Life at the Bar · The BVC · The Future

Bit of a Kicking

I have repeatedly asked for people who want to challenge the views I express to write to me and I will print what they send, providing it is sensible and that I can verify that they are genuine. So, when it happens, it would be churlish to ignore it. What appears below has been sent to me by someone who saw the article in Legal Week – where I replied to some complaints about the criminal Bar.

I have their permission to interject occasionally – I have put my comments in red type. Because it is quite a long response I am publishing it in two parts. I think it’s quite persuasive – as Lord Keynes famously said, “When the facts alter, I change my mind. What do you do sir?” So, I am thinking.

I must admit that, prior to reading the article mentioned above, I had never heard of you. And having reviewed your blog, I have to say, you seem like a decent bloke (thank you) – well aware of the challenges facing young people seeking pupillage and the infuriating stance of BVC providers.

But unfortunately that doesn’t change the fact that my first reading of your article last month made my blood boil. And I notice that you have, recently, requested someone submit a response, with “real facts and identifiable sources”, to counter your assessment of the situation at the criminal bar.

Well I am not, alas, a practitioner, and thus unable to comment on the attitude of ushers, life in chambers, or the loss-leader culture.

However, it seems you are throwing down this gauntlet on the basis of certain accusations that you are “out of touch”. And what I can do, I believe – through reference to the real facts of my own experience and the identifiable source of, well, basic maths – is to provide the reasoning behind this accusation. In doing so, I will underscore the flawed premise of your article.

The sweeping comments with I take issue are:
1. That pupillage awards ensure pupils can meet essential costs (I said this or something very close to it);
2. That it is feasible to maintain one’s livelihood on a very low income for a sustainable period (and this) and;
3. That anyone who disagrees with these deductions is money-grabbing, shallow and lacking appreciation of the true value of the profession (I’m not sure I said this, although I think it is true of some people).
So, I have taken the liberty of assessing the merits of your statements.

Firstly, are pupillage awards at the criminal bar sufficient to “ensure that a pupil can pay their rent, travel and eat without too much worry”? Well according to the statistics the basic award at the criminal bar for a pupil could be as little as £10,000 (this is accurate).

So what are the costs? Well, a quick search for a Zone 2 flat-share on Gumtree London informs us that even the most basic single room will cost the tenant, on average, £500 per calendar month, or £6083 per annum. That, of course, is not including bills. Let’s assume our pupil shares with four others. Council tax in Zone 2 would amount, on average, to £15 per month. Meanwhile, money comparison websites can give us an average monthly figure for heating and electricity of £20, and the average Thames Water yearly bill gives us another £5 per month. The – let’s face it, for the modern pupil – essential internet connection fee adds a further minimum of £5. The equally obligatory mobile phone, another £30. That all amounts to an additional annual cost of £912.50.

The cost of a Zone 1 & 2 travel card is presently listed by Transport for London as £1,032 per annum. I will assume that the pupil is never required to travel to Zone 3, or to Zone 4… or Surrey… or Kent…

As for food, I defy even the most stringent budgeter to sustain a weekly grocery shop amounting to less than £7 per day, or £50 per week, in London – another £2,607. That amounts to total yearly outgoings of £10,635, which – hey presto – already surpasses the lowest award of £10,000.

This is before allowing for any other costs such as hygiene products, clothes (which would include court-worthy suits), any sort of emergency costs, or – God forbid – a social life, including the obligatory drinks with chambers.

But it is not enough to view pupillage as an isolated event. The BVC is of significant cost to any individual. Unless you are privy to some third party source of financial support, the only option for many a student is the professional development loan. More on my own experience later, but for now I will disclose that the bank loan I took to enable me to pay the course fees and cover one year’s living expenses in London, which was specifically tailored for BVC students, was for £25,000 (which suggests a total living expense for the year of £13,000 without repayments of the loan as BVC fees were about £12k).

There would be a brief repayment holiday on my loan, but ultimately the terms required a minimum repayment of £410 per month. Add this cost to his monthly outgoings, and our pupil is suddenly short of around £460 per month to feed and house himself.

Perhaps we can propose a box under London Bridge?

So how about the case of, as you say, the “almost terminally unfortunate pupil”, who is unable to “earn proper money” between the ages of 25 and 30? Your statement that we would “only” be waiting 5 years for a decent, sensible wage seems to insinuate that it would be frivolous to expect otherwise – surely we can survive without a Mercedes until we’re in our early thirties?

Well I’m afraid that, for those of us without another means of financial support, life simply isn’t that luxurious. It would not be a case of holding out for life’s perks – it would be a constant struggle to make ends meet (this seems a weak point to me – making ends meet is a struggle for many young people).

To save further argument, I will ignore the “anecdotal” evidence that I have heard from various sources, including close personal friends, as well as Alex Deane’s article, regarding the difficulties of receiving fair remuneration as a junior practitioner.  And unfortunately, I was unable to find further analysis of the Bar Council statistics you cite as your frame of reference (the most useful reference to those statistics when googling “barristers’ earnings” was your article!). Try http://www.barcouncil.org.uk/trainingandeducation/CareersHome/Funding/WhatBarristersEarn/ which is where I got my figures, although the link now seems to be broken.

So I will assume our junior is expected to live on a mean of the lower average – or £20,000.
Accounting for tax, such an income would leave our junior an extra £30, monthly, over and above his predicted essential outgoings, for those five years he awaits his “proper wage” (although some years will be better and you can set off your professional expenses against tax which alters the equation considerably). Not to mention an added repayment of around £50 per month to the Student Loans Company through earning over £15,000. And let’s not forget that this would come on top of an already turbulent 12 – 18 months in negative figures – leading, possibly, to further loan repayments.

Would the satisfaction of the work vindicate our struggle? Yes. Would we pursue our passion regardless? Absolutely. If it were an option, I certainly would do so. But the only means by which I, personally, could maintain this position would be by sinking myself further and further into debt. Even if this were a viable option, it is unlikely to be a realistic one in the current financial climate.

And this brings me to your final assertion, as I proposed would be addressed – that those of us who bemoan the state of pupillage awards and income at the criminal bar have little sense of the true value of the vocation, seek only material riches, and probably were not good enough to outshine the competition in any event.

Well, forgive me if I have misread the tone of your statements, but you seem to have overlooked a fundamental point. The lack of pecuniary reward in the earlier years of practice at the criminal bar does not deter only those who would seek to undertake it in order to glory in its riches. It also deters – and in fact, prohibits – some very talented and passionate candidates who do not have access to a significant amount of alternative financial backing. I’m flabbergasted as to how your article could so succinctly dismiss this possibility.

Well, I said that I would evidence my argument with reference to my own background. This is my experience. I graduated Durham University with a good 2:1 in law and some sensible extra-curricular experience. I also waitressed throughout my time at university in order to pay my outgoings. Thereafter, I spent a year working for a small but significant criminal law firm who managed several high profile cases, also volunteering in justice policy research and in court.
(It is probably worth noting at this stage that my wage with the firm was £12,000 per annum. I was living outside of London at this time, yet still found it necessary to supplement my income through part time waitressing.) I graduated the BVC having narrowly missed an outstanding, but with outstanding grades in advocacy. And, following that summer’s OLPAS round, I had ten pupillage interviews lined up with criminal sets.

I attended none of these interviews. Quite simply, I did the math (That’s a shame for the Bar).

There are issues here about which we could quarrel, and I would like to see the maths reworked with professional expenses deducted, but it does begin to look as if – in London at any rate – the minimum award isn’t enough.

I will publish Part 2 later in the week – and tell you what I have done about this communication. Comments are welcome – and thank you to my anonymous correspondent, who took the trouble to tell me rationally why I was talking nonsense. They could be a Judge 🙂

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14 thoughts on “Bit of a Kicking

  1. A pupillage award of £10k is disgraceful compared to the amount that other non-law graduates can expect to earn after they graduate. They also didn’t take a course that costs £13k for one year either.

    When you see some chambers advertising their pupillage awards at £30-60k it is enough to put people off for good, into ever going to the criminal Bar.

    Many of us wannabe criminal hacks know that we will not end up earning as much (or even a fraction) as our friends doing civil work. We all know and accept the risks etc, however is it too much to be expected to be remunerated for all our hard work. Too much to be expected to receive a basic livable salary, for what is supposed to be one of the toughest and elitist professions one can aim for?

    If any other graduate saw a job that was being advertised for £10k a year, they wouldn’t even bother applying. They would think of it as a sick joke.

    With this in mind and the point proven that you cannot live off £10k in London or perhaps in any city, what is the Bar going to do about it? Absolutely nothing appears to be the answer.

  2. When I joined the RAF at 19 with GCSE’s and a BTEC (hardly stellar academics) my starting pay was in the region of 12k, I believe it is now 13 and a bit. I left the RAF after 8 years to pursue a carreer in law and was attracted to the Criminal bar for all the reasons mentioned by SMQC. My reasoning was simple as long as I was getting an equivalent (modest) wage but doing a job I could have some pride in I would be more than happy.

    Two years into my degree, and with a possible LLM and BVC on the horizon, I have to doubt whether it is worth the effort. My thinking is obviously clouded by by age… (when is the inevitable marrige /baby/ mortgage going to come?)…. but a pay cut to 3 grand below the very bottom of a non graduate job with a 5 year wait to break even, is a ‘slap in the face’ hard enough to prompt a serious re-think. It’s certainly not all about the money but fair pay for fair work must be the starting point.

  3. From my perspective as a bar aspirant — to the civil, not criminal bar — part of the problem seems to be that the pupillage year is considered to be halfway between another year of training (in which case it might even be reasonable for the pupil to pay chambers) and employment (in which case £10K is a laughably small sum for a highly skilled role).

    On the one hand, earnings in the first six are not taxable as income. On the other, you’re technically subject to the working time directive. And then there’s Edmonds v Lawson where pupillage was held to be exempt from minimum wage rules because it’s not properly employment. (Which is as well, really, because you could only work 33 hours per week on minimum wage at £10K a year.)

    In government, industry and even amongst solicitors it is common for an organisation to decide that the graduate will add value down the line. Therefore the organisation takes the calculated decision to invest in the training and reasonable salary of the graduate even during the period where the trainee is not adding much value. The SRA implictly recognises this by setting the minimum salary for trainees at a bit over £18K in London and around £2K less elsewhere. These are reasonable salaries for graduates and are the same or a bit lower than other graduate opportunities.

    But of course chambers are not organisations in the usual sense. A successful pupil who gets tenancy does not contribute to chambers in the same way that a trainee solicitor does to his/her firm or a graduate trainee in industry does to his/her company.

    One solution might be to have some kind of central funding of pupillages, either through the Inns or by a levy on practicing barrisers to aid the “next generation”. Then pupillage awards could be evened out between civil and criminal sets. Criminal pupillage awards could be liveable amounts e.g. on the order of the SRA minimum which, according to your anonymous correspondent’s calculations would be enough to scrape by on with enough left over for clothes, deodorant and the odd pint but not enought to live a profligate lifestyle.

    It is undeniable from the data that when minimum pupillage awards were introduced the number of pupillages available plummeted. For this reason, I don’t think it is a solution to raise the minimum pupillage award substantially: it would be more likely to lead to there being fewer pupillages available. (And anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that the mismatch between aspirants and pupillages is another topic of debate.)

    So I don’t know the answer.

    My personal circumstances (married, 10 years in the work force prior to seeking pupillage, student debts completely discharged, substantial savings) mean I can afford to take a pay cut, if necessary, if I am fortunate to be offered a pupillage. But I would not have been nearly so sanguine if I’d tried this straight out of university and without the resources I now have at my disposal.

  4. Beth’s comment and the original post are both coherent and sensible, but the comment from “Lost” above is internally inconsistent and makes no real sense.

    The position, as I see it, is this. Yes, £10,000 is not enough money to live on in London for a year, but as Beth says it is a payment in respect of training and not pay for employment. It is always open to people to work for a year first (and indeed many will have to if they don’t get pupillage first time). I also agree with Beth when she says that increasing the minimum award is likely to reduce the number of pupillages, so it’s basically a battle between the number of pupillages and the value of them – anecdotally speaking I think most applicants would rather more pupillages.

    There is simply no point in throwing your toys out of the pram and haughtily saying it’s a disgrace without considering the context (as per “Lost”). The Bar is a self-employed profession; the criminal bar is not as well-paid as the civil bar; accordingly a. criminal barristers are less able to afford significant pupillage awards than their civil peers and b. if criminal barristers made a significant sum in pupillage it would be misleading, causing a short sharp shock when they realised how relatively meagre their earnings would be in the first few years of tenancy. If you need at least 30k to survive in your pupillage year (the first half of which is tax free) then you are not cut out for the Criminal Bar. I’m not quite sure what Lost expects the criminal Bar to do – subsidise all junior criminal tenants for years until they have earnings deemed befitting to their status?

    Of course lots of people choose the Civil Bar over the Criminal Bar because there is more money in it. Equally there are many people at the Criminal Bar because it is easier to get into than the Civil Bar. Crime doesn’t pay very well – this is a fact, it is not the Bar’s fault (indeed I’m quite sure the Criminal Bar would be delighted if it became more lucrative), and anyone who has a problem with the pay should simply do something else.

  5. Just one point on the £10,000 figure.

    I wonder the extent to which this may be a red herring. A cursory glance at the websites of a few London chambers where friends of mine have a criminal pupillage indicates that the second six months is paid by way of guaranteed earnings of £5,000, and that chambers often suggest that earnings will be higher than that (one chambers suggests a figure of between £15,000 – £20,000 for the second six).

    No doubt the amount of earnings in the second six will be highly variable, and chambers will tout a figure towards the higher end so as to attract applicants. Nevertheless, I wonder what the average earnings are for a pupil in his or her second six and how this would affect the financial model your detractor is constructing. It would be interesting to hear from former pupils on this point, particularly the ones who feel they received a low level of guaranteed earnings.

    No doubt someone will comment that it is the principle of the thing that pupils could even theoretically be paid only £10,000 a year. I sympathise deeply with anyone on a pupil’s wage, saddled with so much debt from their degree and BVC, but I think the £10,000 figure is something of a straw man.

  6. I wonder at the fact that your mystery correspondent attended NONE of the interviews. Actually talking to chambers about money troubles, deferring, possible loan sources, etc., is surely the best approach to take? I see the perfect logic in taking a year out, but not in turning down all your interview offers, I’m afraid!

    JK makes some good points. The problems in the criminal bar are not isolated to problems with pupillage awards. Rather, these are part of a trickle down effect of other problems higher up in respect of publicly funded work, are they not?

  7. Cross posting – Response to various comments.

    “The scholarship system is surely designed for students with the potential to gain pupillage who face financial barriers.”

    Unfortunately, not. For example, Gray’s Inn:

    “Scholarships are available to all, irrespective of background, to support and encourage students to become barristers.
    The Inn is able to give scholarships and awards to the value of over £700,000 a year. Most of these awards are for those undertaking their Bar Vocational Course, and the remainder go to those in their CPE and/or pupillage years. In general, when assessing applications, the Scholarships Committee pay particular attention to:
    i. Academic achievement
    ii. Intellectual and personal qualities
    iii. Extra-curricular activities and achievement
    iv. Potential for successful practice at the Bar
    v. Temperament and motivation
    vi. Mooting and/or debating experience”

    While I see the virtue in awarding the best and brightest, Inns scholarships are NOT means tested and do NOT set out to support those who might well be successful at the Bar other than for lack of funding. To assess the competition for scholarships, take a look at the qualifications, experience and list of awards of the recent intake of any Chancery Set. You’re right – I’m not that good!

    Also, the majority of scholarships are actually quite small, and even the 5000GBP one poster mentions would not even cover the BVC fees, let alone supporting oneself for a year – so would not, I’m afraid, negate the necessity for a loan.

    As for failing to attend interviews (a comment on Part I), interviews were cancelled owing to:
    1. Concerns that my attendance could unfairly limit the opportunity of another. I.e. – maybe someone else could take that interview slot, or maybe, if I had been offered a second interview, it would have been ahead of an otherwise worthy candidate who DID intend to undertake pupillage that year.
    2. Concerns about being in the awkward position of being offered pupillage I was then unable to commence for reasons of which I was already aware.
    (I had enough regret, for these reasons, about applying in the first place.)
    3. Precisely because I DID intend to take a year out to muster up funds, as outlined above.

    Anyway, I’m not saying I don’t have regrets about my handling of the situation. But for fear of this becoming a debacle examining my personal history, let me explain that I merely set out to establish reasons why Simon’s suggestion, that pupillage awards at the criminal bar are sufficient, needed further critical analysis.

    The manner in which I conducted myself is not really a matter for debate. I am one of many. The fact is that asking young people with significant commitments to student debt to live on 10,000 to 15,000GBP, and expecting that this amount provides sufficient support, is misguided.

    The situation does limit the access of some otherwise worthy candidates.

    Finally, it is true to say there is better remuneration available if practicing in other areas – which is where I am now focussing my attention. But Simon’s article is about the criminal bar and, therefore, so is my response. I think it is noteworthy that it is with regret that I am not pursuing my career in this field. Nevertheless, if the criminal bar are happy enough to say “Certainly the Criminal Bar is “losing out” … on many of the most talented barristers … that’s just the way it is”, who am I to argue?

    And a note about the debate that seems to have arisen on Oxbridge students and privilege:
    The most intelligent and the most academic graduates, whoever they may be (and from whichever university), are likely to be offered the best places and highest rewards in any discipline. This is the way the world should work. Whether those individuals are “the people who are in the least need of support” is neither here nor there – if they are the best, so it be. But whether pupillage funding is compulsory or otherwise, certain Chambers will always be offering high awards to attract the most suitable candidates. Failing to offer sufficient support to those who fall short of superstardom, but who nevertheless are talented and committed advocates, has no impact whatsoever on this situation. And trying to justify the latter by reference to the former is, to me, just twisted logic.

    1. To the best of my knowledge, Lincoln’s Inn, Middle Temple and Inner Temple all have means-tested scholarships.

  8. They’re means tested only to the extent that, once you have been granted scholarship (by virtue or academic record, experience and on the basis of your interview etc.), the amount you receive may be means tested. (Really, look it up.)
    As I say, I do not necessarily disagree with this (it makes sense that the best are awarded). But those with outstanding Oxbridge degrees and several internships aren’t necessarily those most in need of funding.
    As I say, check the CV of anyone within five year call at a Chancery set. They will have several years unpaid work experience, alongside a list of awards and scholarships from Inns. I’m not saying that ONLY those least in need are awarded, but this is fairly indicative of the fact that a large proportion of scholarships are unattainable to those MOST in need of funding. Perhaps it is worth considering whether assessment of abilities should be second to means testing…? I’m not convinced of the virtue of that, but at present the fact is that Inns scholarships are by no means a solution for those without the financial backing to pursue a career at the bar.

    1. So the scholarships go to the people who have merit, with more money going to to the people who need it more – sounds right to me. I don’t see why the Inns should be giving out money to people who are lacking in aptitude, a waste of Inns money and the people’s time.

      1. I deliberately did not apply for a scholarship this year because I knew that I would feel bad if I were awarded one, even if it were for only a token amount of money. I am working full time and doing the BVC part time (and I wonder how that option would work if you had to have a pupillage before starting the BVC).

        I literally would not notice an extra couple of hundred pounds from a small scholarship, but realise that for another applicant it would significantly increase their ability to attend the course. I worry that lack of a scholarship will taint my CV (though I did have a prestigious academic scholarship in an earlier life) but decided it wasn’t worth the guilt.

    1. You don’t pay for pupillage, but a pre-requisite for obtaining pupillage is to pass the vocational education stage, now called the Bar Professional Training Course, but previously called the Bar Vocational Course.

      The fees for the course range from £12,000-£15,000, depending on provider.

      It’s a lot of money and the course is not particularly useful if you don’t get pupillage.

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