Charon 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.