This is an (enormously) expanded version of the article in this month’s Counsel. It responded to a proposal by Andrew Neish QC of the Commercial Bar Association to improve the system whereby those sets doing big commercial work end up with pupils who are overwhelmingly from Oxbridge and with first class degrees. In my view that happens because when those sets design their criteria for pupillage they prioritise academic achievement to an extent that a UN Secretary General with a 2.1 from a Redbrick University would find a problem obtaining a pupillage (I exaggerate slightly). In Andrew Neish’s view the relevant sets are focussed on academic achievement.
The proposal was that there would be ‘wild cards’ for each pupillage round, so that applicants without the appropriate qualifications would be invited for interview, chosen at random. I applaud the recognition that change is needed. But the idea of a wild card is, I believe, a bad one.
We ought surely to begin with why diversity is a good thing. I think, firstly, that there is an advantage to the Bar in representing the society in which we operate and which we seek to serve. There is a moral dimension to this as well: non-diversity is too close to discrimination to be comfortable. Secondly, restricting our selection to a particular group – however academically talented – risks missing those who would be the most able barristers. Our focus on academic excellence also plays into diversity in another way. Not only is there a lack of diversity in taking students primarily from particular institutions: doing so exaggerates the effect of the diversity issues pertaining to those institutions themselves. The reality is that almost half the graduates from Oxbridge come from private schools. That this is not remotely a reflection of the society in which we live is obvious, but that is not really the point in a profession which does demand academic ability. The point is that Oxbridge is not selecting the brightest and best. It does not even pretend that it is – hence its emphasis on widening the pool of applicants and increasing contacts with those schools educating about 80% of our children.
The wild card idea has these drawbacks: firstly, it removes the responsibility for diversity from Chambers. The proposal is that wild cards are allocated or randomly selected: Chambers should be capable of designing criteria which reflect other achievements than the academic. Secondly, it reinforces the idea of academic quality as the major determinant: Chambers should be encouraged to discover other qualities. Thirdly, it stops at interview: if the interview is designed to discriminate between candidates with superlative academic qualifications, it is unlikely to be a tool capable of choosing someone without them.
Setting up a system in which hopeless candidates are randomly selected for an interview designed to choose someone with wholly different qualifications is not diversity. Diversity is an acknowledgement that the current requirements are either too restrictive or are being operated in a way which prevents them having an equal impact on all applicants. There seems to be a view that those not at the starting gate by the end of their 3rd year at University are deemed to have missed the race altogether. The proposition, thus stated, sounds so nonsensical that it is difficult to accept any of us really believes it. In my view, although this job demands academic ability to a considerable degree, it very rarely and very inconsistently demands academic brilliance. Nor do I accept that academic brilliance can only be ascertained by particular results and qualifications from particular universities at particular times of a (young) person’s life. I do not regard this as a particularly contentious proposition, but it throws into sharp relief the issue of whether concentrating on results is even the way to identify academic brilliance.
It might be said that Chambers are not equipped to teach candidates, and so we are stuck with the results they have thus far obtained. It might be said, but it would be wrong in my view. People learn every day and performance improves through practice and experience (otherwise we could send the brilliant pupil straight to the Supreme Court). Nor does that argument address the mature applicant who brings something quite different to the job and who almost every Chambers says is welcome.
I believe we should try to identify potential through our own efforts and widen the pool of pupils. When there was only one Bar School, non-practising barristers were entitled to use the name, and – critically – financial support was available to at least some of those attending via grants and not just scholarships or awards, the position was different. There was then a case having lots of pupils exploited those pupils. Nowadays we expect our applicants to invest £13,000+ for a useless qualification and a small chance of a tenancy. If there are set of chambers that truly believe that the work they do can only be done by the exceptionally academically gifted and that such gifts must be manifested at an early age or by those practising as solicitors and and then changing over, they ought to say so fairly and squarely. A proposal that an application by those with other qualities might be met with a random opportunity to be interviewed by a panel looking for quite different qualities is insufficient. If the Chambers concerned are members of OLPAS then it is worse than insufficient, given that applicants would effectively be wasting a choice.
A start might be made by paying less. That would reduce the punt-taking considerably and would increase the number of pupillages, assuming that the investment in pupils remained the same. Is it really the position that talented candidates would go elsewhere because they were only paid £30,000 to train? Is it really the case that the profession is desperate to attract those who will only join if they get £60,000 as they train? The advantage of additional pupils is that Chambers has more to go on when it comes to choosing the best candidates. It also permits more tenancies to be offered than Chambers originally envisaged – helpful if a number of pupils do particularly well. One difficulty at present is that the concentration on academic results produces a vicious circle whereby candidates feel that post-graduate degrees are essential. That, in turn, generates another year of expense for which candidates can be recompensed by obtaining a pupillage at the Chambers with the highest awards. In reality, very few postgraduate degrees add anything and it may be helpful if we said so.
It is disturbing that a common thread running through this issue is the profit made by the institutions providing the necessary qualifications. It would, in my view, be a forward step if any institution wishing to offer professional qualifications was obliged to submit accounts, quantify the investment per student and correlate that against the academic results – which should be independently marked – and against the success of those students in securing pupillage, tenancy and professional advancement. I believe that this should include Universities offering law degrees. Especially now they are to charge students it would be fair for those students to know more than simply the general reputation of their institution: how good is the law department?
We should also impose procedural fairness. It is surprising, in a profession in which advancement is assisted by a clear statement of the competencies required, that it is not compulsory to offer candidates for pupillage the same opportunity. Chambers ought to publish – on their websites, on the Portal and in paper form, the qualities (the dreadful civil service word is ‘competencies’) they look for in order to allow candidates to demonstrate those qualities. At the moment we ask people to guess.
I suspect that we so often adopt the attainment of ever more stratospheric academic heights as the principal mechanism by which we choose pupils because academic achievement is simultaneously easy to measure and deeply flattering to those doing the measuring. On analysis, professional success also requires other qualities: judgement; lucidity; robust self-belief; an ability to move on; a willingness to work hard at uncongenial tasks; an ease with many different people. That list is almost certainly incomplete yet, to the extent that these qualities are looked for at all, it is hard to argue that they are scrutinised in anything like the same detail or given anything like the same significance. The other side of procedural fairness is allowing the candidates to know how the qualities required are assessed and prioritised by Chambers. Chambers ought to publish their marking schemes. If they attribute half the available marks to academic achievements and 10% to non-legal, non-academic attainment candidates could at least know what was required of them. Indirect discrimination thereby caused (not many traditional Muslim women go to University a long way from home, for example) could be identified and addressed. The process would be transparent. When schoolchildren take public examinations they are told how much each question is worth. A profession ought to meet the same standard.
For those sets in the happy position of being able to afford two well-paid pupils why not design two different sets of criteria, both open to all? One pupil would be accepted according to each. They could slug it out and Chambers would make its decision – both, one or none – in the usual way. The ability to refine both sets of criteria as the project progressed would be a useful benefit. The ability to reflect the society in which we all operate would be another. The opening of eyes to the possibility of merit arising other than from brilliance would be a third. Even clients might like it.