No Pupillage · Oxbridge · The BVC

Moving On

mban776lAs Mr Foster seems to have stopped talking to me I thought I would move on to other matters. Obviously, if he contacts me again I will let you know.

There are some issues which arise from the whole OTC (Obvious and Tangible Cheating) saga.

Firstly, as I have already said,  more needs to be done to assist students with things such as applications and CVs. That is not to say that students should be helped to write things such as letters and CVs. The Bar demands judgement as perhaps its primary quality and the selection of what you think we ought to know is quite properly viewed as a test. That is why having someone write your letter for you is wrong. But the Bar should offer more transparency. There is no reason, for example, why Chambers should not publish the qualities they are looking for, with a view to assisting applicants point out those qualities in applications. In terms of judicial appointments and silk this process goes under the dreadful title ‘competencies’. But the idea is a good one. I will deal with this in more detail in due course.

Secondly, a culture in which people really don’t see anything wrong in what OTC are doing is one which needs reform. That, I think has to start with educational establishments and it should take the form of a simple one strike and you’re out test. Cheating should be looked for, placed on the permanent record of the student and should be a required disclosure to Universities, post-graduate providers and Chambers. That does not need to equal expulsion. If there is some reason (incipient mental breakdown being a potential candidate) then the cheating might go unpunished – at least on the first occasion. But the proposition that OTC only offers help is bunk. Chambers should be asking applicants whether they have ever paid for such ‘help’. They should be kicking out anyone who cannot explain why, or who lies about the answer (at whatever stage they have reached). Chambers should also be reporting any pupil or tenant working for OTC to the BSB. The proposition that you can’t defeat cheating is both defeatist and self-defeating.

I extend this to the writing of essays – whether by way of ‘model’ answer or otherwise. The test is simple: if the teaching isn’t good enough at your institution then you should be able to recover the cost of your payment to OTC by way of legal action for breach of contract. If you wouldn’t sue then you shouldn’t use what you’ve bought. Try working harder.

Thirdly, the sponsorship scheme offered by the Inns would – if operated properly – make a real difference to those who feel that access to the profession is lacking. I am not criticising the Inns here, but the sponsorship programme needs to be extended widely (especially in the provinces, where many BVC students now study) and properly used by students. Your sponsor is the person who could review your CV, offer advice on specialism, given a realistic assessment of your chances of getting where you want to go and provide basic advice as to Chambers to aim for. Most of them are willing to do all that – but you have to ask. So, if you haven’t got a sponsor yet, nag your Inn for one and then make – and keep – contact.

Fourthly, students have to take responsibility for themselves. I found some of the comments on the posts dealing with this issue deeply dispiriting. Yes, the BVC costs a lot of money – and in my (now publicly stated) view, too much. Yes, I agree that the teaching there is not all it could be. Yes, some people (quite a lot of people) are chasing a job that they simply will not get because they are not equipped to do it. But that state of affairs – although depressing – is not a giant conspiracy. It is a result of supply exceeding demand. It is all too easy to blame the Bar for this, but I’m afraid that my reaction is – grow up. You are adults for crying out loud. No one is making you do the BVC. Wicked Barristers are not going round your Universities with lies about the easy pickings to be had at the Bar. Most are saying entirely the opposite. If you do not inform yourself of the reality and you cannot take an honest view of your own abilities then, I am afraid, the problem is yours. The information is out there – go and research it.

Two subsidiary points from that: firstly, there will still be some people who are unlucky. The only thing I can offer – cold comfort indeed – is that sometimes life is like that. One of my fellow students at the BVC used to say “life’s a bitch and then you die”. There will be some people who have what it takes, work hard, set realistic goals and still fail. Whether that puts you off is, again, down to you. There is no guarantee of success. Secondly, what OTC and the like offer is a way out of that prospective failure by making you look like what you are not. That’s why integrity dictates that you don’t take what they offer.

Fifthly, the Bar urgently needs to find a way of measuring progress and potential, rather than just the standard reached and potential. The proposition that people are academically complete at age 21 is ridiculous. It unfairly discriminates against people who went to poor schools, or who mature later, or who don’t work until they find something they are truly enthusiastic about. There is a real need for research about how to measure the comparative distance from Eton to Oxford and from City of Leeds School to John Moores University (examples only). That requires the Universities to be up front about what they expect from their students from year to year. I would make this a priority because it is the only way I can see to truly open access to the profession. We ‘know’ that Oxford is a better University than (say) Cantebury. Why should we not ‘know’ the (intellectual) distance any particular applicant has travelled to reach the University at which they study?

Finally, if we are not going to replace the BVC with a different model – which is my preferred option – then the aptitude test proposed in the Wood report should be put in place as soon as possible.

45 thoughts on “Moving On

  1. I agree. Especially with the sponsorship point. My sponsor at Lincoln’s Inn was absolutely fantastic at looking over my forms and giving advice. Very professional and very successful in getting me interview.

    I think a real point which needs addressing as well, is feedback after interviews. It is essential, but is something which is often not given. It should be given as a matter of course. I have been to several interviews without knowing what to change from the last one. That is not a good situation. If someone is getting to an interview, then they presumably have potential, and should be given as much advice and help as possible. Feedback for me would be invaluable, and yet I never get any, despite asking.

  2. As a student I fully support the aptitude test – provided of course it applies retrospectively. Why should I have to sit it only to be faced with the long odds of reaching Bar already overcrowded with those who would not pass? I think a decent pruning now would yield strong new growth in the long run.

    If a counter argument is that current pupils, juniors and silks have already proved their worth in practice then they have nothing to fear, do they? In any case if the test represents a minimum acceptable aptitude then it would be a strange profession indeed that was happy to allow its guiding lights to be less capable than its newcomers.

  3. I am sure the level would be higher (or at least different in focus), otherwise it would serve no purpose other than to save some students some money. This is not its objective, it would not alleviate the pupillage bottleneck by removing unsuitable candidates who nonetheless passed the BVC. Besides there are plenty at the Bar who never sat a BVC in the first place.

  4. Firstly, as I have already said, more needs to be done to assist students with things such as applications and CVs. I disagree with this. There are numerous places where students can get help: Careers, Tutors, Sponsors, barristers and your Inn. If you make an effort to seek help, it will (most likely) be given. Students can’t expect that help and assistances is provided on a platter. They need to seek it.

    I agree that judgment is essential. I am sure if you went to all the parties I mentioned above each would give different advice. Judgment as to what you listen to and how you implement it into OLPAS/CV/covering letter should then be applied.

    Re: Sponsors. I have had a very good sponsor. The important thing to note is that what you put in you get out. My sponsor told me that he has had students assigned to him who have never got in contact. Some people I know don’t put time or do much with their sponsors. It’s like dealing with any person – a relationship needs to be built. I do agree that Inns could do more for provincial students (and indeed provincial barristers). We have a link bencher but it seems there is no defined network of my Inn’s barristers under him. I think this could be improved.

    “It is a result of supply exceeding demand. It is all too easy to blame the Bar for this, but I’m afraid that my reaction is – grow up”.
    Whilst I understand your sentiments and agree generally with your statement above, the Bar is not faultless. I believe that the Bar has set access to the Bar at the wrong level. Pupillage should be far more plentiful. The filter should be at the Tenancy stage. By setting the filter at the pupillage stage, the Bar is in effect preventing competition. I am a firm believer in survival of the fittest. Not survive by luck (which you seem to accept). If for example 2 people instead of 1 person became a barrister. The barrister who is most successful would likely to succeed and the second likely to drop out (I accept this is a crude illustration but in effect saying if a barrister is not successful, they will get less or no work). There would, by in large, be an equal opportunity to succeed. Opening up the profession to more competition (well at the lower levels) would help weed out the weaker barristers and hence strengthen the profession. There are issues such as funding pupillage, but I am sure there are ways around this issue. Voluntary unfunded pupillages maybe?

    Back to studying for me….

  5. RM – a very thoughtful comment if I may say so.

    I will deal with the issue of unfunded pupillages soon. Your views are shared by a number of very senior people (I know, because they have told me so) but not by me. I have a real problem with unfunded pupillage because it seems to me to privilege the middle classes, who are exactly the people who have the least problems with access.

    Given you now know my view, if you would like to take a short break and set out your ideas in a little more detail and email them to me I will publish your views and my response as one post. Please don’t feel you have to, but the debate format (or Skeleton Arguments?) might serve as quite a good way to get this issue across in all its complexity.

    Email me if you’re interested. Forgive the public approach but I don’t get to see your address if you want to comment anonymously. And quite right too.

  6. RM’s suggestion of the filer being at tenancy has the additional benefit of allowing people to be judged on the basis of a years work rather than on paper and/or 10 minutes face to face.

    If a person went to a ‘nice’ school and then a ‘nice’ university, odds are that they will look better on paper and perform better in a short interview than someone who went to a rubbish school followed by a mediocre university.

    If the system involved passing the BAT for the BVC, then most people getting pupillages (helped by Inn funding, as suggested in a post here recently) and then the final selection coming at the tenancy decision stage, it would surely be far fairer. The BAT would weed out the utterly incompetent whilst the tenancy decision would then select the best.

    Oh well, that’s enough non-OLPAS procrastination….

  7. In my view the solution is simple, (though i know many barristers find it unpalatable)

    There are some candidates ( principally with oxbridge firsts) for whom a BVC scholarship, pupillage and tennacy is practically guaranteed. Equally there are many no hope candidates who need to be weeded out of the system before they waste any more money.
    However in my view the largest cohort is a big range in the middle who have the potential to get a pupillage but for whom this is by no means a guarantee

    The simple fact is that this majority who want to become a barrister ( myself included) do so at present having to pay £15,000 to roll the dice and find out if they are good enough, (a roll of the dice which is incidentally normally paid for by middle class parents)

    This is a unique hurdle to entry, while many professions require unpaid experience and low rewards at the bottom end i am aware of no other that requires such a large payment with no guarente even of unpaid work afterwards.

    I would not stop students from taking the bvc without an offer of pupillage without the offer of pupillage,but it seems to me that very great pressure should be put on chambers to primarily recruit graduate students from those who have yet to start the bvc. The reason almost every British bvc student takes the course and pays their £15,000 is because they wish to come to the bar, ultimately every bvc student who does not get a pupillage is left with a near worthless qualification for their money and to saddle a 21/22 year old with that much debt because chambers are unwilling or unable to make the distinction between graduate candidates seems to me unacceptable. Again the bar is a unique profession in this regard, every other profession that i know of which requires additional paid study (including solicitors!) primarily recruits students to take that study with a promise of employment afterwards.
    Is the bvc really such a life enriching experience and the craft of the barrister really so unique that chambers cannot spot future pupils 12 months in advance and spare hundreds of ultimately unlucky candidates £15,000? I have yet to hear convincing arguments that it is.

  8. I do not, for a moment, doubt the sincerity of either the blog author, nor the contributors, but, on reading the recent threads and comments, it is difficult not to conclude that the Bar has lost the plot. As a senior professional in another field, I have spent the last decade, or more, regularly encountering the view that the Bar is removed from the real world and it is not difficult to see why people hold that view. For example, ten years since Woolf and there still remains no ADR on the compulsory BVC syllabus. Other professions, who are doing very nicely thank you out of arbitration etc., find this a constant source of bemusement.

    Telling a 21 year old to grow up is, I feel, of no help. Being the parent of a 21 year old, I am afraid that 21 is now the new 16 in many instances, as a consequence of both the dumbing down of education and the cotton wool-ing of the modern generation. You can see this at the Bar schools with many of the youngsters (through absolutely no fault of their own) expecting to be spoon fed through the course and, moreover, being led by the nose by course providers who know they will not be held to account for the students which they turn out.

    One can talk about aspirants being afforded a chance and there being a level playing field etc., and these may well be worthy sentiments, but I fear they are not the real issue.

    Unpalatable as it may be, is that the Bar is, in relative terms, a tiny profession which has, wittingly or otherwise, washed its hands of the bottom end of the process and, into the bargain, lost control to the commercial enterprises which can bottom feed off the Bar’s inadequacies. There are, very obviously, the likes of OTC but I would also include the accredited providers to some extent. They rarely get a mention but the activities of the banks and their reckless extension of unsecured finance to students needs also to be considered.

    The extent of this disconnect is most evident at Inn events, when one comes away with the very distinct impression that senior members of the Bar are not only clueless over what really goes on but that, moreover, they are really only interested in the pupillage stage onwards.

    In many regards, I have no problem with that approach and, I suspect, it has merit in so far as the process will give the Bar its annual pick of the 300 or 400 new entrants which the profession needs.

    What does concern me more is that the Bar is doing little for its reputation, nor arguably its own future, by being responsible for creating and overseeing a system which causes resentment, disappointment etc., in a failed cohort which goes elsewhere harbouring a grudge (and, in many cases, some truly frightening levels of debt for twentysomethings to be shouldering).

    My conclusion is that issues such as choice, chance and diversity are all chaff. Every other profession of which I am aware oversees its equivalent process by culling the aspirant cohort at the graduate stage, if not before (medics are probably a case in point). The method by which that is done, and the criteria applied for the purpose, will never be fair to every individual, but it is fair to the aspirant body as a whole because it permits only sufficient numbers to proceed any further and to meet the needs of the profession (as opposed to, say, the needs of the shareholders of OTC, BPP and Barclays.)

    In the current climate, when talk of unsustainable bubbles is now commonplace, it is perhaps time for the Bar to consider its own student bubble.

  9. I note SMQC’s statement:

    “That is not to say that students should be helped to write things such as letters and CVs.”

    I point the author to the BPP website:

    Where BPP state they will assist with CV’s and covering letters. (I await CharonQC ‘Ex-BPP’ on his white charger slaying the evil enemy from within – cheap swipe I apologise).

    Does this constitute cheating?

    In my Judgement no, however it may be different for others – hence my call for guidance from the BC/BSB on where the line is drawn between help and cheating.

    Having just read the BVC Working Group review of the BVC where there is a committee of 12 barristers, one Lord, 3 BSB employees and one Lay Person it is not too surprising that their recommendations are not very radical and that from inception to implementation it will take 4 years!

    For me the issue is not whether the BVC is currently a suitable vehicle for the Bar but the wider point of how should the Bar recruit and train aspirants and practitioners in the context of a burgeoning ‘Bar’ market. Reading the comments on this site it is currently a disaster which according to the BVCWG recommendations is not going to radically change.

    I suggest – SMQC, with the greatest of respect, that it is not the culture of our ’60 million’ society that needs reform but the ‘12,000’ Members of the Bar. I say this not as a criticism but to try and get the Bar to challenge its own accepted norms and practices, and to encourage them to engage with this brave new world.

  10. In the light of some previous comments, can anybody tell me what happens to the poor sods who get the BVC yet fail to secure pupillage? Does anybody know of such instances from personal experience?

  11. Sydney,

    From what I’ve seen the alternatives to pupillage include:

    – Paralegalling until you have enough experience to be able to sit the QLTT and become a solicitor;
    – In effect doing a more formal version of the above by persuading a law firm to give you a quasi training contract and doing the QLTT;
    – Going into legal publishing;
    – Going into legal teaching;
    – Going into one of a wide range of jobs where legal knowledge and familiarity with the legal system is helpful.

    The BVC certainly ought not to leave you unemployable in any other field. OK, it’s an expensive way of being taught how to argue your point persuasively and write clear opinions, but speaking as someone who has seen how rare those skills are I wouldn’t underrate their value if you’ve done the BVC and acquired them.

  12. ‘Fourthly, students have to take responsibility for themselves.’

    Surely that is the nub of all this? Nobody can start the BVC without having heard the stark warnings, time and time again about how difficult it is to secure a Pupillage. I attended all 3 London providers open days, and they all told me. My Uni told me. I am pretty sure that the providers literature told me. Certainly on the first day they told me. My Inn told me.

    If you take on the BVC and as SMQC says, you are not equipped, then tough titty. You were warned.

    Every profession has wasters in it. I have worked in offices with 100 professionals, not one of whom I would personally employ to do a job for me.

    I don’t think that the Bar has room for those wasters. Whilst there will be good and some bad Barristers, I imagine the standard is pretty high, and that’s as it should be.

    As far as I am concerned, I stepped up to the challenge, and if it all goes tits up then I will have nobody to blame but myself. The BVC is not rocket science, so if I don’t get at least a good pass then I have wasted an opportunity. I can’t blame my provider because they are teaching me what is in the assessments. If I can’t take that on board then I can’t blame them. I will take it on the chin.

    If I don’t get a pupillage, then perhaps I am not equipped for it. Maybe I will be unlucky, maybe i am just not right for the bar, but it isn’t anyone else’s responsibility to tell me that, but for me to be grown up, realistic and mature enough to appreciate that I am not what the Bar is looking for.

    Incidentally, I have asked my providers careers service two questions about my CV and pupillage application, and have been impressed by both responses I received. And it was free.

    When the Army looks for recruits for the Gurkhas, candidates walk for days to reach the recruiting station, suffer incredible hardships and only a few are selected. Every year thousands of them try, yet few are selected. And all for a job that you will be shot at. When getting a pupillage gets that hard, I may not bother. In the meantime, I know the risks, I understand the challenge, and I accept the mission.


  13. absolutely, swizz. being a bit older means you (sometimes) work out the world doesn’t owe you a living. i think what we really need to do is ensure that people with ability who can’t afford the bvc can enter the bar. may have put forward my levy theory here already (apols if i have) but a small percentage charge on every law firm and chambers in the country to fund either places at the established providers or an elite school with a competitive entry would be my way forward.
    the chance of it happening? mind the pigs as they land.

  14. Simply, its no good trying to curry favour with me by agreeing with what I say. I have been reliably informed that you were given an interview where I was rejected.

    Taking it on the chin doesn’t mean I can’t sulk.


  15. Bar Boy,

    I agree entirely. It doesn’t seem very difficult to design a better system of recruitment and maybe our wig-wearing friends will manage it.

    James C

  16. Manage Change…

    I may have founded BPP – I have no interest however, commercial or other indirect interest , in what BPP do now.

    I sold my shares over 10 years years ago and while I am pleased to have founded a law school with others in my career – BPP moved in a different direction to the vision I was interested in – and that is, of course, their prerogative.

    My vision was then, and is still now, to provide access to education at a very modest price. This, however, is not consistent with modern law school practice at vocational level – whether PLC, charity or university.

    The BVC course is a useful source of revenue for all law schools currently validated.

    I remain convinced that when it proves to be unattractive to law schools to run the BVC – they will simply pull out.

    I have a feeling, given the furore about fees, that this may not take too long.

    We shall see. Then, of course, there will be an entirely different problem to solve – adequate provision for those who seek to qualify.

    We live in interesting times – but for so long as students are prepared to pay the fees to law schools – be sure, the law schools will charge the fees and continue to raise them. That, unfortunately, is the law of the market.

    Unless.. you do something about it and complain.

    I suspect that the Bar Council and BSB will do little in terms of direct action….

    But… there again… I woulod be happy to be proved wrong.

  17. For the sake of clarity – I am assuming that BPP used in this context means BPP Law School. I founded that part of BPP with BPP Holdings plc and others.

    BPP was already a large provider of education by the early 1990s having started running accountancy courses and publications back in the Seventies and was founded by Richard Price, Charles Prior and Alan Brierley.

  18. Unfunded pupillages (and I think that is the only way one can increase the numbers of pupillages, certainly in the current climate my chambers would balk at offering another one at anything approaching what we offer for the two available at present) would be far less of a problem (perhaps sufficiently met by Inn scholarships) if students hadn’t already poured so much money into BVC fees, which takes us back to your arguments re abolishing the BVC (with which, in general, I agree).

  19. Chaps,

    If we assume that there are two unsuccessful candidates for every winner, and that they spend £12k on legal training and foregoe a years’ salary of £25k, then the cost per candidate of the present system is £74k per pupillage.

    This seems utterly ludicrous.

  20. I don’t think that adding a notional salary to actual expenditure gives a real cost.

    I do agree that the BVC is too expensive, not exclusive enough and doesn’t deliver on its task of providing suitably qualified barristers.

    Something needs to be done about that, and I have set my own proposals out. However, I think one has to be careful about motivating change through fear of the Bar’s image problems. My 23 years of experience has persuaded me that the Bar’s image problems are a combination of 3 things. Firstly, some barristers are undoubtedly eccentric – getting your own way a lot of the time can do that, and many of us do not tolerate fools as gladly as we might. That can include clients. Secondly, there is resentment directed towards what is perceived as an elite – precisely because the profession is small and some parts of it do conspicuously well, financially speaking. There is nothing to be done about that: it is as it is. Thirdly, because the law is complicated, expensive and demands detail. That is not, in fact, the fault of the Bar – things would be worse without us. But we do get quite a lot of the flak on that point.

    That some students try and fail and then become embittered is not a problem for the Bar. It is a problem for the students. We cannot help that because it is precisely those people who, in my experience, are least likely to listen to guidance unless it replicates what they want to hear and are most likely to blame the Bar instead of themselves.

    I hear the moans about ‘a better system of recruitment’ but actually the recruitment system is perfectly good save that it does not measure potential as well as it might. The training system isn’t perfectly good but that isn’t the same thing – which is why most Chambers don’t give a tinker’s cuss for your BVC grade.

  21. Simon,

    I fear we are talking at cross purposes. We can, I hope, agree that the bar has a unique method of selection. Most of the would-be barristers spend their £15k, give up what you call a notional salary and emerge with nothing for it.

    My position, with which you may disagree, is that it is hopelessly inefficient and could be considerably improved upon.

    This has nothing to do with prejudice against barristers, but is a simple comment that the process is poorly designed.

    If I am wrong, and the system is in fact the product of careful design, then I am more than willing to change my mind.

    It does, however, seem telling that no other industry or profession has adopted it.

  22. Taking a deep breath, I do find it surprising how Mr Myerson seems to be so blinkered to addressing a perspective to which he does not agree.

    But, yet, this does seem to be the impression that one gets from the Bar or, more particularly, those, such as My Myerson, who are in its senior echelons and carry genuine influence.

    As I have written previously, if the Bar wants to take the view that it only comes onto the scene when it picks its annual intake of new recruits, that is not unreasonable, and the Bar is, I assume, unfettered in whatever view it might wish to take in this regard. Except, it does no one any good for the Bar to give a contrary impression, whether deliberately or otherwise.

    If the Bar wants no part of, and no moral responsibility for, the pre-pupillage stage, the Bar should remove itself from any role or input in the earlier part of the process, i.e., no input into the LLB or BVC syllabi and certainly no accreditation of the BVC providers.

    That would be seen to be more honest but, moreover, would also, and without any more effort, make big inroads into resolving the manifold problems of the BVC, the course and the year it takes being where the current problems rest. The notion of an approved pre entry vocational course would be dispensed with and the market would be freed up for unis and any other providers to compete in the supply of courses, designed in whatever way they wish, to best equip applicants for securing pupillage.

    My guess would be that most of the current providers would quickly withdraw and it would not take long for a small number of hotbed uni departments to emerge. These would fall to be assessed by their students’ post course success and the number of aspirants would naturally drop dramtically, thereby solving the bubble problem for the future.

    My angle on this is all largely focused on the costs (whether actual or foregone through lost opportunity elsewhere). The cost is big, most certainly relative to the statistical chance of success, and the Bar must take its share of responsibility for those aspirants who do not succeed but end up with huge debts to boot. To say that failed aspirants are not up to the task is simply not realistic. Some are undoubtedly no-hopers but many (too many) can claim to be in with a shout. I have heard it said (not without some merit but somewhat naively imho) that aspirants can legitimatelyy say they are in with a shout because they have been deemed suitable for admission to the BVC, being a course accredited by the Bar proper. The argument becomes all the stronger when the student completes the course with good grades. I do have some sympathy with this view and it suits the providers to encourage this mentality. If the BVC (by whatever name) was not Bar accredited, it would remove the scope for this sentiment which I do feel is not too far from the crux of the problem.

    The overriding concern is that, whether they are suitable Bar material or not, most aspirants will still be of use to society. Most will have valuable skills and aptitudes which they can apply elsewhere. But burdening 23 year olds etc. (many of whom are from very average backgrounds but are attracted by the diversity message) with debts of £40K, £50K or more does no one any good. I can say, first hand, as an employer, that applicants with big debts are not attractive recruitment propositions.

    It is simplistic, I acknowledge, but the Bar seems to think it can have it both ways in creating and promoting a system which it then claims is nothing to do with it, with any faults belonging only to the students.

  23. You wouldn’t have to take such a deep breath if you read what I wrote 😉

    I agree that the BVC isn’t doing its job. I don’t agree for a second that the Bar should remove itself from input into the vocational course. How on earth does that work? We need pupils arriving with a certain amount of know how which they are not taught at University.

    The free competition which you propose does not seem to me to answer this point at all. Either we will be forced to work with what we get, whether it’s any good or not, or we will be forced to ok some courses and not others.

    I agree that the Bar should not wash its hands of its applicants, but I don’t agree with your continued argument that students bear no responsibility for this. These are people making adult choices – if neither their parents, nor their school nor their university have successfully prepared them to do that I am damned if I’m going to take the blame for it.

    The issue is how you design a system which rewards talent, whilst excluding sensible people who are prepared to listen to advice that this is not for them. Within that system, some people will still fail. This is not a case where – as my old Senior Tutor used to say – ‘everyone must have prizes’.

    Where I depart from current thinking is that I do not agree that the BVC can redeem itself, still less add the value that it is hoped would mean that failed applicants for pupillage would go away happy with their BVC MA. In my judgement that isn’t going to happen. But that criticism applies just as much to your proposal which seems to me to be a free-market free for all, with the added downside that the Bar doesn’t have any input into what these students (who will still have to pay) are offered.

    The skills required are purely technical in many ways – they may have a tangential impact on other skills, but they are not going to be immediately applicable elsewhere. That is just the reality of it. That is why I believe the answer is more involvement from the profession – not less.

    The suggestion that the Bar wants it both ways is unfair. The Bar is actually concerned about this, but is trying to work out how to do the job better. That the fashionable theory of the moment isn’t immediately accepted or implemented isn’t proof of the contrary. When the Bar last discussed the issue of selection pre-training, the people most objecting were the students.

    The hard reality is straightforward. There are perhaps 400 tenancies a year. How many applicants do you want? In my view the number of pupillages should be higher than the number of tenancies but not by much. The pressure should be on the profession not to discard pupils. Now, how many applicants for pupillage do you want? Each of those people – under the Bar Boy scheme (James is as yet silent on any positive proposals) – would have to pay. Assuming you want there to be a better than 1 in 2 chance of a pupillage, you are going to exclude people very early. Are you prepared to be excluded? What criteria do you propose to use? Will they be weighted towards distance travelled or point reached? How will you measure it?

    Never mind talk of diversity being ‘chaff’. Do you believe that the Bar works best when it reflects the populace with which it deals? If not, why not? If so, then how do you propose to combine the search for academic excellence – which is undoubtedly necessary – with diversity, against the background of a University system which doesn’t do it terribly well, a school system which barely does it at all and parental input which often (for good cultural reasons) works against it?

    You know, I hear the moaning and I hear the complaints that the Bar isn’t interested. From the point of view of an advocate, both of those strike me as terribly easy points to make but with little substance – none of which is anchored in the hard reality of making the pupillage decision. The cost is the worst possible angle to look at this from – firstly because the Bar cannot control it and secondly because it is the one area which lies wholly in the choice made by the student. But perhaps I’m just being irritable because it’s late – in which case I’m sorry.

  24. Simon,

    Can we agree that the present system is broken
    and that it is possible to do a better job?

    My suggestion would be to have a competetive system of examinations, interviews etc which culls the numbers at an earlier stage.

    This might not be your choice, but I am sure you could design something better than the status quo.

    The problem, of course, is implementing any reforms because the costs of the current system
    (actual and opportunity cost) are largely carried by unsuccessful applicants.

    All of this seems undeniable, but I will listen to any counter arguments.

    What is arguable, however, is whether it is the bar’s problem. My own view is that it is and applicants are being treated poorly.

  25. ‘These are people making adult choices ‘ – well yes, simon and you have seen me write exactly the same thing.
    and nobody forces anyone to become a barrister.
    and nobody is owed a living.

    BUT that ignores the fact that if you want to be a barrister you have to get through the system. there is no alternative. so of course anyone who feels they have a chance (and can afford it – or get it funded) will do it. the opposite of that is that everyone looks at it, says ‘stuff that for a ludicrously-expensive high-risk game of soldiers’ and buggers off to do something easier.

    i certainly agree it’s a system no other industry has or (i believe) would ever have. it’s insane and can in no way promote quality to have the bizarre system that is olpas allowing you to apply to no more than a dozen chambers that are in it. if it weren’t ludicrous, someone else somewhere else would do it….

    simon asks ‘Do you believe that the Bar works best when it reflects the populace with which it deals?’. no i don’t. no no no. (and – just to be clear – no.) the populace is full of people you wouldn’t want representing you in court. do we want to reflect that in the profession? if i have an operation i want it done by a surgeon please, not a representative selection of people from the local community. i do believe the bar works best when it selects people who are the best at the job irrespective of where they come from and what they look like. the two concepts are very different. the former is just the kind of sloppy thinking that has buggered up many well-intentioned attempts to create equality in society – something i passionately believe is in all our interests.

    but simon is part of the cure not the problem. if his perspective were as blinkered as you suggest bar boy, he wouldn’t waste his time on a blog of this sort or this very debate.

  26. Could I be cheeky and ask here a question only tangentially related to the discussion at hand?

    “There is a real need for research about how to measure the comparative distance from Eton to Oxford and from City of Leeds School to John Moores University (examples only).”

    If I HAD gone from a dodgy comprehensive to Oxford (and, indeed, was the very first person from that school to have done so), should I try and find some subtle way to slip this into my OLPAS statement – or would this just make me seem like a chippy class warrior?


  27. R,

    I am not sure why the bar needs to bother with any of this (the stuff about measuring the distance from Eton to Oxford) or how it could be of any use in selecting candidates.

  28. James C –

    Let’s engage in a little hypothetical meander-

    Candidate A went to the best school in the country, had the best staff, the best equipment, and classes from 9-5 every day with intensive examination preparation. He went on to achieve straight A*’s at GCSE and straight A’s at A Level. He gained a place at Oxford (along with 20 other people from his school) and gained First Class Honours in Law.

    Candidate B went to the local comprehensive. It was under staffed, ill-equipped and full of people who felt the need to have a fight every three seconds. His school day started at 9 and finished at 2:40pm. Much of this time was interrupted by the incessant misbehaviour of others. He had a stream of temporary “supply” teachers, huge class sizes and just 60% of students left with 5 grade “C”‘s at GCSE or more. He also achieved straight A*’s at GCSE and straight A’s at A Level. He gained a place at Cambridge University and achieved First Class Honours in Law. He was the first person from his school to secure a place at Oxbridge.

    Now Candidate A and Candidate B are both clearly very intelligent. And Candidate A may well have excelled in Candidate B’s scenario – we have no way to measure that.

    But surely “distanced travelled” is relevant? Even to a small extent?

    It may, of course, not be a or the decisive factor, but I fail to see how it should be disregarded entirely.

    I am, of course, open to suggestions… 🙂

  29. @Anonymous

    What if Candidate B was successful at interview due to his distance travelled being taken into account, succeeded in his goal of tenancy, worked hard, and became a top flight QC after many years and earned a fair amount of money, putting it aside to ensure a good future for himself and his family. He then gets married and has a son, deciding to call him, oh, I don’t know, ‘Candidate A’.

    He sends him to a good school, because this was denied him in his youth, etc., etc., etc.

    His son also decides to become a lawyer, and comes up against another Candidate A and Candidate B. Who has travelled the furthest? Who deserves pupillage the most?

    Perhaps we should rank all prospective applicants by their sum total of social distance travelled across generations to ensure total fairness in allocating our precious tenancies, so that they correspond with a universal measure of social justice.

    I hope you see where this kind of hypothetical discussion leads…

  30. Anonymous,

    I don’t disagree with this.The problem is using the information to select the candidates.Do you really think that anyone could look at a candidate’s background and know how to make the correct adjustment?

    However this is not necessary.All that is needed is to have to have a test for current ability and one to measure potential.

  31. Intriguing debate above, but not one I’m going to get into on a Sunday afternoon with a case to prepare for tomorrow.

    Just wanted to post a link to the Social Mobility Foundation, an organisation which arranges e-mentoring relationships between barristers and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Its aims seem to be in keeping with the type of help Simon has suggested should be provided voluntarily by barristers.

    You can sign up using one of the links in the top right hand corner.

  32. Sigh. I just find it all so frustrating. I just don’t think the Bar can really do anything right one way or the other – it’s just so much easier to say “snobby elitist b*****ds” than to come up with alternatives.

    Yes, the Bar Aptitude Test is a good idea and so they are bringing it in. The Bar knows there are too many trying to get in, and IS trying to address this. And the Bar is trying REALLY REALLY HARD to address social diversity at the same time. The amount of money put into scholarships every year is staggering. The problem is that LIFE isn’t fair, and there’s only so much the Bar can do to “fix” this.

    I DO think a lot of the problem lies with 1. naivety on the part of many applicants (to put it kindly) and 2. the difficulty of how to exclude “maybes” and on what basis. Every BVC student thinks the numbers should be reduced and some form of filtering carried out – but that’s because every BVC student assumes that he/she would survive the filtering.

    One potential “solution” in the meantime (i.e. before the Bar Aptitude Test comes in…though undoubtedly even when it does it will keep more in than should be kept, erring on the side of caution…) would be for a bright red notice to be prepared in “real” terms encouraging students to be more circumspect about their chances (i.e., not to assume that a 2.1 + 27 mini-pupillages + enthusiasm= a pupillage). This could include figures for the number of applicants in the previous year v. the number of pupillages, with stats such as e.g. (no idea what the actual stats are) “95% of applicants with a 2.2 did not get pupillage” “2, 563 applicants with a 2.1 did not get pupillage” etc…there is the obvious problem that it’s not just about degrees etc but short of preparing a detailed grid of successful pupils including all info about them, their extra-curricular achievements etc etc I don’t see how this could be circumvented. I don’t think it SHOULD be necessary to do this but in my experience almost all Bar applicants overestimate how good a prospect they are relative to the pool of people with whom they are competing, and assume that their (relatively standard) CVs will stand out due to e.g. a 2.1, mooting, mini-pupillages, when in reality anyone applying who has half a brain will have all of these.

    This red notice would flash up on the OLPAS website (and would also be provided with every non-OLPAS form) and also on the BVC providers’ application form, and applicants would have to tick a box indicating that they had read it and considered it in order to proceed.

    The problem is that if anything like this WERE done, everyone would criticise the Bar for putting disadvantaged but talented people off…


  33. JK – agree with that.

    Which doesn’t let the profession off the hook. The aim – out of sheer self-preservation – is to select the best candidates whilst retaining public confidence and being fair. I put it this way because I suspect the public are completely ok with 3,000 people competing for 450 places. It is mainly BVC students who aren’t ok with that and, of course, they are right to be discontented because some of them are spending money without hope and it is difficult for them to judge whether they are in that category.

    On the other hand, the ones with hope are taking a calculated gamble. Some will win and some will lose. Some will lose because others were better. Some will lose because they were unlucky. Some will lose because they had a bad day. And they have no ground for complaint because life is like that. We can only do the best we can.

  34. Having got down, last year, the nitty gritty at one particular chambers where I was one of the last four bieng considered for three pupillages, only to be rejected at that stage, I must say I feel pretty damned, and found it a tremendous confidence knocker. While the whole process is pretty soul destroying, from BVC to Portal and back again, one ultimately rises and falls on one’s own merits. Thats Life – but when wounded by it even the most stalwart and philosophical are never going to think it fair, unfortunately………..

  35. A particularly Earth SHATTERING thought with regard to the Thesis Monster would not permit me to grab some quality zzzzz’s unfortunately……..!

  36. Regarding the comments about distance travelled – even that argument is too simplistic.

    You can have a student who went to an elite public school, is intelligent but who fell into the wrong crowd or was plainly immature and as a result got average grades and went to an average university. This doesn’t preclude him from having the aptitude to succeed at the Bar.

    Alternatively you can have a state educated pupil who reads Jurisprudence at Oxford having been tutored after hours at home from the age of 7, or who was lucky to have a supportive environment at home or a one-off teacher who effectively mentored them.

    To distinguish on grounds of schooling is usually always foolish.

  37. Hi Simon, firsty, I want to thank you for your excellent blog (you haven’t posted for some time…).

    Secondly, the major problem with the BVC is that it isn’t respected by chambers. I happen to be one of ‘those’ that went to a poor school, and eventually a bad university. I “studied” law, but didn’t go after my potential, and scored a 2:2. In truth, education didn’t mean anything to me at the time, and my fellow class mates from school are currently making good use of our benefits system. After university, I matured somewhat, and having watched some fine advocacy at a crown court, became inspired and sought to pursue a career at the bar. I knew that this was something that I could do, and I wanted to tap into my potential. I set upon the BVC, wherein I outscored my oxbridge class mates in many advocacy excersises and exams. Alas, I felt that I had finally achieved something in my life and proved my capability. But sadly, I have yet to score an interview, because of my poor academic background. Perhaps many would say “but you went into this with your eyes open”. That is not the point that I was making. The point is, that the BVC should be seen as “the leveller”. By that I mean that the BVC ought to mean a hell of a lot more than it currently does. It should identify a person’s potential to succeed at the bar, and that ought to be a decisive factor in awarding interviews. “But what about my oxford degree, all that homework i did from the age of 7, and all the boxes that I have dedicated my life to ticking?” I hear the oxford girl say. Well if you are that gifted, that ought to be revealed in your performance during the BVC (or whatever they call it now) and you should have no problems getting interviews. Why on earth is the BVC laughed at by chambers? Why do they deem it so unimportant? Why does the course cost so much when it means so little? For £13,000 I think that they can do a hell of a lot more. If the BVC is not respected, the fault lies with the providers, and they should comply with the bar to give the course some credence. The fact that they are the gatekeepers to the bar, means that these providers are abusing their power by charging so much. At least have a product that is worth something!

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