Qualities Required · The BVC · University

Distance Travelled: Cost Incurred

51rwbs6shzl_bo2204203200_pisitb-sticker-arrow-clicktopright35-76_aa240_sh20_ou01_I think the distance travelled issue requires some explanation. Pupilpedia has commented on the post below:

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.

This is not quite what I am saying. This suggests that the distance travelled is the only issue. I do not think anyone is suggesting that. What is being suggested is that distance travelled should be a factor. So it should. The logic is not that the other person has worked harder or used more brain power. The logic is that he can be justifiably regarded as having more potential. Why? Because without any advantages he has got himself to the same place.

My father was a Judge. I know for a fact that lawyers’ children grow up with an instinctive knowledge of intangibles. They know how the relationship between a solicitor and a barrister works. They know how Chambers tend to operate. They know a bit of the jargon. They have met other barristers, solicitors and Judges and feel comfortable round them. They know what A levels to do, what Universities to apply to, that mini-pupillages are a requirement and so forth. These things apply to a lesser extent to those who have gone to good Universities and had middle-class upbringings. It is foolishness not to recognise it and, once it is recognised, it needs to be factored in. Otherwise, the risk is that potential is not measured – all that is measured is comfort levels. The Bar is a career in which you are only within the your comfort zone if you have stalled. It’s how you do outside it that matters.

Pupilpedia goes on:

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.

I don’t regard the distance travelled as demanding a precise measurement. It is one factor to be taken into account. It no more requires a precise measurement than whether the Oxford student went to a decent college to read law, or a less popular one to read theology (although the chances of entry are very different).

Nor, in my early middle-age do I see myself as a class warrior. This is about equalising things. If you cannot show your potential in terms of academic achievement (and I must say that a first class degree would show exactly that in my book – they are hard to get regardless of background) then find another way to show it. Climb Everest. Organise a successful charitable project. A death in the family is obviously a different issue and academic tutors can and should speak to it.

The question of a different system has largely been dealt with in the comments but I want to just pause for thought regarding Managechange’s suggestion:

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.

The BVC students are already complaining about cost. Who on earth would pay for psychometric profiling? People specifications is a nonsense from an office based world (where it might – although in my experience as counsel for quite a lot of commercial enterprises over 23 years, it does not – have some meaning). Job specification is something that the prospective pupil presumably knows. Personal attribute requirements sound like people specifications but otherwise they mean you ought to be able to work efficiently and get on with people. If you didn’t know that was necessary please don’t do the BVC. Chambers profiling is something we already do – otherwise pupillage applicants don’t know who to apply to.

Chambers requirements are a good idea and so is a published interview structure (I would also publish the assesment structure so people know which things matter most). Finally Managechange:

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!

I am training barristers twice this year between now and pupillage interviews on how to interview and how to approach equality and diversity issues. That is organised by and for my Circuit by a man (presumably one of those out of touch barristers so famous on this blog) who has just become a Judge. Moreover, every application for panel work now takes the form of a formal application so if any barrister wishes to work for the government or a local authority or go up a CPS grade s/he will have applied in writing. Moreover, any barrister will have asked questions in a formal situation whilst looking for specific points on many occasions. Many senior members of a pupillage committee will, whilst sitting,  have assessed people for honesty, accuracy, ability to deal with issues and overall impression – a job which the public trusts them to do well even though they do not know one end of a Personal Attribute Requirement from another. I agree that these things are not interviews but I’m not sure that interview training adds a lot to the experience gained from examining a witness.

These “solutions” are expensive. Chambers do not pay any member to do this. Maybe they ought, but until that happens it is a labour of love. Proposing expensive solutions from the commercial world – however snappy the titles – is simply unrealistic. The cost would have to be passed on to those applying. Nor are they necessary. There is no evidence that the Bar consistently picks people who are no good.

Once one acknowledges that the Bar’s choices are consistently acceptable we are talking about improvement. I simply do not understand how people can simultaneously advocate expensive professional assistance, whilst rejecting a straightforward assessment of potential based on distance travelled as a factor.

Improvement would involve extending fairness and ensuring that those without hope were adequately warned (and ideally rejected) before they spent their money. It involves transparency and better feedback from interviews. It also involves applicants acknowledging the risks they are taking and accepting failure with the same grace with which they would accept success.

35 thoughts on “Distance Travelled: Cost Incurred

  1. Simon,

    This is the crux of where we differ.

    First, the overall costs of the current system are absurdly high. Your perspective is that this does not matter, because they are largely incurred by unsuccessful applicants.

    Second, the notion of distance travelled is both highly subjective and a poor substitute for a systematic selection procedure.

    Third, a more conventional selection process would be cheaper and students would do better to pay for it upfront (at a cost of £5k or so) than waste a year and £40k in BVC fees and lost salary before finding out whether they have a pupillage.

    The fundamental problem with the status quo is that good candidates will be discouraged, and rationally so, given the financial consequences of failure.

  2. In my view (as a so-far unsuccessful applicant for pupillage), the only long-term sustainable thing to select barristers for is ability. That’s what public confidence really depends on. Distance travelled is irrelevant. Which college of Oxbridge you went to is irrelevant.

    That means ongoing assessment of advocates once they’re working. See also the controversy concerning criticism by a judge of solicitor advocates who appeared before him. Remember that the Bar is not only competing with public image, but with HCAs.

  3. Separately, is it possible to put in place an RSS feed for all comments? Other blog systems do this. I don’t want to have to subscribe to comment feeds for each post, and the comments on this blog are of a very high quality.

  4. I seem to recall that this issue of distance travelled was rather a hot topic a couple of decades ago, being when the diversity agenda first came to the fore (some, including me, would argue, as a necessary but very poor substitute for the social mobility afforded by the, then, outgoing grammar school system).

    I do feel it is a relevant factor, but only as a tie breaker when otherwise presented with canddiates of equal merit.

    The danger is that the distance travelled is, instead, viewed as weighting factor in determining that merit.

    The problem, in my view, with any of these diversity agenda related issues is that they run the risk of encouraging students to take the weighting factor approach to assessing their own merits and, therefore, their chances of success.

  5. What James has said is precisely not what I am saying. Of course the costs matter – you only have to read the blog to see that is my view. My concern is that these ‘solutions’ add to the cost for all applicants. The profession could simply not support them (and would not). The proposition that you should pay £5,000 before undertaking the BVC in order to determine whether you should pay another £12,000 for doing it does not appeal to me.

    Nor do I have a problem with a subjective assessment. This is a job where personal perception counts for everything. Why on earth it should be treated as a bad thing is beyond me. I trust my judgement and that of my colleagues. If we were crap at it we would have no clients.

    There are at least 10 people for every pupillage who, in my experience, have the necessary ability. That is why ability alone is too blunt a tool. The Bar is fortunate – I have never encountered a situation where we are asking the question “is there anyone who can do the job with ability?” Rather, the question has always been “Of those who can do the job, which one has the potential to do it really well?”.

    Distance travelled helps make that assessment, that is all. Its importance over the last couple of posts is not because I trumpet it as the be all and end all, but because people have (to my surprise) been entirely dismissive of it.

    Ed, is your second comment written in Korean? I am a technological Neanderthal and normally Martin George tells me how to do things like this. I will try – or you can email me with instructions and then I promise I will.

  6. Simon,

    No, it was in a dialect of English. I’m not familiar with the details of WP’s capabilities, but this snippet:

    Displays comments – either the most recent comments on all posts, or the comments on a specific post – in RSS 2.0 format.

    from this page: http://codex.wordpress.org/Customizing_Feeds

    suggests strongly that it is possible to do. Therefore, I imagine that Mr George will be able to give you a very simple way to achieve it, and it may already be possible.

  7. Simon,

    Why is paying £5000 up front (a number that I made up) worse than incurring costs of £15k plus forgone salary of £25k on a gamble that is odds against?

    If £5000 is too high, what number would make the deal attractive?

    Of course you could have an initial pre-screen with aptitude tests to weed out the obvious no hopers.

  8. Why should distance travelled be a reasonable method for a tie-breaker? Whilst I can see that there is some obvious merit to the person who has travelled the greatest distance, the other person has not had the opportunity to do so. Is this not a form of positive discrimination against those more fortunate? Here I have to say I agree with Pupilpedia; in his fictitious scenario, he who is without the opportunity to travel as far to reach the same point is discriminated against unfairly.

  9. Quick introduction. Mature student in final year of law degree. Firstly, thank-you Simon for providing such frank information for prospective barristers.
    I would just like to make a point on the idea of ‘distance travelled’. To me it is merely an opportunity for a candidate to demonstrate what they have achieved on their own initiative.
    The candidate from a deprived background can point to their success despite their background. The candidtae from a privileged background needs to point to something else. I can’t see how that is controversial.

  10. Factoring in distance travelled is not positive discrimination. It’s just evidence that one candidate has overcome objectively harder challenges on the way to meeting certain technical criteria than another. In so doing he has acheived more. Just like a one legged man running 100 m in the same time as a two legged man.

    Anyway, why shouldn’t that be taken into consideration any less than, for example, the way a privileged candiate might dedicate his freetime to helping those less privileged than him study for their degree?

  11. Questions

    1 How specifically do you measure ‘distance travelled’ ? My suspicion is that the concept is bogus and is just a slogan.

    2 How much weight do you give to it? What is the basis for this?

    3 Why is it better than other measures in assessing a candidate’s potential?

    4 What validation of the concept has been done?

  12. My experience is that the ‘distance travelled’ is currently one criteria already considered when interviewing; the difficult decision is how much weight should be given to it?


    You and the now Judge have always been leading lights with regard to training in comparison to other circuits; however I believe the bar needs lifting – when your course is delivered to every pupillage interviewer on every circuit and includes input from students, a recruitment/selection professional and from the BVC providers (who I know want to be involved in such training) and there is a programme of continued updating then the Bar’s recruitment and selection policy will have greater credibility.

    The cost of profiling would be less than 1% of the BVC fees. This has the potential to save unsuitable apirants tens of thousands of pounds, whilst identifying the strengths and weaknesses of those who are realistic entrants for them to develop upon, so improving the quality of aspirants.

    Finally, in my opinion including professionals in such issues would assist the Bar with diversity and reduce the criticism it regularly recieves in this regard.

  13. Answers:

    1. Please explain your suspicion. Do you seriously pretend that the journey from an inner-city school to Oxford is equivalent to Eton to Oxford? If you read the post you will see that I have already addressed the issue of measurement.

    2. As I do not regard selecting a pupil as a mechanistic process involving precise measurement the first part of this is simply irrelevant. The second part is explained in the post.

    3. It is not and I have not said that it is. I am not interested in ‘better’. I am interested in ‘helpful’.

    4. If you are talking about ‘professional’ assessment, none. On the other hand the commercial enterprises which have led us on the issue of selection techniques are those which have produced a group of people who tanked their businesses. So that is a good thing. On a personal level – those I have seen who have fully exploited their potential early tend to do very well. And that’s good enough for me.


    1. By and large I don’t do slogans. I have no difficulty with proper debate but your argument doesn’t get better when put like that.

    2. I did think I had made some of the answer clear. If you were my pupil and this was your draft Request for Further Information it would now be flying back at you 🙂

    MC: the training includes a recruitment professional. The aptitude test is intended to be equivalent to profiling and I agree that this is a help. My own views are set out on the blog – I would scrap the BVC and put the onus on Chambers. I suspect that if the profession had to successfully develop the pupil in order to recover the money, development and training would suddenly acquire an importance that it currently lacks (save on the North Eastern).

  14. I think there is a danger on reliance on psychometric profiling; it need be used with considerable caution and only as an additional factor in consideration. I have spoken to people who have been trained to use them (specifically the well known myers briggs test), and they are adamant that such testing cannot, in isolation, be used to determine suitability to a role. As I understand it, they are instead more suitable for identifying how you will fit into a particular organisational role, and how you will work with others. Obviously, this is a beneficial thing to have, but only in conjunction with a range of other factors. (For clarification, I am not saying that this approach has been suggested, I am merely commenting on them as a whole)

    I think if such testing were introduced then I would be worried that, as is used in business, they would take on a false primacy. They should not be used as a primary indicator of ability/suitability for the job. I think their introduction would perhaps lead to over-reliance on their results. After-all its relatively easy (even automated) to get a result using this tested, that would create a simple yes/no distinction. I am personally very cautious of such a test being introduced, although I can see its benefits as part of a complex selection process.

  15. Oddyseus, I was not positing that distance travelled should be the only facet to be considered but that, rather, it should be considered only when looking to distinguish between canddiates on objective criteria, e.g., educational attainment.

    Subjective criteria are always going to be applied, even sub conciously, in any application process and whether by the Bar or elsewhere.

    There are plenty of other such equivalent criteria which can be offered up. For example, in the opposite direction to the distance travelled argument, having relatives as partners in large solciitor firms is, I am reliably informed, a pretty good selling point.

    It is, I feel, the point in the process when these criteria are taken into acount which is the issue. Not just distance travelled, but all such criteria, and whether they favour those from disadvantaged or advantaged backgrounds.

  16. Simon,

    Perhaps I could give a concrete example. Suppose, for sake of argument, you were to rank 100 candidates according to ‘distance travelled’.

    How confident are you that another person, with equal expertise as yourself, would rank them in the same order?

    My own feeling is that there would be many major differences and so the concept is not a reliable one.

    Now, this question is entirely testable and I wonder whether you have done anything to validate the concept of distance travelled.

    I am sceptical, but open to persuasion based on the evidence. Do you have any to support your belief in the concept?

  17. Bar Boy, I wholly concede that you were not suggesting this. I do agree that the issue is very much the degree into which these factors are taken into account, regardless of whichever extreme they benefit. Unfortunately, such subjective weights cannot ever be measured, and will vary from chambers to chambers (and outside this of course). How do you suggest that such subjective criteria are controlled?

    My immediate thought was about the use of panels- the principle is (as is effectively expounded on many pupillage recruitment information pages) is that it will thereby preventing unfair prejudice in any direction on any one factor by any single person. In theory I can see that this should create a levelling of subjective elements, and thus why many recruitments now use panels. However, there is of course then the question of learned-subcultures within a work environment that lead to self-fulfilling recruitment criteria – I.E. recruit those are are like us. Such cultures have been well documented elsewhere within the criminal justice system, and I am sure they exist within chambers. They are, perhaps, unavoidable.

  18. I haven’t followed the whole of the discussion on the “distance travelled” issue, so please forgive me if what I say has already been covered.

    In my experience of interviewing pupillage candidates for over twenty years “distance travelled” has always been a powerful consideration. In particular it has caused many candidates lacking the very best paper qualifications to be invited to interview when those from more “privileged” backgrounds and holding the same qualifications have been rejected on paper.

    But at the the interview stage of the process I was always influenced by what I saw in front of me. My concern was not what and where they were ten, five or even one year earlier, but what they were at the time of the interview.

    No one is the finished article when they are taking the Bar Exams/BVC and the task of the interviewing panel is to assess, as best it can, whether each candidate appears to have the technical and personal skills required to succeed at the Bar – not just to get by but to do very well.

    Unless they showed that extra spark (which is a rare commodity whatever a candidate’s background) their achievements to date would not result in pupillage, although they would be admired and applauded and such assistance as we could give to find them a berth elsewhere would be given readily.

    Many was the time we saw someone who had achieved a vast amount from a modest background yet we felt obliged to say no because the spark was missing.

    There certainly were occasions when we had candidates we could not separate by any objective criteria (insofar as these personal judgments of character can ever really be described as objective). In the old days, before pupillage was funded, we made an additional pupillage available. Once pupillage was funded that course became more difficult although it still happened from time to time. Rather more common was to set them difficult tests until one proved him or herself “better” over a range of challenges than their outstanding competitor. By that stage “distance travelled” was, rightly or wrongly, out of the equation.

  19. Odysseus, I am not personally in favour of any form of discrimination, positive or otherwise. But it exists and it will always do so because of human nature. Further, in the context of the Bar, it is not a public body and I do not see that it should perform a social engineering function unless the Bar itself wants to do so.

    In this vein, I am not fussed about the policy messages, and what the Bar should or should not be doing in its recruitment process. What I should like to know is not the thinking behind whatever criteria the Bar applies but, simply, the results of that thinking. What are the “qualities” displayed, as fact, by successful pupils and new tenants ?

    To this end, following the current pupillage season, the BSB could be asked to publish stats for the pupillage applicants who are successful. In anonymised form, these could show key data (most of which must already exist in database form in any event).

    Something along the lines of:

    state or independent school
    type of uni
    degree or GDL route
    other (post grad etc)
    name of BVC provider
    method of student funding

    All basic stuff which can stand as raw data for any interested parties to interpret for their own purposes, and by whatever means they wish.

    I don’t imagine this is an original thought and I am, therefore, curious over what reasons may have been advanced previously to explain the non publication of this manner of information.

  20. FB,

    Perhaps I could ask you a question about your experience as an interviewer? This is how you assessed the potential of candidates.

    Which provided more information-the interview, where you could probe and test the candidate’s ability to think, or ‘distance travelled’?

    The reason that I ask is for most of the high performance jobs where original thinking is required, selection is generally based on very in depth selection panels where the interviewers grill the candidates.

    I am not talking about pyschometric testing, just an old fashioned rigorous interview where the candidate is asked probing questions.

  21. my experience is that universities already take “distace travelled” into account at the university admissions stage, from talking with admissions tutotrs certainly cambridge has incredibly detailed files and experience on school to applicant quality, far beyond what a chambers might be expected to make a realistic judgement on. If a student has reached the top end of the universites system they have in my view already traveled that distance. Once somebody is in oxbridge or other good university and studying their law degree they are on a level playing field.
    personally my cv ( state school) simply lists my qualifications and the year. I would be most uneasy to think that people were judging my merits or ability based on my social background rather than on my current ability and the potential they can see in me today. Of course – a successful charity project, or a first class degree reflects this, but this is not distance travelled this is achievement a very different metric indeed

  22. The ‘distance travelled’ should certainly be a factor taken into consideration. But, is it right to make assumptions about someone’s background when faced with limited information?

    I’ll give you an example – I am just completing my Olpas/Pupillage Portal form, and I have to specify whether the school I went to was a Public School or a Fee-paying one (there are other options, e.g. technical schools etc. etc.)

    Yes, I went to a private school. Yes, I benefitted from that, and I have no doubts that I did better there than I would have done had I gone to the local comp (which, incidentally, has now been knocked down and turned into an academy).

    But, because I went to private school, automatically assumptions are made about me and my family background. In fact, I am the first in my family to go to university, and my parents scrimped and saved incredibly hard to give me the best education that they could afford so that I would have opportunities they never had. We *never* had a family holiday.

    And yet because I scored good grades, some of the barristers on my mini pupillages have questioned why I didn’t go to Oxbridge.

    In an earlier post Simon mentioned that he had grown up in a legal household, and in my experience this appears to be one of the biggest advantages an applicant can have – you learn to walk the walk, talk the talk at a very early age.

    The problem boils down to the fact that measuring ‘the road travelled’ is almost impossible. It’s not like in medicine where once you get into medical school you’re almost guaranteed a job at the end of it (unless you do something horrendous!) But whilst questions such as these remain answered, ultimately the bar (and those shelling out thousands with no hope of breaking in), will suffer for it.

  23. I agree that there should be publication of such statistics. I was, whilst undertaking my own research, appalled by the lack of data from the BSB. The “It’s your call” document came close to providing such information, yet is out of date and only carries some of this information. I am therefore unsurprised at how many of my peers, particularly those in the first two years of university, are unaware of their chances of success.

  24. Alasdair & Anonymous,

    I agree entirely with your comments. It might happen that the two of you, with your different backgrounds, happened to be in competition for a pupillage.

    My guess is that you both believe that, given a fair hearing, you can demonstrate your potential rather better than someone can guess it based on his idea of ‘distance travelled’.

  25. Fat Bigot’s experience and mine are, unsurprisingly, similar. You look for something special. The interviews which I have taken part in have, I think, been demanding. There is simply no other way of sorting out candidates who, on paper, are all competent.

    In my book distance travelled goes to that issue. Although James seems terribly keen to make this into an ‘all or nothing’ argument, it has never been even close to that. It is a factor which speaks to both talent and determination. My specific questions to James as to why that should not be so have not been answered, from which I derive (as I would in Court) that there is no satisfactory answer. In that context, the proposition that I spent 7 years ‘guessing’ at the right candidate is ill-judged. On the whole, people who comment here obey common rules of civility. I recommend that approach to all.

    The point about publication of statistics is entirely valid. It would, I think, reveal some interesting information which we could utilise in the perpetual effort to choose the best candidates.

    Making assumptions is unhelpful in any context. On the other hand, recruitment is not an area into which the class war should intrude. The reason why someone went to a really good school may be relevant or it may not be. The ‘why didn’t you go to Oxbridge’ question is a classic example of where it may become relevant. If it is relevant then it should be asked, rather than an answer being assumed.

  26. Simon,

    You are the one who is misrepresenting my position and making it an all or nothing argument.

    My position, which seems entirely obvious, is that your concept of ‘distance travelled’ is ill-defined and conveys much less information than can be determined from assessing candidates directly.

    Why it seems obvious, is that other recruiters for other high performance jobs, do not use it.They do, however, make considerable efforts to measure potential.

    My suspicion is that it is a device to ensure an appropriate mix of candidates, not a tool to measure merit.

    Now, it may be that I am wrong, and that you have the results to prove the validity of ‘distance travelled’.

    You might, for example, have followed the careers of candidates who you rejected on the basis of ‘distance travelled’ and compared them to those you recruited.

    Finally, as an aside ‘guessing’ is not a derogatory word to those of a numerate background.

  27. James,

    I’m not sure why I must disprove your suspicions.

    You are wrong because I have never said that candidates should not be assessed directly, and because I have said this is not a device of any kind.

    You do not, of course, have to believe me. You are perfectly at liberty to suggest I am simply lying for a purpose you can no doubt set out.

    Otherwise, I suggest you deal with this differently. Your last paragraph seems to me to be nothing more than an attempt to deny the obvious. A better tack would be not to.

    If you insist on imputing to people an agenda they lack, misrepresenting their position, failing to answer their questions whilst asking (and getting answers to) your own, and refusing to accept what you are told in good faith – instead insisting on some sort of ‘proof’ that you alone define, you might guess that people get a little fed up.

    I want the Bar to have the widest possible range of applicant, because I want the best people possible. I have no idea what you want. You have talked about other professions and the experience of various techniques, but I have no idea of your experience or ability. I do not even know your name.

    If you want to debate this seriously, email me with your views, your experience and your qualifications for being taken seriously and I’ll put it up.

  28. Simon,

    1 You haven’t answered my questions, especially those where I ask for any evidence or validation for your concept.

    2 My only point is that the concept of ‘distance travelled’is ill-defined and provides less information than can be obtained from a direct measurement of a candidates’s abilities.

    3 I really don’t see what your good intentions or my motives have to do with what is an empirical question.

    4Finally, there does not seem much support for your views on ‘distance travelled’ by the pupils who have posted.

    I will say no more on the subject.

  29. Goodness, what a fuss. I have been reading these comments for a while, and have decided that it is time to stop lurking and lay my cards on the table.

    I went to a state comp. I am shortly due to take law finals at Oxford. If I stop posting on blogs and actually do some work for this, I anticipate that I will have ‘travelled’ some ‘distance’. So, I suppose that this discussion is for the benefit of poor souls like myself.

    Personally, I think the spatial metaphor being used here is thoroughly unhelpful, insofar as it suggests that it matters precisely where I started out, and precisely where I reached, and the ‘distance’ between the two.

    I have no desire to get a pupillage because of my school, and still less to do so because of my (reasonably decent) Oxford college. That simply does not matter, and I would add that it is frankly rather patronising to be told that I have done awfully well for one so disadvantaged in life. I expect that my privately-educated counterparts would be similarly offended, and reckon that the comments here largely support that view.

    However, I don’t necessarily take Simon to be supporting such an approach. Diligence and hard work and potential do all matter, should be taken into account, and can properly be evidenced by the fact of having overcome adversity. Assessing such values is necessarily a somewhat subjective exercise, but selecting pupillage candidates is ever thus.

    So, the issue is only whether chambers may reasonably feel that they can measure those values by looking at a person’s educational background, and whether they can do so in a way that goes further than making crude generalisations about given institutions.

    Personally, I think that a person could make the journey I have made without necessarily being more diligent than someone from, say, a decent but unexceptional private school.

    Distance travelled in itself therefore does not matter, and does not necessarily point to particular personal qualities. But it *might* do the latter, and so can legitimately be considered – provided that chambers can actually articulate the way in which they will assess whether or not it does so in a given case.

    Can they do so? Personally I am sceptical, especially at the stage of the paper application, where I think this proposal positively invites the sort of crude generalisations I am talking about. But it is worth consideration, and it is unreasonable to say ‘no’ outright.

  30. Closer to where I am, but still not there.

    Oxbridge tends to speak for itself. Not all State Comps are equal. The area where I am really interested is where the applicant is the only one from their school ever to read law, and the first of their family to go to University, and whose A levels are at or about the quality which would normally be expected (say AAB, rather than AAA). Due to a combination of those A levels, a lack of careers advice, a lack of self-confidence and a wish to stay near home they have not gone to the best university they could.

    I must have seen 5 or 6 people in that category in the 5 years I interviewed for pupillage. They were, without exception, hugely impressive. I worry how many we missed – whilst giving pupillages to those whose academic careers were far more conventional.

    This isn’t about being patronising. Being recognised for achievement should never be that. It is simply a question of what, exactly, is defined as achievement. That this may be different for different people seems to me to be astonishingly non-contentious. The next question is whether achievement (however defined) correlates with potential. This, again, may require some definition of achievement and what the applicant has done to get to where they are. Again, this will not be the same for every person.

    Crude generalisations are what happens when barristers say ‘he’s from Oxbridge and must be worth an interview’. I hear no outcry against that sort of thing. Yet Oxbridge counts because of what it says about you. Why other factors should not say the same thing, louder, is beyond me.

  31. ‘I must have seen 5 or 6 people in that category in the 5 years I interviewed for pupillage. They were, without exception, hugely impressive. I worry how many we missed – whilst giving pupilages to those whose academic careers were far more conventional.’

    I agree with this completely and have many friends in that category (not in law, though). There was,though, absolutely no danger that there talents would go unnoticed, provided their interviewer was as intelligent as they were.

    Will revert to radio silence.

  32. I agree that it should be taken into account Simon – though not quite in the way you phrase it. I don’t agree that if e.g. someone presents with a 2.2 from De Montfort Uni but started life in the slums of Mumbai they should get pupillage over a 1st class Oxford grad.

    However, I do think there should be room for noting anything suggesting that things were achieved in the face of adversity (I know at least one non-OLPAS set provides for this on its form, though I don’t know what the current OLPAS form is like).

    I think this really does need to be expressly provided for, as you really can’t make generalisations on the basis of certain aspects of the application form. For example, I am the first person in my family to go to university. Neither of my parents are employed. I had to care for a dying relative before and during my finals. However, I went to an excellent school (on a full bursary) and ultimately to a very good university. Am I disadvantaged? Would I have done better in other circumstances? I’m not sure I would have, though I probably had to work harder in certain respects. Similarly, there is an excellent State school nearby – had I gone there would I have done as well? Quite possibly. If my parents were not as supportive as they were, would I have succeeded? Probably not. There are boxes to tick for income/school type/family uni education etc but none for “sick relative” or “supportive parents”, which were probably the biggest influence on my ultimate performance… you just can’t whittle it down like that. I think the “adversity” box is a good idea.

    And I do think it shows a quality which is important at the Bar – ability to cope, ability to deal with what life throws at you with a “show must go on” mentality – there’s rarely a chance to be off “sick” at the Bar, failing a bout of swine flu !

  33. I would have liked to add my tuppence’ worth earlier to this debate earlier in the week; but if it is not too late:

    Surely it is only fair* for chambers to directly favour ‘distance travelled’ candidates (albeit only to a small extent) in order to balance out all the ways in which the pupillage application process indirectly favours upper-middle class candidates?

    For example, OLPAS, along with most non-OLPAS forms I have seen, ask whether one can speak a foreign language. But only 22% of state schools insist students learn a foreign language, whereas 88% of private schools do (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/jan/15/language-privilege-results). Do any state comprehensives ever do mooting or debating? How many LLM graduates come from poor backgrounds? Even the ‘hobbies and interests’ section arguably favours the better-off (particularly as the section expicitly asks you to state what you like to do, and not just what your interest are – skiing in Val d’Isere, surfing in Cornwall and being a Grade 12 flautist beating sitting at home in front of Wikipedia).

    If it is apparently too controversial for ‘distance travelled’ to be given a points score at interview, then surely opponents of Simon’s idea will at least concede that interviewers should be cautious (and I’m sure they are) not to penalise ‘distance travelled’ candidates for lacking the same expensive CV gloss as the better-monied?

    *for simplicity’s sake I use the word ‘fair’, though I do not suggest it is merely out of ‘fairness’ that ‘distance travelled’ candidates are acknowledged: indeed, surely the strongest argument for meritocracy is that it is more efficient and effective than (at the other extreme) aristocracy.

  34. R,

    As I said above, I don’t believe that “distance travelled” should be given a score, but I do believe that regard should be had to “achievement in the face of adversity”, as this is a different matter, it is not “positive discrimination” (I don’t agree with that, I think the BEST candidate should be chosen, not the best when adjusted for distance travelled) but actually “evidence of characteristics we are looking for”.

    I agree with your second last paragraph – I think chambers must, and do, avoid favouring “monied” pastimes – though genuinely in my experience having a different CV for whatever reason makes a better impression than the ubiquitous “travel” which most candidates include thinking that, without more, it makes them a more impressive individual. I think any “adversity” box would help in this sense, as in its absence it again falls to the panels to make generalisations – e.g. for my CV they might think that given that I went to a private school it is surprising that I spent so much time in dead-end jobs while my co-pupils were travelling the world – I was sure to explain this somewhat in my applications, but for others an “adversity box” might be helpful…?

  35. Oh yes, one other thing I meant to say was that in my experience school extra-curriculars aren’t given massive weight, university extra-currics are far more important.

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