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Counsel Magazine has an interesting article by Andrew Neish QC, dealing with the lack of diversity at the so called ‘magic-circle’ sets. I’d like to link to it but Lexis-Nexis thinks I should pay to do so and, as I get my paper copy anyway, I won’t. If  you or your institution has an account then this is the link to the click-on.

The proposal is not one I like – to choose additional random candidates for interview. It strikes me that this is not so much diversity as tokenism. But at least the problem is being looked at, which is better than ignoring it, and an email address is provided for comments and contributions. However a more focussed, more interesting and more thoughtful examination of the same issue is Lawminx’s letter to a pupillage committee. Minx’s idiosyncratic style isn’t to everyone’s taste, but the Bar ought to read decent points made by non-traditional students. We might learn something.

Meanwhile, as the time arrives for the Portal gates to creak open, I cannot stress the need to research your choices too much. It is not enough to want to be a pupil at the particular set, or to want to do the work they do. Get on the website, look at the cv of every tenant under 7 years call and compare yourself. If you don’t match up, don’t apply. This will have the consequence that you won’t waste an application – the sets which are weighting their selection system to prioritise 1st class degrees from 10 Universities (of whom 2 are preferred) need not be troubled by you.

If there is to be a debate here, then it should be an honest one. As Andrew Neish points out, it isn’t really arguable that only people with 1st class degrees from 10 Universities can handle the complexities of commercial law (although – as he doesn’t say – it is hugely flattering to believe that this is the position). He may be wrong about that – I am not qualified to comment. But, if that qualification isn’t necessary then sets who find themselves unable to recruit different candidates should be explaining why.

If you are in doubt about whether to make an application, contact Chambers and ask them how they score the different qualities they seek. There is a world of difference between a Chambers giving a 1st 20 points out of a 100 and a 2.1 14 points and a Chambers giving a 1st 55 points and a 2.1 20 points. Both might say that a 2.1 is a minimum requirement but only one of them is offering you a real chance to let your extra-curricular activities catch up.

In times of recession people pull in their claws and barristers are no exception. Chambers are less inclined to take a chance on what they don’t know and less inclined to offer pupillage at all. It makes it even more important for you to match yourself with the right set. The debate about whether we approach diversity adequately is for another day as far as your application is concerned – although comments are welcome as always.

Meanwhile, if you are a “non-traditional candidate” (this normally means that your A levels – if they exist at all – were a long time ago and not brilliant, and that you have actually succeeded in a real job since then) then try and correlate your real life successes to what you perceive as necessary to success at the Bar and relate one to the other. Somewhere out there – if you do it properly – there might (just might) be a set of Chambers which is prepared to back you, rather than to take what is – let’s face it – a chance on someone fresh out of the BPTC. Just make sure that you emphasise your intellectual flexibility: I know of very few Chambers who believe that the BPTC turns out a product which is fit to practice and it therefore follows that we need to teach you. Don’t fall into the trap of allowing the pupillage committee to wonder whether you are able to learn.


23 thoughts on “Diversity

  1. Hi Simon,

    Many thanks for your kind mention of my letter.

    I note that this post has, as of yet attracted any comment, which may yet mean that the honest and open debate you desire on this matter will be slow to air ( even though I have no doubt it will air eventually) but for what its worth, the traffic coming to my site to read the letter is extraordinary.

    I just hope that some of the readers are members of pupillage committees.

  2. Apparently, chambers using the pupillage portal system get more applications than chambers that don’t. I can’t understand why. We get twelve PP choices, and every time you use one, you prevent yourself from using that choice for any other chambers. Each application you make on the PP therefore has an opportunity cost associated with it ( Applications made outside of the PP have no such opportunity cost.

    Take a candidate who has academics that, while good, are mediocre relative to the pool of realistic pupillage applicants to a top chambers. Such a candidate might have a 2:1, even from Oxbridge, but perhaps little else to bolster their CV on paper. If they apply to a top commercial set, they’d be unlikely to get an interview. If they made that application one of their PP choices, not only have they been rejected from that set, but they would also have prevented themselves from applying to a set that is more likely to have taken them on. If they’d researched their choices more care, they might have a pupillage.

    But if that high-flying set did not use the pupillage portal system, the candidate could make the application almost costlessly. A non-PP application to a maybe-out-of-reach set is not wasted in the same way, as it does not prevent you from making other applications to other chambers. The only cost associated with a non-PP application is the time spent on the application – and of course the more applications you make, the lower the time spent on each one as (a) you get more efficient at making them, and (b) you can re-use aspects of previous applications in new ones.

    Yet apparently sets that are not on PP report fewer applicants. So I’d say to pupillage candidates: take advantage of sets that offer you a ‘free’ application and apply to them if you would want a pupillage there, even if you think it’s a long shot; but make sure you select your PP sets more carefully.

      1. The non-PP sets get less applications because:

        a) It takes more effort to fill in their forms. (As opposed to the fire and forget OLPAS form).

        b) They are often the most competitive chambers (Serle Court, Wilberforce, Quadrant etc) – so there’s a degree of self-selection involved.

        I’d have thought it’s thus fairly clear why they get less applications.

    1. My analysis is very similar to the above. It’s also worth bearing in mind that each application sent to a non pp set requires you to redraft the sort of answers you are going to have to put in the pp application. Therefore you start the pp process with more refined answers than many candidates.

  3. I agree with Mr Anon’s first point. You are missing an opportunity with non-OLPAS sets because they are ‘free’ applications and you can self yourself outside the limits of the OLPAS form.

    I don’t agree with the second point. It is certainly true that some sets with restricted vision are outside OLPAS, but a great many non-OLPAS sets are not of that mind (like mine). Nothing substitutes for research. You need to know what sort of qualifications the sets to which you are applying really value, and nothing tells you that as accurately as the cvs of the junior tenants. If you are on the borderline – or think you are – then non-OLPAS sets offer you a chance to test the water at less risk.

  4. I must admit that the lack of diversity that many top sets show is somewhat shocking, yet depressingly surprising. The bar is a long standing tradition, replete with traditions, and as such will hang onto notions of what constitutes aptitude longer than most other careers.

    What I find frustrating however is the one track approach that many of those we see listed in commercial sets represent. They are talented individuals no doubt, yet I think its goes against common sense to think that the most promising individuals, jurists, advocates and intellectuals come from a small proportion of a small set of universities.

    My background is as follows: I’m a penultimate year law student from an Irish university, I’m currently studying in America as part of an exchange year. I’ve interned in an investment bank’s legal division and currently work part time for a personal injuries lawyer in Chicago. It was a one week stint with a criminal prosecution barrister in Dublin that got me into the idea of studying law and becoming a barrister. I’ve looked to engage in a variety of student activities from law review, to editing a section of the college news paper and a ridiculous amount of inter-varsity debating (Newsflash: Oxbridge are excellent but are as beatable as anyone else).

    It wasn’t until this summer while in London that I finally came around to decide that your average corporate office environment wasn’t the life for me. I want to engage with problems of law, advocate my positions, research and write – all points to the bar right?

    So the question I face is do I practice in Ireland or England? It’s a no brainer, Ireland’s economy is bad enough, but its bar is worse. We unfortunately prohibit the creation of the chambers system meaning no efficiency gains or meritocracy for us. So I turn to England and specifically London, with its shiny buildings, rich history, impressive legal community and multiculturalism.

    However the problem as I see it is that despite what looks like an approach that ticks all the boxes so far (I plan to work for about two year in a legal job of sorts and then do an LLM), I am precluded by a focus on traditionalism. There are better candidates out there of course, however I feel foreclosed at the prospect of getting into the law that I want to practice (commercial/commercial chancery) not on merit but on a screening process that uses limited criteria to cut the HR workload.

    The magic circle firms, the bankers, the technology groups and all the other firms that give London barristers their legal work have long since realised the benefit of looking outside the traditional pool of new graduates. If the bar is to continue to strengthen it needs to accept that there are other places to look.

    The reason I do the things I do? It’s because I know I face an uphill struggle against preconceived views on what makes the proper candidate for a good barrister. I am not alone. We are forced to expand our horizons and skills to create the slim chance that we may succeed. We do not think that we will waltz in and land the perfect job. We have to fight for it and its a fight that many of us unfortunately won’t succeed in.

    Considering this, where is the equity then in chambers remaining single track when they ignore hard working, promising people on the basis of their alma mater?

  5. Mr Fagan: I suppose the, harsh, response is that no one is really barred by their alma mater if they really are/were that great. I.e. if you come first in year it doesn’t really matter where you went as a BCL place is likely to be within your grasp. (This is a slightly simplified picture).

    If you say your strengths aren’t academic then the commercial bar is perhaps justified in saying that you’re not academic enough for them. I have little doubt that it is an intellectually challenging niche.

    Further, I wouldn’t really say it’s traditionalism. Oxbridge are still universally considered the best universities in the UK. That’s based on the hurdles students are required to jump to get in and the quality of the teaching they receive once there.

    I’ll end with some hope: I have been interviewed at (excellent) commercial sets and I have a non-oxbridge 2.1.

    1. Dear Mr Fagan, if only you knew how easy you have it.

      Now try to do the same, with a 2.1 Oxbridge degree, a pretty good CV showing real-life experience that 99% of barristers can only dream of, and proven extra-curricular success in law.

      But – and here’s the rub – your real-life experience means that you have got ’round to wanting to be a pupil at 50.

      You would then feel the injustice of the “1st+BCL” approach in spades, particularly since you knew that not only were 1sts were very hard to come by indeed in your time, but that even if you had managed to obtain one, it would not be in the slightest bit relevant to your performance 30 years later!

  6. you know the stuff wrinkly said? well turn up the degree one click, add a university scholarship and take off 10 years. the wrinkly’s point is still true. recently done my forensic accountancy training and the lovely boys and girls from the commercial sets all look and sound exactly like you know they would…

    of course once you’re in, your interest in changing the entry criteria naturally becomes less important to you personally than tenancy, building a practice etc. nevertheless, i hope i will continue to agitate for – and indeed be a part of – something better.

    and fwiw, i made about 60(can’t really remember now but it was plenty) applications to commercialish non-olpas sets and got 1 interview… olpas came out at 50% for sets that i judged of a similar level of cachet. the reverse of what i expected.

  7. As another falling into the wrinkly bracket, there is a factor not mentioned above which needs to be borne in mind. Age comes with having more to sell, be it in the way of life/work experience, or more qualifications etc. You need these extras to differentiate your pitch from that offered by the box-fresh 22 year olds.

    There is, however, a problem with this (SM will not like it) but, in my experience, the average pupillage committee will comprise the most narrowly educated and least travelled collection of professional class people you are ever likely to encounter sitting in a room at the same time.

    The candidate’s extra qualifications and skills may be an advantage in some contexts, but the chances are that none of the interviewing panel will have other skillsets or have had any real work experience elsewhere. This has to be anticipated.

    If, for example, you are an engineer, looking to leverage your qualifications, knowledge and sector contacts in applying to a construction set, you not only have to put the positive spin on these facets (this being at the paper shift) and have an answer to explain why you do not want to continue practising as an engineer (interview stage) but you also have to find a way of answering the question which is rarely asked (or, at least, not to your face).

    That question is what will stop you from changing your mind and going back to whence you came ?

    There seems a consensus that life at most junior areas of the Bar is tough presently and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Here, the youngsters are, in many respects, a much safer bet. Not necessarily because of the oft trotted-out fresh canvas reason but,also, because they have nowhere else to go workwise, and so can be relied upon to put up with longer hours, lower earnings potential etc., simply through absence of choice.

    If you do have that choice and you could give up the Bar and return to another line of work, especially one offering better pay and standing, or you are perceived by the committee to be in such a position, you are less likely, in my experience, to be entertained as being a suitable prospect.

    My advice would be to have a very solid answer to this, get it in early and insulate against any doubts which may be held by the interviewers.

    And if, as it is so quaintly put, you are a non-traditional candidate and, like me, you now consider your school exams to be as meaningful as that certificate for 25 yards of doggie-paddle in the shallow end, practise that poker face for when you get asked about your A-Levels.

    1. There is much truth in this – and as someone approaching 40, squarely in the non traditional bracket but now with a red brick 2:1, LLM, and VC on the bar course, I am this year taking a couple of A Levels for the first time merely to collect the points they might be worth when committees look at my application. Here’s hoping they won’t be too challenging!

    2. Anon has it in a nutshell – we can bring a huge amount of life experience to the table and we can talk about the benefits until we are blue in the face, but it is very rare for a pupillage committee member to have seen anything but the inside of a courtroom. It’s a case of not knowing what they don’t know let alone not realising that it might be useful. Why should they buy something for which they do not see the need, when none of their friends are?

      I have seen a cross-examination of an IT expert where the QC in question was making a meal of it, principally because he was talking a different language to the expert, and when he was talking the same language, he didn’t really know what the words meant. That made it easy for the expert to weasel out of answering properly. Meanwhile I was sitting in public gallery having no trouble at all thinking of the questions he should have been asking…

      I have also seen barristers showing dismal knowledge of everyday matters such as financial products or normal business practices when talking to solicitors. Surely solicitors must see that in barristers? Why does there appear to be little pressure on the profession to change?

      King Overdraft, I wonder whether taking A levels at this stage is going to be in any way useful to you. It smacks of desperation, and I think that the problem is much more fundamental.

      1. Oh I couldn’t agree more, I have ‘desperate’ tattooed to my forehead I’m sure! However, if we are allocated points at the committee sift for the various academic achievements we can boast then these are points utterly lost by those, of whom I’m one, who left school at 16 and did other things before getting a grip on a career direction. In my case I had 9 gap years, so to speak. Thus, the A-Levels now, which are hardly all that taxing, really are just an administrative exercise in picking those points up.

      2. I hear you, Mr Wrinkly. (30-something bar aspirant here)

        I sat in on an employment tribunal case where the cross-examining barrister was suggesting that the only reason why the witness, an employee in a small business, had never had a performance appraisal was because she was sleeping with her line manager. I can assure you that I’ve worked for small and medium sized employers with no performance appraisal system in place and I wasn’t sleeping with anyone!

        As barristers are self-employed, many employment law barristers seem never to have had a real job in their life (other than maybe some bar work whilst at university). I strongly believe that real experience of employment can only strengthen one’s ability to analyse the factual situations unerlying employment disputes. But I’m still waiting for a chambers to appreciate this and take a chance on me.

    3. As it happens I agree that barristers are not terribly broadly educated about jobs other than their own. That is no different to any other person: I have also lost count of the number of occasions on which commercial clients ask for things that are simply not possible in the legal world. What should happen in such encounters is that each party goes away a little wiser.

      But this is not a proper ground for complaint. It is something that you need to be aware of, so that you can sell yourself properly. That requires a certain ability to educate your audience and to say something, which could be said palatably or unpalatably, in an acceptable way. That task is a basic barristerial task.

      Barristers do find technical language difficult and it is something which sorts out the good from the bad. But there are plenty of cases where the problem is shared with the expert. The ability to think of questions the barrister should be asking will stand Mr Wrinkly in good stead should he find a tenancy but it isn’t a reason to give him one (although it may be a reason why he should give expert evidence).

      Being a barrister demands plenty of skills – including learning other peoples’ jobs at short notice and without training. That your own life experience puts you ahead on one particular job is something to which you can legitimately draw attention. But don’t confuse it with an unanswerable case for a pupillage. You are being assessed on more than that.

      Of course, the danger is that the rather limited experience of the pupillage committee pushes them into selecting a clone – that is why diversity is so important. But it is not an answer to say that diversity = pupillage. That is simply the same problem replicated the other way around.

      1. I hope that I didn’t give the impression that I deserved a tenancy simply because I know about computers. I certainly didn’t mean to. The point that I am making is that I am not sure that the vast majority of barristers have any idea what I am talking about when I “legitimately draw attention” to my life experience, simply because they think they have managed quite well without it. There is indeed a requirement to make the point palatably and that, by necessity, means that changing the attitudes is something that I could not achieve in a single interview cycle even if I wanted to and stupidly took it upon myself to do so!

        Put another way, my life experience gives me skills in negotiation, persuasion, writing skills, ability to get on with clients and build a business, etc. etc. that will stand me in good stead. I know because I compare my marks to my “1st+BCL” classmates! So if I do ever get a tenancy I would expect to leapfrog over the young turks in the chambers ladder (in earning capability, but not in practice of course, since the fact that a ladder exists at all, based simply on years after call, egregiously proves the point). But try explaining that without sounding arrogant – I know I certainly haven’t managed in this paragraph!

  8. All mature bar students think they have so much more to bring to the table than the 22 years olds. Problem is your not competing with the 22 year olds most of the time. Look at recent tenants’ cvs your competiting against people who have all that you have AND the academics. Its a numbers game. Why won’t people see that?

    1. has to be said that anon is on to something. if all other applicants were really 22 yr olds with firsts, it would be one thing. the fact is a lot of them are 29 yr olds with doctorates and experience working with the UN, who had firsts when they were 22.

  9. I would have thought that the answer is for sets to give (possibly with sponsorship from the Inns?) more assessed mini-pupillages. I never understand why more sets don’t do this. The best do (and that is one of the reasons why I think this idea is stupid – they are already giving people chance to shine outside the traditional interview set up).

    But for those that don’t, I really don’t understand how that set can assess prospective pupils without seeing them work in Chambers. A CV and an interview cannot tell you who the best candidate is. It just encourages conservatism. There is no doubt that a candidate with a 1st from Oxbridge and good personal and advocacy skills at interview is unlikely to let you down.

    You don’t know for sure though. You also have no idea if you’ve missed that exceptional candiate who mucked up one set of exams or who didn’t have the same opportunities as others. Likewise Mr 1st from Oxbridge may be a safe pair of hands, but no more than that. He might not take points that end up in the Court of Appeal and may have a bog standard practice that doesn’t generate much work for the silks.

    I do, however, think that you can make that judgment if you have observed the candidates work in Chambers for a week. You can observe, by reading what they write, if they can get to grips with a legal question, but as importantly you can watch them do it. It is so obvious if someone has a passion for the intellectual rigour of the law; they ask the right questions, enter into discussions about the law and they visibly enjoy the work they are set.

    I always thought that everyone who wanted to be a barrister had those qualities, just because I did. I didn’t think it anything exceptional. I now know that my assessed mini – coupled with the 2 interviews – was the reason I got a pupillage. It was only after getting a tenancy that I realised that actually lots of mini-pupils didn’t have those qualities and it showed. While I am sure that they would all be good barristers, I doubt many would be exceptional.

    With the hughe number of applicants, and sets paying £15k to £65k for a pupillage, I would have thought that the best sets wanted the exceptional ones. Do they really want to rely on poaching the talent from other sets with lucrative deals, while wasting their own money on pupils who don’t make the mark?

    I don’t think you will ever solve the diversity problem entirely. We live in a society where a parent’s money can buy you an education that puts you at an advantage to those who can’t. It may well be the case that even after assessed minis the majority of Chambers go to Mr 1st from Oxbridge. But at least they’d know he was the best candidate rather than looking at the odds and gambling that he will be.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree with you.

      Assessed mini-pupillages would be the fairest way to give everyone a chance to prove themselves. It is no surprise that many corporate firms choose to hire directly out of summer internships for the very reason that interviews can hide true potential.

      I suppose that was what I wanted to get across in my response earlier. People should be given a chance to show their worth and unique skills. Granted no system is perfect but a greater emphasis on practical assessment would be better than the current set up.

    2. i do agree with you about the usefulness of assessed minis. but just for the sake of argument, as this is a post about diversity, consider who might be disadvantaged.
      anyone in full time employment, post bvc;
      anyone in full time employment, having completed gdl and unable to afford bptc without pupillage;
      anyone on bptc, which now has 90 per cent attendence requirement, and does not make allowances for mini pupillages;
      anyone in part time employment during gdl;
      anyone in part time employment during bptc.
      i actually think prioritising is an important part of the application process and getting to an assessed mini is a perfectly decent requirement.
      but while is may help the decision to be more widely-based than an interview, it won’t help diversify pupils. i fact it will probably simply help chambers pick the right people from the same backgrounds.

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