Interviews · Routes to the Bar · Which Chambers?

A Bit of a Kicking Back

Part of the problem with having email on at home and in Chambers is that it sometimes gets lost in the mix. Last week Kris emailed me having not been able to post. What she said was this:

Dear Simon
Unfortunately, I don’t seem to be able to leave a comment on your blog today. Normally, I’d forget it – but you may need to hear it – or not!

The following is what I tried to leave:


I’m glad you’ve got it all in hand. Silly me.

As for your presumption of my having an entitlement mentality – you can guess again. I started out swabbing decks in the Navy, having barely scraped through school. I got my 2.1 and LL.M at a respectable (I call Russell Group) School. I even got my dissertation published in a law review – and am amazed that academics continue to refer to it. So thank you, but I understand the Bar, and the world generally, doesn’t owe me a living.

I had 10 years’ experience working for solicitors, including taking cases to appeal. I hit the buffers without a practising certificate. I was encouraged by my barrister line manager and others I’d briefed that I had what it takes to do the business as a barrister. I’ve done the mini-pupillages and I continue to volunteer.

I’m a nice girl and I don’t hold grudges – even though it will take some time to forget the telephone slam-down by the BSB. (I suppose the Head of Education at my Inn shares my “entitlement” mentality too.)

I’ve had enough. Even I had to accept my usual “If I took ‘no’ for an answer, I’d still be a seaman in the Navy” kick this in the arse drive was getting me nowhere.

You think I’m the Lone Ranger? lol. Herewith a link < Will you single him out as a deluded inadequate or will somebody please now wake up and join the dots?

Thanks for your offer of assistance re the BSB. I’ve taken your earlier advice and secured my qualification as a solicitor some time ago. I am genuinely grateful for your steer in that regard.

Firstly, nice to hear from you and I trust that you don’t mind that I have posted your comment. It seemed to be that, having ripped into you, your reply should be readily visible.

Secondly, of course I accept that you have worked to get where you are. I don’t, however, accept the points you make on the thread below. I have followed the link you include here, and have found an account of a lousy interview. We are not arguing about whether some interviews are poor – I have made my own view clear about that issue on a number of occasions, and tried to suggest ways in which the Bar could improve. But bad experiences do not equal institutional policy.

Like it or not the tension between funded pupillage (small number of applicants selected, playing field as fair as we can make it) against unfunded pupillage (much expanded numbers – although not as large as some of you think – but much easier for those who have money from family or previous career) will not go away. In my view you cannot square that circle by complaining that funded pupillages are given to white males from middle class backgrounds. Not only is it not so, but most Chambers are trying to expand their selection procedures. That an individual – however deserving – didn’t get pupillage, doesn’t prove the contrary.

I have also heard from Nicholas Green, the Chairman of the Bar for 2010. He says (slightly edited to exclude irrelevant information):

Thank you for your email and for forwarding on the feedback you have received on the pupillage award, which I read with interest.  All pupillage regulations (including the amount of the award) are dealt with by the Bar Standards Board.  I have spoken to Valerie Shrimplin (the Head of Education Standards) at the BSB about this issue to understand the extent to which funding is being considered by the ongoing review of pupillage.

I am assured that your email and the attachment will be passed to Derek Woods QC, who is leading the review of all aspects of pupillage.  The issue of funding, including the amount of funding, is being addressed in the review.  I am afraid that I cannot say much more than that at this stage, as the review is not yet finished (and I have not seen a draft).  I am told that the report will be considered at the April BSB meeting.

As for any advice to prospective pupils I am sure that there will be a number of proposed reforms arising out of the Derek Woods’review which will be of interest.

So, the people running the profession do listen and respond. No one is pretending it’s perfect, but the Bar is trying to improve its own communication and standards. Watch this space in April…


15 thoughts on “A Bit of a Kicking Back

  1. april is a good month to bury … well anything you like, because everyone who really wants to hire a guy with a dodgy goatee to carry barrels into the cellars of the bar council will be desperately on the phone to the hapless techies who run the pupillage portal trying to get it to accept their hand-crafted shot at stardom and (if they aren’t hoping to do crime) wealth. looking back on it, it seems more bizarre rather than less. how does any profession think it’s a good way to recruit? but we’ve been there before so i won’t start that particular bleat again (i hope).

  2. I’ll apologise in advance – I’m going to be all fuddy-duddy again.

    Let’s start with the living costs cited by a number of commenters. Actually, let’s not. Let’s start with my friend Jai, a waiter in my favourite curry house. He works six nights a week, six hours a night at a bit above the minimum wage. He makes about £13,000 a year. His wife doesn’t work because she looks after the baby. He gets tax credits and child benefit which, between them, roughly negate the income tax and NIC he pays. So he has about £13,000 a year to spend to keep his wife, child and himself.

    Reading that young single graduates hoping to embark on a career at the Bar have living costs of £13,000-£16,000 makes me wonder why Jai’s wife and child aren’t starving. Yet they are not starving because the money available is managed and they live within their means.

    Then I think of my cleaner, Tom. He rents a three-bedroomed flat in Cricklewood together with three friends for £950 a month, one of them has the living room the others have the bedrooms. That’s less than £240 a month each.

    Reading that young single graduates hoping to embark on a career at the Bar rent for at least £500 a month makes me wonder how lucky my cleaner was to find a cretinous landlord letting a property for a gross undervalue. Yet the landlord gets the going rate.

    Of course life costs £13,000 a year if you choose to live in a way that requires £13,000 a year. That’s your choice, it is not a matter of necessity. A single person on the adult minimum wage receives £12,064 a year before tax for a 40-hour a week job, less than £200 a week after tax. How do you think they cope?

    Oh, but they don’t matter. They aren’t graduates. They haven’t been called to the Bar. They are just little people, they’re not like us. Actually, you might be surprised to find how many of them are graduates.

    I am continually frustrated by the sense of entitlement that runs through so many of the comments on this site. I know that qualifying at the Bar is hugely more expensive now than it was in my day, the best part of 30 years ago, and that it involves the incurring of substantial debt. But it is what it is. You have incurred that debt once you’ve qualified for a wig whether you get pupillage or not. The question is not how much pupils should get, it is how you should manage your affairs once you decide to enter pupillage.

    Is it hugely unfair of me to suggest that you must be nuts to incur living costs of £13,000 if you will only be paid £10,000? Moan all you like about your income being £10,000, that won’t change a thing, your income will still be £10,000.

    You don’t like it that your friends from university are earning £30,000 while you have BVC costs hanging round your neck and you get only £10,000? They chose not to incur BVC costs and to get a job paying £30,000, you chose a different path. What’s unfair about that? You did it for a reason. I would guess that the reason is usually not financial but that you think practice at the Bar will be more satisfying over the course of a working lifetime. You are taking a gamble. And you are taking it in full knowledge of the general level of pupillage awards and the general level of potential earnings at the Bar.

    Any suggestion that a pupillage award of £10,000 is below subsistence level is simply laughable. Tell that to the hundreds of thousands in London who earn less than that. If you want a certain standard of living from day one, forget the criminal Bar. If you want the long-term satisfaction that a career at the criminal Bar gives the vast majority of its practitioners, forget money.

    And if you are keen on criminal practice, forget the pupillage awards at the commercial sets. They pay £50,000 against a criminal set paying £10,000 because they earn twice as much and take fewer pupils. Apples and oranges, chalk and cheese.

  3. I don’t think that £500pcm is an altogether unrealistic figure for rental in London in zones 4-5. You will probably get a studio flat even now. But that’s hardly living it up, even though you choose not to share (and is it realistic to share if you sometimes need to work from home?). In my experience, minimum living costs in such a scenario ten years ago (when I had a £500 one-bed flat in zone 2 with a leaky rooof) were approximately £900pcm (travelcard, council tax, gas, water and electricity, but no TV or telephone / Internet). This left me approximately £300 per month for everything else (food, clothes and laundry plus I had a postgraduate loan for an MA which I had to pay back at about £150 a month, not to mention I borrowed £500 off my parents for the flat deposit which I never got back from the landlord and which I had to pay them back over time). This was on a gross income of £17,000 (back then it was about £1,200 a month after tax). After six months I managed to move in with a friend which reduced my costs by about £400 a month as she was doing the rent a room scheme and I didn’t need to worry about bills. I also managed to reduce costs a little further by avoiding the Tube and using buses (very timeconsuming on the way to work) / DLR. At the time I didn’t need to work at home and it wouldn’t have been possible in the tiny little room I had! At least I could just about afford to eat and keep up a smartish appearance. After about 12 months I could even afford to treat my mum and myself to a week in the south of France (£250 each). However, I do not look back fondly on this time. I cannot imagine having £20,000-£30,000 of debt and trying to live on £10,000. I don’t think that a single graduate is going to be able to live a luxury lifestyle on £13,000 either. Economies of scale for fuel, food and council tax, even with a 25% discount for singles, mean that it’s often proportionately more expensive to be a young single. And no-one should have to live in a shared house except out of choice – this isn’t the Soviet Union, you know! The minimum wage, as we all know, is NOT a living wage. £7 an hour is just about considered a living wage for London, however, so maybe £13,000 is an appropriate figure, but only for those with no debt.

  4. @FatBigot — Pupil barristers have some costs (e.g. smart clothing, wig, expensive legal text books) that other people on minimum wage do not (whether or not they are graduates). Not to mention that on your own figures, the £10K is just over £2K less than full time minimum wage. And no one that I know is trying to argue that pupils work less than full time hours.

    Since first six pupillage is not employment, I’m guessing you’re not eligible for tax credits. I have never seen any information about other government benefits available to pupils (council tax benefit, JSA etc. don’t seem to apply).

    Full disclosure: I am a pupillage seeker who deliberately chose to continue working full time while studying the GDL and BVC part time to avoid debts. I also have a husband in a well-remunerated profession who would have been prepared to support me through full time study had I chosen that route. If I had my heart set on the criminal bar (which I don’t, I’ve always been more interested in the civil side), I could personally afford to earn £10K for a year or two. But I recognise that I am in a different situation to most other BVC students.

    I find it hard to credit that £13K is an unreasonably starting salary expectation for a graduate, particularly one who is likely to have to travel extensively around London (and possibly beyond) as part of their work requirement, be dressed smartly while doing so, and pay off students debts that are higher than any previous generation of British graduates has had to shoulder.

    Perhaps my view is also coloured by the fact that I work for an organisation (in London) where the starting salary for school leavers is £16K. The bottom of local government pay scales, including London weighting, is £15K. Jobs at that level would be non-graduate jobs and would have better benefits – pension, redundancy rights, etc. – compared to pupillage.

    I am sorry for all the people who have to live (particularly in London) on less than minimum wage because they work for unethical employers or cannot get jobs. But I don’t think the fact that some people live on the poverty line means it is petty or mean spirited for would-be pupils to ask for the minimum wage or even a bit higher. I think it is hypocritical for the powers that be to claim that the purpose of a minimum pupillage award is to provide pupils with enough money to live on, and then not set the mandatory minimum high enough to make that a reality.

  5. I am proposing to beat the same drum again – the BVC should be open only to people who have got a pupillage. The more I think about it, the more the current “wait and see” situation seems absolutely ludicrous and beneficial only to the BVC providers.

    It should be remembered that the Inns (and therefore the barristers who contribute to them) are exceptionally generous when compared to other professions. There are roughly the same number of people getting Inn scholarships as there are pupillage places (or perhaps slightly more), but while there is an overlap, there are plenty of people who get scholarships but not pupillage, and people who get pupillage but no scholarships. The money spent on people who don’t ultimately get pupillage is money wasted. What’s worse, the people who get scholarships and no pupillage tend to feel resentment rather than gratitude towards the Inns, as they feel that they have been encouraged on an ultimately unsuccessful venture.

    Please make the BVC something that NOBODY does until after pupillage, and only give the Inns money to people who will actually be at the Bar! It’s not rocket science…!

  6. Anya, if I trawled through your posts I would probably find the answer to this but – did you get pupillage before commencing the BVC? In my experience the vast majority of applicants get pupillage during/after completing the BVC. Why? Because (i) good Providers give them advice/the skills & knowledge required to succeed in applications/at interview (ii) the number of good people chasing pupillages means that it’s now a long(er) term quest. If your view prevailed there wouldn’t be a BVC anywhere unless it were subsidised by the Inns. Wait, it used to be – 1 (monopoly) Provider – Inns of Court School of Law. Nothing against them (now City University) but are you suggesting that this is a better alternative?

  7. For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not suggesting that City would/should be the monopoly Provider – rather that we’d be driven towards there being a monopoly Provider!

  8. not rocket science, anya, nor a bad idea (well, it’s an idea i would agree with, which i’m aware is not the same thing) – but of course firmly in the ‘never gonna happen’ category because the providers would go mental.

    i don’t think the point is how much it does or doesn’t cost to live – it’s about the talent that may be lost and the continued narrowing of the background of those coming to the bar because of the costs of doing it. i too am delighted that criminal law doesn’t particularly interest me as a discipline, but i would simply not have been able to afford to train for the bar, civil or criminal, without the death of my parents leaving me the sole inheritor of a 3 bedroom semi on a northern council estate. i had made an uneconomic decision to work in an industry that paid me very little. i doubt i worked as hard as fat bigot’s curry waiter, but i worked plenty hard enough. i had 2 kids and a partner who had also worked hard and was dumped from employment after the birth of the second child. i do not live in a dream world where i have the right to be a barrister, but the fact is i would not have had the chance and there are many more who are much less likely to have the chance because of their background. of course it’s nothing new to say that life isn’t fair but that doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t try to make it a bit less unfair for all kinds of reasons.

  9. another anon – isn’t that just post hoc propter hoc???
    of course people have a better chance of getting pupillage while/after the bvc, partly because of what they are learning, partly because of another year working at law, partly because chambers test some of the skills applicants are learning on the bvc (try doing a bail app before you have done the bvc!) and partly because they have another year’s maturity. (you could also think statistically there is only one year applying for pupillage before the bvc and more than that during/after). but a plan to make the bvc open only to those with pupillage would further level the playing field in that everyone applying would, by definition, be pre-bvc. it wouldn’t be without its unfairness, but the situation now is perhaps akin to the old oxbridge 4th term/7th term issue (if anyone is old enough to remember that … blank looks all round).

  10. Another Anon – I did get pupillage before commencing the BVC – but I had committed to undertake the BVC by the time I got it and would certainly have gone ahead. It is absolutely right that the vast majority of applicants get pupillage during or after the BVC , and I’m saying that that is a culture that needs to change. The problem is exactly what you say – everyone says you are more likely to get pupillage after you’ve started the BVC, so obviously people feel that taking the BVC is part of the whole “throwing their hat into the ring” in terms of seeking pupillage. People who get no interviews before the BVC assume that it is because they haven’t done the BVC yet, when often there is a more fundamental problem with their applications. I simply can’t see any good reason why this should be so.

    First, I personally very strongly disagree that the providers give you anything that helps you succeed at interview. There were sometimes questions, e.g. on professional conduct where the BVC would have helped, and inevitably the interview panels would reassure me that they would take into account the fact that I hadn’t done the BVC. If nobody had done the BVC it would be a level playing field. Advocacy etc can be easily tested without doing e.g. a bail application – again if nobody had done the BVC no sets would expect this of applicants. Nobody should need the BVC to teach them how to argue or make a point. If they couldn’t do this before the BVC then frankly the Bar is unlikely to be for them.

    Just because it is a “longer term quest” to find a pupillage doesn’t mean you need to waste your time and money on the BVC. There is no connection between the two. By all means apply several years in a row, but in the meantime get a job. Pupillages are awarded over a year in advance, so it should be at that stage that everyone signs up for the BVC.

    As to the competition – I don’t see any harm in fewer providers making money from Bar aspirants, as it goes. From my experience there are few graduates raving about their top quality BVC providers at the moment. In any case all are regulated by the Bar Standards Board in terms of quality control etc so a dip in the number of providers/places is unlikely to cause a disastrous slump in standards. On the contrary, the quality of the course delivery would most likely be improved by the removal of the vast number of delusional aspirants who hold everyone else back, while the course provider(s) could afford to be more picky about the tutors. Most fundamentally, I seriously doubt that if you explained to a disappointed BVC grad that the only purpose of him paying £15,000 and wasting a year of his or his life was to contribute to competition and thereby ensure a better quality of course for the benefit of those who, unlike him, DID get pupillage, he would not think it was a good reason for the investment of his time and money…

  11. I was also fortunate enough to secure Pupillage pre-BVC and I agree with Anya’s general argument.

    Make the BVC for those with a Pupillage already secured. Simple.

    In my opinion NOTHING would stop applicants accessing the Bar under such a scheme – students could apply year after year after year for pupillage.

    They would not be at a disadvantage because NO ONE would have completed the BVC. In fact- if you remove the financial step of taking the BVC “to get a Pupillage” it may actually IMPROVE access and encourage those who would not otherwise be willing to gamble their money.

    Under such an idea – the application/interview system would simply have to be adapted to reflect the fact that none of the applicants would have completed the BVC. (In my opinion this wouldn’t require much.) Clearly some students are gaining Pupillage pre-BVC under the present system anyway.

    In my opinion this idea would save ultimately unsuccessful applicants time (1 year), money (£15,000+ in some cases) and effort (sweat, tears, more sweat, more tears etc.)

    If I may develop Anya’s argument somewhat- such a step could, in my opinion, lead to a more “streamlined” BVC.

    Because students would know which area they were going to train in maybe the provider(s) could offer “specialist” BVCs. (A “Personal Injury BVC” a “Criminal BVC” etc etc etc etc.) Under such an idea students could opt for the “full” BVC if they so wished, but would not be forced to learn vast amounts of Archbold for their Commercial pupillage, or huge quantities of the Civil Procedure Rules for their Criminal defence pupillage.

    Such a streamlined BVC would naturally be shorter and cheaper.

    All of the above is my mere opinion – any thoughts?

  12. Completely agree (largely because you agree with me 😉 ). I think I wouldn’t want the BVC TOO specialist, as often people do not get tenancy at their first sets and end up in different areas, though I wouldn’t oppose a “civil” and “criminal” BVC.

    I also think that it might actually increase the number and quality of applicants – not something that other desperate applicants necessarily want to hear, but I do think it would bring in more people who wouldn’t otherwise take the risk, which is arguably better for the Bar in terms of competition and quality of applicants. I know many people who were sitting on several offers from MC firms but would have rathered be a barrister – I can quite see why they, however reluctantly, decided that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush. If the BVC were not a requirement of sorts I think at least some of these MIGHT have been swayed back to the Bar.

  13. Right, this only tangentally connects to the discussion in that it goes to accrual of debt when trying to secure pupillage, but I’m desperate to get some advice and guess nobody reads the old discussions on further degrees anymore…

    OK, I’ve got into both the BCL and the Cambridge LLM. I have a scholarship for cambridge not for oxford and want to be a barrister. is the bcl really so much better that i should turn down the scholarship? i went to an ex-poly and want to get this decision right so as to maximise cv benefit.

    i know this has been touched on before, but any new opinions would be much appreciated.

  14. Bar-Ney – don’t know if you still need an answer, but if it helps, in my set (primarily employment, PI and clin neg) it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference. In fact, our marking scheme doesn’t differentiate between institutions at all. I suspect other sets do. I imagine it would very much depend on the type of law you want to do, but coming from the kind of set I do, I really can’t see the distinction between the two universities being the make-or-break aspect of your pupillage application. It may well be that others would take a different view, however.

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