Qualities Required · The BVC · The Future

Keeping On Keeping On

The last post attracted a lot of comments. LawMinx makes a fair point when she writes:

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………..

I accept that, and I understand that complacent comments from those already there aren’t welcome.

On the other hand, I have repeatedly stressed the need for change and fairness as well.

What I have discerned from the comments on the post below is an unhappy willingness to focus on the demerits of the system rather than the merits of the individual. There is a reluctant acceptance that even in a perfect system there will be those who do not succeed but the emphasis is on the proposition that failure is the fault of the Bar. There is also an unhappy whiff of those prepared to agree with any change – providing it is not one which adversely affects their own chances.

I have difficulties with that approach. Firstly, I don’t think it makes a good barrister – this is a job which puts a heavy emphasis on personal responsibility. Secondly, it fails to acknowledge that the majority of barristers are bothered about applicants – people can perfectly properly take the view that the professional and public interest is served by maximal competition and the only ones who suffer under that system do so voluntarily. They can also take the view that wholesale change is not required, without that meaning that they are uncaring. Thirdly, it fails to appreciate tthat no system is going to be entirely fair – particularly when it must embody strenuous competition, vocational training, strict selection and the means to pay for it. Fourthly, it fails to acknowledge that some pretty outstanding people have emerged in the last few years – even from the shambles that the unreformed BVC can be said to have become at one stage.

No one makes a BVC student become a BVC student. It is striking how few of the comments suggest that, had the author only realised what being a barrister involved and how tough it was, they would not have paid their money. That suggests that the profession is conveying a realistic idea of the challenges involved in obtaining a pupillage.

I think the focus must be on getting the very best people. Because access to the profession is perceived as privileged that necessarily involves diversity issues. Otherwise we don’t get the best people – we only get the best people who have thought that the Bar may be for them. That’s why, in my firm view, we should measure distance travelled and that’s why an applicant whose parents have already succeeded off their own bat hasn’t travelled the distance. This is about how far you have walked – not how far you were driven. It involves competition because competition widens the pool and challenges the applicants. It involves fairness and transparency because that is how we retain the public’s confidence and create the pool from which we want to chose in 20 years’ time. Fairness includes not taking advantage of those who have no realistic chance. That cannot mean preventing them trying, which is to treat them like 3 year-olds, but rather to make sure that they understand they cannot expect to succeed. It also involves making the training element something of genuine worth – whilst remembering that it is training for the Bar and not for anything else.

The profession is actively engaged in this discussion and a large number of people give up a large amount of their time – largely for free – to deal with it. It is wrong to confuse results you don’t like, and outcomes unfavourable to an individual, with a lack of effort or willingness to make changes.

17 thoughts on “Keeping On Keeping On

  1. Simon,

    ‘What I have discerned from the comments on the post below is an unhappy willingness to focus on the demerits of the system rather than the merits of the individual.’

    Since the bar’s uniquely inefficient system is the issue, it is hardly surprising that is what your posters have discussed.

    ‘That’s why, in my firm view, we should measure distance travelled and that’s why an applicant whose parents have already succeeded off their own bat hasn’t travelled the distance’

    As I have said previously, this is not a useful piece of information in selecting candidates. I can explain why, but it should be obvious.

    What is needed is tests of current ability and potential. That is how recruitment is done elsewhere.

  2. Again an astute and well considered post, Simon. I agree that no one forces a Bar student to become a Bar student, though in my limited experience I have seen quite a few that have done so for all the WRONG reasons, bieng obsessed with the percieved public Image and Status of a Barrister in tandem with a general willingness to drop the B word in to conversations with Lay Friends in order to obtain some form of slack jawed admiration. You and I both know that this is utter nonsense of course, but my BVC Cohort was THICK with these individuals, and it was soul destroying.
    Quite how many of these will actually get to where they want to be, I cannot say. I hope none. But it is a sad indictment of the course that such individuals, having the money, but not necessarily the qualifications beyond those acceptable to the providers, can actually get to take it, and that there is no real way around it.
    Given that the BVC is strictly a paper application, maybe the providers need to do more and interview candidates – though I doubt very much that would be of any practical help or benefit.
    Oh well – just some thoughts at this depressing time of year….

  3. Can I add my ten pence worth. I think rather that a test, it should be a hollistic personal appraisal, backed with stats and pertinant information specific to you.

    I haven’t had the experience of minx, my cohort is chocked full of members who are up to there eyeballs in debt, when they had no hope of ever getting pupillage (as SMQC said once – not even from their mother) – poor 2.2s, one certificate of academic standing/bare GDL scrape, both with fail after fail under their belt, and others with diabolical grammar, presence etc etc who would have benefited from a test – and I mean a test which gives you proper feedback.

    In answer to another comment – am I a proponent of the test because I think I would get through? Honestly? No. I am headed for a VC, and with the exception of the ex poly degree pretty good on paper, but it has been such a struggle for me to get there, I honestly think I would have failed a PROPER aptitude test.
    That in itself says a lot about the BVC.

    Why do I think this? Then I could have done my crying earlier, for a shorted time. Now what am I going to do? I am going to spend 5 years chasing a dream that I probably won’t realise because I just won’t be good enough in the odd interview I manage to get. I am going to still go for it because its what I want. I am going to still go for it because deep down I think I will get that special bit of luck, that I am unique and stand out. Is it true? Probably not.

  4. LG,

    ‘Can I add my ten pence worth. I think rather that a test, it should be a hollistic personal appraisal, backed with stats and pertinant information specific to you. ‘

    My suggestion would be to have a battery of tests and interviews. These can be made pretty rigorous and should be a good way of identifying current skills and potential.

    I don’t see why this could not be done to weed out the no-hopers before they have wasted time and money on the BVC. The current system encourages people who are long-shots to apply (and may scare off those who have a good chance, but cannot afford the financial risk).

  5. Simon,

    I’m glad you wrote this post. Comments on the last two got me down also, for similar reasons. I add simply that as a mature student who has knocked around commerce an industry for a good few years, us Bar students are positively mollycoddled compared to other sectors: the amount of resources given freely to help us become the very best advocates we can be, and to find our place at the Bar, is monumental. It is a pervasive attitude at the Bar that its practitioners know how lucky they are to be there, and want to give back time and advice to those who seek it. The institutions set up to help forge a career at the Bar, from law schools to Inns to specialist groups to chambers, deliver a practically voluntary service of very high quality, the likes of which you simply won’t find elsewhere.

    Sure the odds are high – everyone tells us that at every stage yet we retain the power to choose the risk for ourselves. But the desire to be spoon-fed victory is sadly symptomatic of our times. There are higher ideals than our own personal success: if we believe the Bar can contribute to the delivery of justice, and that justice is something worth aiming for, it is the Darwinian duty of all of us who think we have what it takes, to hurl ourselves at the wall of pupillage and see who sticks. As students we have the chance to present the Bar with a really strong pool of candidates to select from, and simply by stepping up we contribute a little.

    If on the other hand we do not believe in the higher ideal of justice or the Bar’s ability to attain it, we have to ask ourselves whether we have chosen an appropriate career path in the first place.

  6. Thanks Minx 🙂


    I wouldn’t purport to nanny people. I wouldn’t even restrict places to levels corresponding to pupilages on offer, as we ARE all adults. I whole heatedly encourage competition, PROVIDED people know the reality, which human nature being what it is you can not get from research.

    No matter what we read, and no matter how much we think we “know ourselves” and in my experience I have not met very many people who actually do, we all think we will be of interest to chambers because of A or B.

    Proper holistic selection could serve 2 purposes.

    1) You may have A or B and that may be of interest to chambers but its not true in the vast majority of cases, or at least they just can’t be interested in you because there aren’t the places and someone else with exactly the same attributes as you is better in contrived interview situations and actually your drafting may end up being a resit because you don’t have a crisp enough turn of phrase in your writing (for example). Isn’t it better to know you will fall at those hurdles? Those who have been through 14, 16, 18 pupillage interviews probably think so. Would a heads up that you are unlikely to make it be welcomed, then you can make a properly informed decision? People in this category, based on objective AND subjective assessment, would have a choice to continue, knowing this information.

    2) People that are slightly less capable and have an inability to realise the how stacked the odds are, are a different matter. Yes ‘hell mend them’ and all that, but perhaps they are, possibly, just not quite sharp enough to catch on to the fact that they don’t have a chance? So the same tests, resulting in marks of less than say, 70%, would lead to then being automatically culled?

    It may be a fact that, in no other profession, are aspirants as mollycoddled, but there is no other profession that training cost so much for such a long shot (often which will cause debt that these people will NEVER be free from), proportionate to the skills you actually garner (and I am a defender of the BVC I think its derided far too easily, but it has little value outside of its self, arguably little value at the real bar). It is a fallacy that the course prepares you for anything else ‘better’ that any other graduate. Added to this those who are in the profession are largely so far away from the realities of the bun fight that they can’t help anyway – unless you were going to get there in the first place – which possible renders that help obsolete.

    For those of us who on paper have a chance there are1 in 5 places for those who are even POSSIBLY good enough, forget the 100s each year who aren’t. People have unrealistic expectations. Surely that’s not cohesive with the higher ideal justice?


  7. I’m generally with Ginge except that I would disagree with the “transferability” of the BVC graduate into other sectors. BVC grads do tend to make for good candidates in my own field (the legal end of the finance spectrum) and, I expect, others also. Except there is one big problem. My firm has shortlisted 5 such candidates in the past few years (two of which were actually pupils at the time !). In every single case, the extent of the debts being carried by these candidates was horrific. Prospective employers, and particualrly those that will be investing heavily into 3 to 5 years of the training of new recruits, are very wary of candidates who are debt laden because such employees tend to be unreliable, prone to change jobs when chasing small pay rises and, at worst, debar themselves from professional qualifcation through their insolvency. The very largest employers can afford to lift the burden by providing subsidised debt finance but there are not many employers who can afford to do so to the tune of £30K plus.

    We have never felt adventurous enough to take the risk in offering any of these canddiates a place, but would certainly have done so if it were not for their personal financial position.

    In passing, I recall the BSB or BC producing a leaflet a few years ago in which it sought to promote the BVC as a transferable post grad qualification. It now seems to have disappeared.

  8. Bar Boy,

    What you have said is very interesting. Do you have any views on how to select candidates and identifying potential?

    James C

  9. James C, good question! – if I can try and put forward some suggestions to your question posed to Bar Boy: ‘Do you have any views on how to select candidates and identifying potential?’

    Psychometric profiling has been used extensively in the commercial world for recruitment, selection and development for many years; particularly for professional appointments requiring high calibre candidates.

    I would also suggest ‘People Specifications’, ‘Job Specifications’, ‘Personal Attribute Requirements’, ‘Chambers Profile’, ‘Chambers Requirements’, a published ‘Interview Structure’ etc, etc.

    Most importantly I would suggest training for interviewers. How much training does the average Bar interviewer have on how to interview? (nil) How many times will a Barrister apply for a job after qualifying? (once or twice after 15-25 years) and yet they are the ones conducting the interviews!

    On a wider strategy basis:

    Although I have concentrated on Pupillage recruitment above the same logic applies to BVC recruitment and the two processes should, in my opinion, be intergrated and supplement each other with the Bar having an input to BVC recruitment and vise-versa.

    Of course this would need a professional review (and a paradigm shift by the Bar) involving interested parties but also professionals who could help and support the Bar in going forward with a fair and sustainable system for the future.

  10. Hi, been reading for a while and thought I would now throw in my first comment.

    I am too an aspiring barrister, and questing for pupillage, soon to be starting my BVC. I have found this particular discussion interesting and there are some very astute comments.

    I think a real problem with the vast numbers of people who apply is that they are unwilling to accept their own failings and shortcomings, or even to grasps the significant odds against pupillage. This makes it far too easy to criticise the BVC and the application process as leaving one in a poor position to actually obtain it. I admit, there are certainly failings with both of these aspects, and I have my views on other problems with the system as a whole.

    My personal experience has been a constant tirade from current lawyers who state at the first chance given that no-on should try and be a barrister these days. This has been said to me by everyone from current pupils, to Lord Justices of the Appeal. I have, of course, staunchly ignored this and carried on in my quest. It is interesting therefore that this is in fact part of the problem; these warnings are here for a reason. I know the figures, I know the risks, I know the costs. Yet I continue anyway, as do many others. Unfortunately, the obstinate nature is a key part of getting this far through the system already; otherwise I would have gone the way of many of peers and opted for another career. However, it may transpire that ultimately I am ill suited for a career at the Bar, and it is only at that point will such figures apply to me. Until that point, I must shrug aside such notions or I would have already pulled out of the process.

    I think a serious problem is a lack of clear indication of ones own merits judged against some kind of clear scale. I realise of course that it would be impossible to construct such a scale, but what I mean that I cannot comprehend my own level of ability and am unsure how to do so (except in comparison to extremes). How then does one address this shortcoming? How do I know that I am ill-suited and under-talented? In some ways, the only measure of suitability can be the actual process of selection itself.


  11. managechange, my two-pence on some your ideas for pupillage recruitment, with which I disagree:

    People specifications and job specifications: redundant. If a candidate hasn’t gathered what’s involved and what’s required from their own pro-active research, then they’re clearly not a good enough candidate – it’s laziness. Most Chambers now have a published pupillage policy or at the very least some words about it on their websites.

    Personal attribute requirements: as above. I think there’s many existing sources from which a candidate can glean what’s necessary for a career at the bar. Barristers at their inn, pupils, this blog, that pupillage book written by some young barristers, thestudentroom, their university, their BVC provider, watching and learning.

    Chambers profile: as above. How would this differ from the website, the Pupillage Handbook
    and Chambers and Partners? Three vital and, taken together, pretty comprehensive sources.

    I’m not sure if your thoughts on those stem from not knowing what’s out there relating to Chambers and pupillage – apologies if you just don’t know about Chambers & Partners etc.

    Your comments on interview structure and training are interesting. I think I disagree though that these would add anything to the selection process. Taking first and second round interviews, I went through about 10 interviews in last year’s OLPAS. In all but 1 the structure of the interview was set out to me very clearly at the beginning, and for those with a written problem warning was given a good few days in advance (though the actual problem given on the day). A good candidate will know roughly the various forms that an interview could take: see the sources above. Publishing the exact structure surely wouldn’t add anything.

    With regard to training for interviewers: with the exception of one Chambers which shall remain nameless, I was impressed at every single one of my interviews both with the conduct of the interviewers and the quality of questions asked. At all but one it was made clear that the same core questions were being asked of each candidate and that the interviews would take the same structure. As for the ability of the interviewers to pick up on weaknesses, challenge, and tease out the relevant information – they could all do it and I expect this is closely related to their professional skills! All but that one were what I would call fair interviews, and having read the very long Bar Council guidance on pupillage after the event, I now suspect that their interview strategies had been drawn up in accordance with that guidance.

    As I say, just my two-pence worth as I don’t think this hits on the real problem / gripe of too many BVC students who will not make the grade.

  12. Oddyseus –

    Pretty much every set has a CV page for each barrister. Given that, how can you maintain that there’s “A lack of clear indication of ones own merits judged against some kind of clear scale”?

    I – silently – measured myself against everybody with whom I came into contact during my GDL, and I measured myself against the CVs of junior members at the sets to which I was considering applying. The qualities/qualifications I could measure were:

    Degree result
    BVC result
    Other awards / achievements
    Pro bono work (amount; and type)
    Legal work experience (amount; and type)
    Mooting/debating experience

    In terms of my fellow GDL students I could weigh up my personality and motivations against theirs. Two personality types stood out amongst those thinking about the bar – the bolschy public schoolboy stereotype full of confidence/arrogance, and the quieter but determined and serious non-public-schoolboy type. I was happy that there were enough of the latter, who seemed to be doing okay in gaining pupillage, to suggest that it might be okay for me too.

    I also compared myself to my fellow GDL students with respect to how quick I was with grasping legal concepts and understanding the essays I was supposed to be writing. This is definitely measurable!

    Aside from that, you can get a list of the “qualities necessary for the Bar” from doing your research. After that it’s a case of deciding whether *you* think you’ve got them, and for the application, how you can show that on paper.

  13. “Psychometric profiling”


    I only ever had one job interview involving a psychometric test. The questions were all stupid, of course, but the worst had to be
    “I prefer the beauty of
    1. a well-written poem
    2. a well-made gun”
    I ticked #1. I didn’t get the job*.

    As soon-to-be BVC student myself, I don’t see what is wrong with a ‘reform’ simply consisting of interviews for pupillage BEFORE starting the BVC – as, I suppose, is the case with the summer round of OLPAS now – but also with enough time for the non-pupillage-getting to pull out of doing (and paying for) the BVC for that year.

    After all, one hears a lot of complaints aimed at the pupillage selection process from BVC students, but one does not really hear the legal profession itself complaining that these new Barristers are an absolute shower, can’t advocate for toffee, etc., better reform the pupillage selection process then.

    On the other hand, if it is quite true that all cannot (or should not ) have prizes, one still has to feel sorry for all those who paid their £15,000 and ended up with a qualification that seems to count for little and expires after 5 years anyway. I think we should be careful not to conflate these issues: the fact that ‘selection’ is necessary yet will always disappoint some (perhaps the majority); and the fact that the Bar effectively has a £15,000 entrance fee, and anyone who does not think £15,000 is an extraordinary amount of money has presumably been suitably punished by yesterday’s budget…

    *the job was not at a munitions factory

  14. I’m not sure that the fact that few posts deal with the fact that their author would not have taken the course had they realised how difficult it was to obtain pupillage, is representative of the way in which the Bar portrays the difficulties of getting on in the profession. Taking myself as an example; I still retain hope of gaining pupillage, and although I knew and know it was going to be and is hard, I do not know yet quite how hard it may turn out to be. If, in a few years time, I still don’t have pupillage, perhaps then I will reconsider whether I would have spent my time (but not my money fortunately) taking the BVC. I would guess that most contributors are in the same position as me.

    If I understand your point about being driven the distance as opposed to walking it, then I, like James C above, strongly disagree with the sentiment. I would appreciate you outlining further what you mean (apologies if I’ve overlooked it somewhere), because the arguments against seem overwhelming. I can only assume that I have missed something if the following example is a result of your suggestion:
    my parents are successful, and send me to the best possible school, I then go to Oxford to study law (coincidentally the same place that my father studied law) and apply for pupillage. Someone else, who has been to a terrible school and got to Oxford to study law, despite his father not attending university at all and currently being on jobseekers, also applies for pupillage. I turn up to interview knowing and understanding things to a similar degree as the other candidate. I am not favoured because I haven’t travelled as far as he has. The logic being that he has worked harder, used more brain power, whatever, to get to the same position as me.

    Quite apart from the fact that it would be absolutely impossible to measure the relative distances travelled, it would be waging a class war. Couldn’t you look at it conversely and say that it is ME who has been disadvantaged because I have not, by unhappy chance, been given the same opportunity to demonstrate that I am equally as capable of coming from a deprived background and being successful? I may have the same potential as this other candidate, but I have not been allowed to show it, yet. And what if a close relative of mine died just before I took the exams? Or my very successful father who sent me to the best school used to abuse me? How would that be taken into account in measuring distance travelled? As far as I am concerned, that model of distance travelled should have absolutely nothing to do with assessment. It seems to be nothing more than discrimination.

  15. Dear Pupilpedia,

    My thoughts as an outsider are as follows.

    One of the most important consideration for students considering to apply for pupillage is their financial position and attitude to financial risk. Those with the money might well apply even though their chances of success are less than evens. Conversely, more able students may not bother to apply because of the financial consequences.

    It is, therefore, misleading to listen only to those who have undertaken the BVC. They will have chosen to take their chances. They are a biased sample.

    As for the concept of ‘distance travelled’, it is absurd. Two equally good 18 year olds could apply to Oxford. Which one is admitted could depend on any number of trivial factors and it is absurd to place much weight on this.

    What is much more important is the skills and potential that the candidates can demonstrate at the time of selection.

    How this is measured is open to debate.

    My opinion is that in many other professions a selection is carried out in a much more rigorous and systematic fashion. The bar seems to be half a century behind the rest of the world and too blinkered to realise that it is doing a bad job.

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