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Great Expectations

I toyed with the idea of calling this post ‘Wall of Shame Redux’ and inviting posts on the topic of interviews and feedback, rather than the accusations which have bedevilled the last post. However, I thought I ought to make my position clear where it can be seen by all. Please, please do post your experiences of interview and feedback on the Post below. As I did last year, I will collate them in due course and publish the results. It is helpful to those who come next.

Now for the vexed topic of appropriate behaviour.

I started this blog because the website which preceded it (and which I began largely to amuse myself and to try to assemble a FAQ for pupillage) produced so much correspondence. I am a dreadful hoarder of correspondence, but when I cleaned out my inbox recently – as I think one should when it exceeds 15,000 emails – I discovered to my shock that in the last 10 years (my records go no further) I have received over 800 emails about pupillage and associated topics, of which I was able to answer about 630 (my apologies to those to whom I could not reply). That suggests a need for information.

When writing I express my view and no one else’s. The Bar rarely has a party line anyway. I have disclosed my involvement with the BSB and, although I acknowledge the danger of a separate regulator (ask most solicitors for their views of the SRA), it seems to me that the Spanish practices which passed without comment in the previous generation (including those which assisted me to get my own pupillage) need to be eliminated. If it is to survive, the Bar needs the best people it can attract. It also needs to be responsive to developments in the way people think and behave (essential in a referral profession of advocates) and to accommodate complaints. The days when people deferred to their social betters are now over, and thank the Lord for that. Accordingly, I have happily published criticism and challenge and I have never moderated comments; still less deleted a comment which was not spam, unless its maker requested it.

I have proceeded on the basis that most readers here are, or have at least some thought of becoming, a barrister. After all, you would have to be slightly deranged to come here otherwise. That being so it seemed to me that I could expect a particular approach from people who wished to respond to what I wrote. It seems now that it may be necessary to spell that out in slightly greater detail.

  • I have never asked people to identify themselves. The reason should be obvious but it may help to set it out. It is so that any question can be asked and any comment made without risk (real or perceived) to the maker. Anonymity goes only to weight. However, the privilege of anonymity is not granted so that accusations of professional misconduct can be made. If a reader has a concern about misconduct they are free to contact me directly. As a number of you can testify, I do not require identities and I do not pass them to anyone else without express permission from the person who has contacted me.  An anonymous accusation permits the accuser to claim a knowledge they may not have on the basis of facts about themselves which cannot be checked. It is impossible for anyone to respond to such accusations. This is not about preventing criticism, but about being fair and acting with integrity. If you cannot accept that position then the best advice I can give you is to find another job, because your own moral code does not equip you for this one.
  • Rudeness is discouraged. You are entitled to argue your corner and to point out deficiencies in what others are saying: punch pulling is not required. Occasionally, rudeness is justified (never in Court) and occasionally it is funny. I treasure the moment I heard a colleague say – to another barrister who had been appallingly and unjustifiably rude and who had then sought to make amends by issuing an invitation to dinner – ‘I am sorry but I have a subsequent engagement’. And I admire the man who said of someone considerably senior to him and most unpleasant – ‘There’s only two things I dislike about X: his face’. But unless it is in that category and unless it is aimed at someone more powerful than you, there is to be no rudeness. If you are rude to me I will not delete it, but neither should you expect an indulgent pat on the head. If you feel a need to be cheeky to the teacher then give up ideas of the Bar until you have grown up.
  • I do not prevent anyone taking out their frustrations at the pupillage process and their own difficulties. The pupillage process is frustrating and good candidates – who would make good barristers – do fail. Sometimes Chambers do not pick the best candidates and sometimes that fact is obvious to the student body. And sometimes there is a reason for the pick which goes beyond cock-up.  But not often.  There must never be an assumption that what a particular person or group of people regard as a bad or odd pick is an abuse of the system. To make such an assumption is to begin from the belief that the profession is corrupt. If you really think that, then you know nothing about Barristers and you are at risk of falling into the trap of deluding yourself that your own failures are not down to your own imperfections. That way madness lies.
  • This blog is not here for you to indulge yourself  about your own failure to become a barrister by laying it at the door of an unfeeling profession, to which you voluntarily applied;  a nepotistic pupillage committee, to which you voluntarily submitted yourself; or a determination on the part of an Oxbridge elite to perpetuate itself if your CV is distinctly average, as are your academic results. This ties in with what I have said about anonymity. If you are on the verge of making such an accusation then ask yourself whether your most critical tutor would support it: if not then why should anyone else? If your answer is that your tutors hate you then that is, I suggest, a clue to the real problem. Sometimes mistakes are made: if mistakes only happen to other people then you aren’t fit for the job.
  • No flame wars and no ad hominem attacks. This is not just about rudeness. This is a blog for aspiring barristers. If you can’t argue it in a convincing way or without attacking the person you disagree with, shut up please. And if you could do it but can’t be bothered, then comment when you can be bothered.

These are not rules and they are not an attempt to limit your freedom. I do ban racist, sexist, homophobic, ageist and other such comments, with which I have not troubled to deal above. The reason for this Post is that I cannot run the blog if my assumptions about how people will respond are not to be fulfilled in very large part.

There are good reasons for this. Firstly, I am a Barrister. I love my profession, I admire my colleagues and I am certain that the work we do is vital to the proper and fair functioning of this country and the wellbeing of its citizens. I am not interested in hosting a blog where disgruntled applicants can trash the job I do for no better reason than that their self-esteem requires them to assert that their own failings are the fault of someone else – preferably lots of other people all conspiring together. People who are not in that position would normally contact me privately before posting damaging information and certainly when asked to do so.

Secondly, this blog – for better or worse – is widely read by law students and BPTC students. I am well aware that rumours circulate like a forest fire. People are put off applying to decent sets of Chambers where they would have a chance. Other sets of Chambers then receive more applicants, thereby lessening the chances for all. The reputation of Chambers and individuals within those Chambers suffer from such rumours, without affording the people involved the slightest chance to defend themselves or confront their accusers so that they can test the evidence. That is unjust and the injustice is amplified by its  happening within a profession dedicated to the elimination of injustice. I am not interested in hosting an opportunity for that injustice.

Thirdly, such behaviour allows a few unpleasant and bellicose commentators to dominate the comments. That, in turn may deter people from asking questions and sharing information which would assist them and others.

Finally I want to make it clear that I have ensured that I have no involvement with pupillage in my own Chambers. I promote no candidates, recommend no one other than on the basis of a mini-pupillage spent with me, offer no mini-pupillages based on comments on the blog and write no recommendations which I cannot back up with personal experience. You can say what you like here and it will neither help nor hinder you, save and insofar as you learn something that assists. The reasons I want professional behaviour are transparently and fully set out above.


21 thoughts on “Great Expectations

  1. Hi Simon,

    Again a useful and forthright post.I find it rather sad that you are having to set parameters with respect to that which constitutes reasonable commentary; people entering a profession , or aspiring to enter a profession such as the bar should really have better accounting of themselves with respect to discussions concerning the application season ( NB the comment I made on my own blog last year with respect to missing out on pupillage are my own views and experiences; I would not dream of setting them out as a comment on any one elses blog because it would not be appropriate). I must admit to finding this years vitriol all a bit confusing…..

  2. Hmm. So are you saying that my coming here (as a solicitor) implies I am slightly deranged?

    Seriously though, I came becuase I find it interesting, to see how those wanting to enter the other half of the profession see themselves, and are seen, amd because I have found comments about cross-qualification of interest!

    It seems to me that you provide a very useful resource for those wanting to become barristers, and that much of what you say, especially regarding quality of candidates, entitlement etc applies across the board – I have met an number of aspiring solicitors who would benefit from some reading here!
    I hope you do continue.

  3. It’s always a shame when how to behave appropriately has to be detailed in minutiae. But in this, the internet age, where it seems poor spelling, text speak, bad language and anonymity reign, it appears it IS necessary.

    Maybe I’m too old for all this!

    Simon, once again, thank you for your blog. I think you, and others who write blogs on this topic, are doing a fine job, and the information is certainly of use to the vast majority of those who read it. Even if some of us are slightly deranged, (barristers or not). :o)

  4. QUOTE:
    I am well aware that rumours circulate like a forest fire. People are put off applying to decent sets of Chambers where they would have a chance. Other sets of Chambers then receive more applicants, thereby lessening the chances for all. The reputation of Chambers and individuals within those Chambers suffer from such rumours, without affording the people involved the slightest chance to defend themselves or confront their accusers so that they can test the evidence. That is unjust and the injustice is amplified by its happening within a profession dedicated to the elimination of injustice. I am not interested in hosting an opportunity for that injustice.

    I would like to pickup on this. I have studied at a “new university”- I think in the league tables it appears down in the 60’s somewhere (I think) yet I have reached (what is effectively) the second round for a set where the rumours abound (even from some within the profession, I am afraid to say) that “unless you have a first from Oxford or Cambridge you should forget it”.

    This is an impression, seemingly almost universally held and unfortunately for that set, it is in many respects supported by a casual glance at the tenant profiles. No surprise wthat the rumour is universally held then, perhaps?

    But the point is, this does not tell the whole story. There is no doubt that, if you are academically superb you will choose an Oxbridge education over one from a university with far lesser admission criteria – a no-brainer; therefore, it should come as no surprise that the bulk – or even 100% of tenants – come from those two institutions.

    That is also reflected, I think, in the stats for law firm recruitment published recently in “Legal Week” – the magic cricle firm where I was offered a TC last year is made up of 49% Oxbridge with only 8% from institutions outisde of the top 20. That does not mean you have “no chance” of securing a TC there… the same should be true of the top sets – although I recognise that opportunities are far fewer and whilst a law firm might be prepared to “take a punt” and have capacity to do that in an intake – the same will not be true of pupillage.

    Where your degree came from should not, however, be a critical factor and many within the profession are doing a great deal to reinforce this – particularly at Inn level. People really should not be dissuaded from applying to a set just because of the status of their university. As you very rightly point out – it not only harms the potential applicant – it does a genuine disservice to the sets thart are victim to such stereotyping.

    Again, as you observe, it also creates an unrealistic imbalance in the spread of applicants to those lower in the pecking order – perhaps unrealistically increasing competition there to an unrealistic level. But more importantly it serves only to perpetuate what is perhaps a 2+2=5 (well intentioned) rumour and further perpetuates the make-up of the set as wholly Oxbridge.

    Have the courage of your convictions, people… if you think you are good enough – if you think you have the grades , the intellect, the personality and the character to fit the chambers profile – do not be afrid to “feel the fear but do it anyway”.

    1. John – but nor should people waste OLPAS choices on sets that they are massively unlikely to get into! So many people don’t get pupillage simply because they overestimate how good they are relative to all of the other applicants. It’s not an unfounded rumour that sets prefer academic excellence, and the university attended is at least relevant to this. I see far more people lacking in realism in terms of the sets they apply to than I do people “lacking the courage” to apply to sets that they would have got into.

      1. The point I was picking up on was that too many people perpetuate rumours and embellish them. A first class degree from Oxford or Cambridge is indeed clear evidence of academic excellence. A first class degree from another institution is also evidence of academic excellence.

        Just because the bulk (or even the totality) of a set are made up of Oxbridge graduates does not necessarily mean that they are ONLY prepared to take on those with an Oxbridge education.

        Yes – the institution will be a factor – but it is not the only factor nor should it be, nor do I think it is, decisive. Rumours (and indeed your response) just perpetuate that partially unfounded bias.

        Picking up on what Simon say that then has two effects – (1). it discourages exceptional candidates from applying to the traditionally Oxbridge sets and (2). it creates an even more competitive lower order. You might argue that this is good for the profession in respect of (2), but for the candidates – I don’t believe it is good on either point and I am am firm believer in encouraging everybody to reach their potential – to strive for more.

        Personally speaking – I applied to a broad cross-section – lower, middle and upper echelon sets – simply because I did not know where I belonged.

        I was instantly rejected by the lower and middle order – I did not, however, suffer that instant rejection from the sets at the very pinnacle of the profession. Figure that one out!

      2. This is a good reason for transparency. Chambers usually have a scoring system and the system weights characteristics and achievements towards the points that a Chambers most value. I cannot see why publishing the score sheet is a bad idea. If Chambers are worried about criticism because of the system they have adopted then it may be that there is something wrong with it. But that isn’t a reason to keep it a secret.

  5. Simon,

    This is one of your more particularly articulate entries. For those of us in the business of presenting arguments it is a useful reminder of how to do it.

  6. Off topic, so feel free to delete, but I’ve always thought the requirement for pupillage minimum funding was a castrophic error. People now realise the value of gaining work experience, whether or not you are being paid for it. Ironically the Bar was doing it long before it became generally fashionable. Yet just as the rest of the world caught up, we abolished it. Crazy.

    Ok there were abuses. Pupils being used as sun shades and whatever. But by and large, unpaid pupillages were freely made choices. Nobody was being forced to do it. And if you are looking to protect people from abuse, well highly educated and ambitious young adult are hardly the obvious target group for protection.

    And crucially, the system had two huge advantages.

    First, most BVC students could actually get something useful from the Bar experience, even if they didn’t get a tenancy. Unpaid pupillages meant lots of pupillages. And six or twelve months experience at the Bar is never going to harm your CV. So unlike now, three quarters of people were not completely wasting their money.

    Second, it meant that people could be judged for tenancy on the basis of their work, personality and performance, rather than their CV. So in a deep sense, the system was actually fairer and more meritocratic than it is now. You might have had a rubbish CV, but you still had a chance of getting a pupillage in those days. And if you really were good, then your rubbish CV would soon be forgotten about (and vice versa).

    Like so many regulations intended to protect people from bad things, the actual outcome has been very different and I think very regretable. I bet there are plenty of BVC students who would give their eye teeth for an unpaid pupillage and plenty of chambers who would gladly offer such pupillages if they were allowed to.


    p.s. your piece on XX in civil cases is a masterpiece. Should be compulsory reading for all junior tenants (and plenty of silks)

    1. Funnily enough, the Law Society is considering removing the training contract minimum for the reasons you raise.

      The difference, of course, between training contract recruitment and pupillage recruitment is that solicitors generally have HR departments who know what they’re doing.

      1. I’m not convinced a HR person can make a better decision than a person who actually “does the job”.

        I have prior experience in a different field altogether and I lived through the transition where the “perosnnel” function went from those who “knew the job and did the job” to a “professional” HR department – and I use the phrase “professional” very loosely indeed!!!!!!

        In my opinion (one that would no doubt be backed up by my colleagues at the time) – the recruitment function was far better when performed by those who “did the job” than it was when the “professionals” took over. The calibre of recruits took a substnatial nose-dive once the prfessionals were installed.

        Adherence to the politically correct diversity policies etc undoubtedly improved over-night – and you would suspect the administration also improved (although I have no evidence of this) – but the quality of recruit definitely went downhill.

      2. yes, John must be correct. “Magic circle” firms make offers based on “politically correct” considerations all the time. Aren’t they silly?

      3. I genuinely despair and finally give up on this site…

        I was merely commenting on the fact that just because the profession handles recruitment itself – from within its own ranks – does not make their decisions any less valid than those of a professional recruiter.

        My own experiences – as clearly stated – referred to a wholly unrelated field.

        A professional HR person may give a more rounded, well-balanced outlook to proceedings but that does not necessarily mean that their selctions will be better than those of someone who actually knows and does the job.

  7. John,

    Clearly you have a lot to get off your chest (given that your response is totally irrelevant to Simon’s post). I do, however, take issue with you saying that I am “perpetuating rumours”. All I am perpetuating is common sense, based on evidence of the standard of applicants – ie, that eg Fountain Court is unlikely to select for interview someone with a first from Southampton Solent (in the absence of any other academic qualifications) where they have 300 Oxbridge/top London firsts to choose from. I sincerely doubt that Fountain Court’s recent tenants are all from top unis merely because nobody from “less than top” unis applied.

    I doubt Fountain Court would mind very much if no Southampton Solent applicants applied, and I don’t understand the argument you are making on competition being increased at other sets as a result. No matter how good you think you are, you have to beat out the vast majority of applicants on paper to get an interview. If it is a rumour to suggest that a first from Oxbridge is generally viewed as being better evidence of academic excellence than a first from Southampton Solent, then indeed I am spreading rumours and I stand by this one. Similarly, there is a vicious rumour going round that many applicants don’t get pupillage. Personally I think common sense and realism go a very long way to getting pupillage.

  8. Dear Anya,

    I have no intention of getting into a war of words with you – to begin with, that would actually be contrary to the intentions of Simon’s original post!

    My post – I thought – was very much in parallel with the spirit of what Simon was writing. True, I isolated one particular element – but it is one particular element that means more to me than it perhaps would to others.

    My complaint is NOT that a lack of Oxbridge status is a barrier to obtaining interviews. The problem with the system (for me) is the lack of logic that seems to come with the sift; the lack of any consistency; any clear and rational policy – it is a system that seems to me to have no rhyme or reason and to suggest that you fail to get an interview because you do not have an Oxbridge education and to suggest that “you should not apply unless you have an Oxbridge first”is quite, quite wrong.

    It may LOOK that way… but my experience suggests otherwise and unless you can show me any hard and fast criteria that says “WE ONLY INTERVIEW THOSE WITH AN OXBRIDGE FIRST” – then I maintain that it is simply a malicious rumour.

    Of course, an Oxbridge first is perhaps evidence alone of sufficient academic standing and intellect – but that does NOT mean all others “should not apply”.

    I maintain that if you personally believe (taking a very real and pragmatic view of the process) that you have the intellect, the personality and the requisite skills, then you should not be afraid to “have a go”.

    It is just pure laziness and a convenient excuse (without hard evidence) to suggest that an Oxbridge first is a hard and fast criteria that acts as a barrier to all others. I don’t know of any chambers that sets that out in their equivalent of a “person specification” – unless of course you can demonstrate otherwise.

  9. Dear John

    I would like to thank you for your post, which sheds a ray of hope on the often bleak pupillage rejection season that most of us experience.

    I was uplifted by your ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ advice. I have to believe that Anya’s hypothetical 1st from Southampton Solent, who I shall assume is very bright and a builder’s daughter who went to a school that did not think further than the local Uni, then went on to get a Distinction on a Masters in Commercial Law and Arbitration at a Russell group Uni. Having read the Construction Law Reports for the last three years, and attended the TCC as an observer regularly whilst puting a good performance on the BVC, I really do have to believe that Keatings/Aitkins will interview her, and not just the Oxbridge 1sts that only put them down in case they could not get a comercial chancery place.

    Thank-you John for restoring my faith.

    1. Rachel – I totally agree. I said if the Southampton Solent first was the applicant’s *only* academic qualification. And Keating/Atkin would obviously also put a premium on construction experience. I’m talking more about “top” commercial/chancery and to some extent public law sets.

      John, I think we are actually at cross-purposes somewhat and may not necessarily disagree. Nor do I mean to suggest that someone with a first from say Manchester or otherwise “non-Oxbridge” could never get a look in. I’m talking more about institutions at the bottom of the league tables and suggesting that it is not realistic to imply (as I thought you were doing) that the reason there are no people with degrees from such institutions at the top top sets was that they were being put off by an unfounded rumour.

      I apologise if my tone was a bit confrontational, probably unnecessarily so. It’s just that I am involved with helping people to get pupillage and I often find the toughest thing of all is instilling a sense of realism.

      Best of luck with it all.


  10. Anya

    Thank-you. I know you are right too. Counselling the dreamers who think they will get a top pupillage if they ‘believe in themselves’ and ‘follow their star’ must be a difficult task. Assessing one’s own potential and admitting that you are just not good enough for some things is not easy.

    I do find the emphasis on undegraduate degrees (class and Uni attended) which came out at every pupillage talk I attended a bit frustrating. Which is why I invented my fantasy heroine who gets a pupillage at Atkins (she could spell it correctly too). I hope John gets his pupillage, because some people are genuinely as good as the best Oxbridge candidates, but may not have realised it themselves when they were only 17.

  11. Whilst this blog does acknowledge a number of very real issues within the pupillage application/interview/selection process I find that a number of people who comment upon posts here forget one simple thing: Help starts at home.

    The search is disheartening at times. But there comes a point when it is not useful to blame the personal background that you feel did not allow you to demonstrate academic excellence at a young age; or provide you with the benefit of an expensive education to help you earn a place at a prestigious university and thus (hopefully) make your pupillage application stand out in a mountainous pile in a room in chambers.

    I am state schooled, have very average A-levels, went to a new university and have no further academic qualifications. I also have pupillage at a good set. I am convinced that this is because I have always taken responsibility for my own career, identifying early the areas in which I should seek to improve myself if I was to stand even half a chance of working at the bar. I have read the literature on pupillage, from this site and every other source available to me, extensively from my first day at university and have never stopped working towards my goal. When my applications were rejected, and I failed interviews, my first thought was how to improve myself so that some chambers, somewhere would find me an attractive candidate. Not to blame the road I had travelled for my present lack of success, or accuse the system as unjust as a reason for my failure (however frustrating that system might be).

    There is no doubt that the present system is in many ways unsatisfactory, and, as has been repeated extensively, very good candidates often do not make it. But there comes a point when you have to stop blaming the university on your CV or the attitude of certain chambers that you apply to for your present failings. Time to take a little bit of responsibility for your own career. Be aware of the difficulties and the challenges you face, but by no means use that as an excuse or the reason for your failure.

    A lot of hard work and a truckload of determination provides a solid foundation. Couple that with a realistic yet positive attitude towards the mountain that you have chosen to climb and I believe that you will achieve.

    It worked for me.

    1. Mr State Schooled,

      When did you make your pupillage application? If it’s over 3-5 years ago, please be advised that things on the recruitment front have changed since your day. 🙂

      1. Well, as he says “have pupillage” – i.e. not yet completed, and possibly not yet even started – it’s hardly likely that Anon applied 3-5 years ago!

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