Q&A books published by respected authors and publishers provide guidance on how to structure essays and problem questions and are in the public domain – I can see absolutely no reason why Oxbridge Training Contracts of their ‘associated’ organisations cannot should not make commissioned, tailored, answers available to university, SRA and BSB authorities so they can be scanned and then used in plagiarism software.

    Mr Foster suggested that contracts between OTC and clients are confidential. This does not stand up to close scrutiny. It would be relatively straightforward to draft a provision in the contract that commissioned essay answers will be made available to inspection by university and regulatory authorities.

    I would have thought that such a provision would afford a measure of protection to OTC and make cleear, beyond doubt, that the model answers are just that – ‘model answers’ and may not be used for submission as original coursework.

    I rather suspect, however, that the appetite to pay £200-£500 (or thereabouts depending on whether it is to be a 2.1 / 1st answer, delivered in six days or within 12 hours) when a Q& A book with 50 questions and answers retails for £10 may well diminish if there was a certainty that a student would be caught if the ‘model’was submitted as original work.

    I have absolutely no problem with students being given good advice and instruction on how to formulate thoughts and prepare a good essay or analysis to coursework or examination questions. That is a very different matter from providing a ‘confidential tailored answer to a specific question.

    In fact, lecturers at university should be providing general instruction in essay / problem question writing to students in the same way that LPC/BVC tutors, principals and pupil supervisors provide advice and instruction to their trainees and pupils in connection with drafting of pleadings, opinion writing, advocacy, neotiation and the like .

    What I do not want to see continuing is the practice where students submit other people’s work as their own. That is cheating. There is no other word for it. Even modelling an aswer on a ‘model answer’ is cheating – for the re-writing is simply a mid of adaptation or precis requiring little in the way of intellectual effort.

    People forget that the degree and LPC/BVC qualification is, in part, part of a licence of competency to practice. If these qualifications are obtained by fraud, or through the intellectual endeavour of others – this is a fraud, ultimately, on the end user of the professional service. Thankfully, no-one is going to die as a result of this fraud – as may well be the case with a doctor, for example, who obtained his or her qualifications through similar fraud.

    I have now interviewed, anonymously, several students – writers of these esssays and users. There is a widespread belief, apparently, that quite a lot of students are buying model answers from essay writing companies and using them for degree and other assessed examination work – whatever Mr Foster may assert to the contrary.

    This is, of course, anecdotal ‘evidence’.

    I hope that Mr Foster takes you up on your offer. He certainly did not duck the questions I put to him – but 25 minutes of podcasting time is a very short time in which to investigate every aspect of the issue. My podcast only skated over the principal issues and themes.

  8. Simon,

    Your last three posts go together well actually. Realistically, the only people tempted to write for these guys are going to be BVC students with pupillages.

    Why are they tempted? Because they are in £15,000 of student debt, perhaps another £15,000 of bank loan debt to pay for the BVC. £30,000 is a lot of debt to rack up to do a course as useless as the BVC.

    You are quite right to highlight the ethical problems for practising barristers. But BVC students are not being paid for access. They are just being paid for careers advice, and that must be slightly different. You will eliminate the supply of these people (harder to eliminate demand unless you force barristers to be more generous with their time) by reducing the amount of debt prospective (albeit successful) applicant barristers from poorer backgrounds face.

    Best wishes
    Frank

  9. So we reach reality – the bitter pill of Lord Carters Open legal srvices market. OTC, I assume, are doing nothing illegal as they are still operating and there appears no tangible proof yet of any wrong-doing by applicants as a result of OTC’s services.

    To assist the independent Bar can someone please point out that the Legal Services Act (LSA) is now in affect, being implemented, that the Bar needs to accept the change and meet the challenges as opportunities not threats.

    For example, the Bar Council’s published response on their website to the LSA changes include, writing to the Legal Services Board that it is unfair to not have the ‘Public Interest’ as a key objective in their business plan (a relevant point I agree) however there is not a lot else on the site.

    The Law Societies response has been to recruit two full time ‘change agents’ and to publish on their site reams of advice as to how solicitors can take full advantage of this burgeoning market.

    Why are my comments relevant to this article? – 550 pupillages last year, 190 this year; I suspect unless someone tries to save the Bar from self destruction OTC will still be offering their services over the next few years but it may not be relevant to Pupillage anymore.

    It is crucial that the independent Bar not only survives but flourishes – can the Members of the Bar and the Bar Council get a strategy together that is aimed at developing the Bar rather than just resisting the changes.

    The Bar can prosper but it does need to do things differently.

  10. I think there is a difference between illegal and unethical. One can be the latter without the former.

    What the Bar needs to do when considering the new regime is to think first about the extent to which changes diminish the attraction and value of the profession. I agree that the Law Society has spent a huge amount of its members’ money in an attempt to find new markets. I do not agree that this is necessarily bound to work for most solicitors – and nor do solicitors.

    Nor are there 190 pupillages this year. As I understand the position there will be around 500 on offer.

    Moreover OTC are not part of any new market. They are offering help to those who can pay but cannot actually do. A moment’s thought should convince anyone that the profession won’t develop if that is the major recruitment category. And those who work for OTC aren’t exactly an advertisement for access and transparency when they sell their services to some students only, knowing that they cannot prevent their work being passed off but deliberately eschewing their own legal protection against that happening because they have been paid.

    I agree the Bar needs to adapt. But there is nothing wrong with some consideration first and it is infinitely preferable to charging down every available alley without considering whether there is an exit at the bottom.

  11. There appears to be around 182 providers of pupillage for this coming season – perhaps that’s where managechange’s erroneous scaremongering is coming from? As providers typically offer between 2 and 4 pupillages, this does indeed represent something closer to 500.

    The question of to what extent and in what directions the bar must change is huge, complex, and not going to be resolved here. Sufficed to say that as a student I look around at a profession that seems to take the combined thoughts of Carter and Susskind as speaking somehow of an inevitable new dawn. I find this disappointing: the independent Bar as it currently stands has much to recommend it in terms of delivering justice and while not without its problems deserves to be staunchly defended by a body of practitioners that should be proud of what they have collectively achieved. Bending to bad change, particularly non-consensual bad change, is a recipe for disaster.

  12. Isn’t there a assumption here that all these TP essays, covering letters and interview answers actually will enhance the user’s opporunties. Most of the things I saw on the website were risable. Could I write somebody’s OLPAS form to ensure that they got pupillage? No. I really have no idea how I did it myself. Like the Battle of Waterloo, “It was a damned close run thing!”

  13. Andy and Simon – thank you for responding to my comments. I apologise for taking the number of providers as the number of pupillages; however being sad, I have sat and counted them and there seems to be closer to 400 than 500. A significant reduction on last year and more concerning 25 of the pupil offerings seem to be for the Government Legal Service (not what I would describe as the independant Bar).

    Andy, I am sorry you take my comments as scaremongering, unfortunately there is a lot of fear out there due to solicitors doing more and more work that would previously have gone to the Independent Bar, whilst fees paid to the Bar continue to be radically cut. I would rather raise these issues than hide away from them.

    You both raise interseting points that need discussing. I believe we all want the Independent Bar to remain independent and develop forward. It is the current lack of positive strategy for achieving this that concerns me.

    Good luck to all those students applying for pupillage this year. There’s lots of FREE support out there and this excellent site guides you to it, my advice is make use of it. I would still recommend being a Barrister despite the current challenges.

  14. 400 pupillages sounds about right, but is anyone offering a figure for the number of applicants ?

    Also, of the current round of applicants, is anyone able to shed any light on the proportion of the total which comprises those re-entering the fray for a second time, or more ?

    This information would, I feel, be valuable to those of us in the pre-call stage. With the stats certainly not looking as though they will improve in the students’ favour over the next few years, it would be helpful if those in the know were able to confirm the underlying trends.

  15. To my knowledge no-one accurately compiles the information you are after – I stand to be corrected. Below is my experience but this may be different for others.

    My experience in Leeds is 200-300 applications for an Olpas advert – and more for a non-olpas advert. In London my experience is significantly more applications per advert. However the number of applications varies from year to year and Chambers to chambers.

    Because of the restriction to 12 applications for Olpas pupillages per year, Chambers tend to receive more applications for Non-Olpas adverts.

    As far as non successful applicants coming back to the fray, this is even more difficult to estimate – people talk of a ratio of 5 to 1 as far as applicants to successful applicants but I think this may be optimistic.

    I know this is quite vague but it gives you a feel of the numbers involved.

    I would suggest using this information to realise the competition is intense and to put as much effort into your applications as possible, do not let it put you off.

    I hope this helps – good luck.

  16. Managechange, thanks.

    So, and I am guessing here, but I will assume the average pupillage committee comprises 4 persons who devote a day to the first sift of, say, 200 applications received in their chambers.

    That’s 30 man-hours for 200 applications, or 9 minutes per application.

    The average student will, say, have invested 5 years into their education and have spent/borrowed around £50K. And the prospect of progressing even past the first sift comes to down to not more than 10 minutes per application.

    Cripes !

  17. Bar boy – there is no set format for sifting applications so each chambers has its own approach, which can change from year to year.

    The most efficient and effective process I have witnessed is where there are 6 people sifting the applications. The applications are split in to 3 batches and the reviewers are split in to pairs to consider their third of the applications individually. Each person reviewing up to 100 applications and are given a fortnight or so to do this. Each person then chooses their top ten in their batch and meets with their respective colleague to see if their top ten agrees – much discussion and debate then follows.

    This gets the numer down to about 30. The 6 reviewers are then given all 30 applications to read/re-read and again choose their top ten. The committee then meet to discuss which 10 applicants will get to interview. These meetings can be long and challenging.

    The Barristers also monitor the make up of the applications for equality reasons.

    My experience is that the Barristers who sit on the pupillage committees take this process very seriously spending great time and effort with no personal reward other than repaying what someone did for them several years before.

    I think you raise an excellent point – students put great effort in to reaching the point of applying for pupillage and this is the final hurdle (along with any interviews); ultimately that application can be the difference between becoming a Barrister in independent practice or not. My advice is put as much effort into that application as possible as early as possible.

  18. When my prospective inn invited me for scholarship interview a few months back, I was sent a disclaimer where I had to disclose whether or not I had received ‘professional’ help with my application or interview in the form of a firm offering these specific services. Until that form, I had no idea that such firms existed. I didn’t just sign the disclaimer, I wrote a letter stating in no uncertain terms that I had never used any such service. Now of of this has come to the fore, I understand exactly what my inn was talking about.

    Being business minded, I understand what OTC are doing. But there are ethical ways to make a living and this isn’t one of them. I hope that all those who do use this service are found to be what they are: incapable. The rest of us use our wits. For free.

  19. Lawandlife – I was unaware that the Inns of court required you to sign a disclaimer regarding professional assistance.

    I am aware of an argument of double standards being put forward at the moment:

    Many people will be unaware that Barristers aspiring to be Judges are allowed to engage the services of a firm that assist the applicants in completing their application form and are helped on the interview they will receive. I am struggling to see the difference between a BVC student getting professional assistance to start their career and a Barrister getting professional assistance to improve their career.

    The assistance afforded the Barrister is similarly expensive as OTC’s services and is widely used by aspiring Judges.

    I thought it would be useful to give Simonmyerson or CharonQC the opportunity to defend this argument?

  20. A number of points.

    The 5 to 1 figure is mine, but it is not applicants to places. It is applicants likely to have any chance at all, to places.

    When I conducted pupillage exercises the thing that stood out was how much work it was. At least 5 people read every application and scored them. We interviewed the top 13 scores plus 1 individual pick per member. That way was our way of ensuring that we allowed for individuality at least to some extent. We were reading 300+ applications every year.

    In the next month I am going to be running the diversity awareness sessions for my circuit. Every Chambers will attend and for most Chambers the entire pupillage committee will attend – at their own expense and taking time out of court to do so. I really do believe that the vast majority of the profession does the best we can.

    As to double standards there is rather a lot of difference. Firstly the service being offered by the training firm is one which is disclosed to the Judicial Appointments Commission. Secondly the firm offers help to fill in the application form – it does not write it for you, nor does it offer assistance in terms of your professional achievements, which by then should speak for themselves. Thirdly, the sums involved are (as I understand it – I have no direct knowledge) proportionate to the earnings of most applicants. Fourthly, the marketing does not suggest that unless you utilise the services being offered you are likely to be at a disadvantage. Fifthly, the services provided are not being offered by those who ought – by the ethics of the profession to which they belong – to be offering them for free. Sixthly, the interview help offered is offered against a background where there is no other assistance.

    In my view the Bar should be offering such assistance and I regularly make the material that worked for me available to others. Whilst all that exists are such ad-hoc arrangements it cannot be wrong for people to take advantage of disclosed professional help. OTC do not cooperate with anyone, do not disclose those doing the helping, write people’s essays for them (I know there are disclaimers and I also know how well OTC police those disclaimers, which is not one jot), and offer the service to those without much money. If, as is said above, the assistance offered to Barristers is similarly expensive to the ‘service’ offered by OTC then that says it all. The difference is 20 years’ earnings.

  21. Simon, thank you for rising to the challenge.

    I totally agree that Chambers and their Pupillage Committees work extremely hard and diligently when dealing with the recruitment process for pupillages.

    I disagree with the point about OTC marketing itself as applicants being disadvantage by not using their services – The JAC approved training company operates in a closed market (a monopoly I suspect) and not a difficult market to operate within; where OTC operate in an open market. A market created by the Bar Council generating a need that is not met by the BC’s significant resources. Even the BC is operating in Carter’s new legal services market – it just does not realise it yet.

    Coming back to your first point – Does anyone have any idea how many applicants are in the market for pupillage this year? In these days of equality, diversity, transparency and fairness I believe prospective students should have an idea of their chances of getting pupillage before running up tens of £1,000’s of debt.

    Finally Simon, I genuinely applaud your initiative for running this site, your unpaid work for circuit and the efforts you are making to assist students.

  22. As I sit in front of my computer slaving away over my “Pupillage Portal” application form, (agonising over every single word!) I was saddened and disheartened to stumble upon this news.

    Any applicant who has paid for these services – may I take this opportunity to wish you the best of luck this application cycle. You may feel you have a bullet-proof form, but I feel I have the strongest attribute of all – a clean, clear conscience.

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