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Diversity and Selection

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.

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61 thoughts on “Diversity and Selection

  1. I agree with your view, Simon, that the “wildcard scheme” is a poor excuse for promoting diversity and looks more like “tokenism”. Having said that, I would shamelessly accept a pupillage on this basis!

    I do not, however, agree with the scheme. More controversially, I no longer agree with the notion that there is a requirement for a drive towards increased diversity at the Commercial Bar.

    I do not think that the Commercial Bar should be effectively apologising for being populated by the most academically gifted candidates. It should come as no surprise that the recruits to these positions are almost totally Oxbridge.

    The big commercial sets regularly deal with multi-national companies; “captains of industry” – sophisticated and powerful people. It should therefore come as no surprise that the leading Commercial sets seek pupils who will relate well to these individuals in addition to the rigours of the legal problems that they will encounter.

    During my BPTC year I have had the good fortune of sharing a group with a young man whom I consider to be, without question, the brightest person I have ever met. He is an Oxbridge graduate and he has pupillage at a top commercial set. He thoroughly deserves it and in my opinion it would be a travesty if similarly impressive individuals were jettisoned in favour of a drive for diversity.

    There was a time when I believed that I was a match for a graduate with an Oxbridge first. I believed that I would be equally capable of applying myself to the rigours of a commercial pupillage. I now have some creeping doubts about that and those doubts are from observing first-hand the legal knowledge, the eloquence, the sophistication and the confidence that this young man has in spades. In my opinion there is no doubt that much of this is the product of his Oxbridge education. That is not to discredit him in any way; I am in no doubt that he would be an exceptional candidate even without that Oxbridge first – but I think that it would be foolish to think that this adds just a veneer.

    During the BPTC year I have been brought into contact with people from other backgrounds and from a wide range of universities (both at my own BPTC provider and from other law schools). In my opinion, those who possess an Oxbridge first are generally the students that stand out for the right reasons. Why should we therefore be surprised that these are the ones that capture the highly sought after pupillages at the Commercial Bar?

    I am opposed to the implementation of tokenism or any drive for diversity that undermines the principle of rewarding merit. If the most meritorious candidates are those that have had the privilege of an Oxbridge education then so be it.

    On a slightly different note, I also think that this obsession with criticising the cost of the qualification has perhaps now had its day.

    With the advent of £9,000 per year fees for an undergraduate qualification, the £13,000 cost for an intensive professional course begins to look not only reasonable but good value – of course, the “good value” tag pre-supposes that there are opportunities arising from successful completion of the course (of which there are admittedly few – but we know this going into the course). We should also temper this with recognition that there is no guarantee of a graduate job after completing a £27,000 degree!

    Is £13,000 a ridiculous price to pay? Probably not…

    1. JH, I completely disagree with you that commercial chambers need not strive towards diversity. There was a time not too long ago when women were simply not considered smart enough for society’s top jobs; thankfully, at the Bar at least, those days are behind us. I too have met some truly intimidating ‘Oxbridge firsts’, but that is true also of some non-Oxbridge firsts.

      The point is that there are many reasons for not getting into Oxbridge, very few of which are to do with actual potential. Achieving 3 As at A-level (and now A*s) is an incredibly important part of the Oxbridge admissions system however for many students, irrespective of their talent or potential, it is simply not a realistic goal given the huge discrepancies in teaching standards across the country. Vast numbers of students who may be good enough to get in are also deterred by the myths and stereotypes which surround these premier institutions.

      I come from a state school background but was lucky enough to be accepted; although my own abilities were important, I know that without the reasonably high standard of teaching at my school and the one Oxbridge graduate teacher convincing me to apply, I probably would never have got in.

      Although the Oxbridge experience certainly counts for something (I would like to think that in three years of high pressure studying I have improved slightly), I don’t for a minute suppose that it will compare to the steep learning curve of pupillage. I certainly don’t think that any advantage I have of having studied here against those from other top universities will last for very long.

      Academic ability is crucial but it is potential and not achievement to date which is important. Achievement is simply one way of proving that potential.

      Chambers need to do more to increase diversity in the application process but also in the pre-application process. It was a talk by a commercial barrister at my school in year 11 which inspired me to aspire to the Bar; such initiatives can be hugely effective and more Chambers need to become involved with them.

      Finally I disagree that questioning the cost of the BPTC has had its day. I don’t think you can compare the chances of securing a graduate job with getting a pupillage. The reality is that the vast majority of people pursuing pupillage have a degree which would not be a bar to getting a graduate job but which nevertheless makes the BPTC a risky option. The fact that low interest student loans are available for undergraduate degrees but not the BPTC is also relevant to the question of risk.

      Personally I think the major problem is with the timing of pupillage applications. People have to accept a place on the BPTC and pay the deposit, if not the first instalment, before OLPAS Chambers can offer pupillages. This means that very few can apply for the BPTC with a pupillage secure. Either we ought to move to the LPC system with Chambers recruiting two years in advance or we ought to simply move pupillage applications to the Winter rather than the Summer. That would mean far more people would know their realistic chances of eventually getting a pupillage (or even an interview) and so allow them to make a more informed decision about undertaking the BPTC without a pupillage secured.

      1. Bar None: I would respectfully disagree.

        Discriminating on the grounds of sex or race is entirely different ot discriminating on the grounds of ability and potential. Your example is not reallyan appropriate comparison.

        I think candidates with an Oxbridge background, on balance, have greater ability and potential (it stands to reason given the admission criteria alone) and it is ability and potential that matters.

        I think that the issue of diversity is more of an issue for society and not necessarily one for the Commercial Bar to concern itself with. Providing the Commercial Bar is prepared to look at anyone with ability and potential (and I think it is) then diversity need not figure in selection criteria.

        I agree that the Bar has a role to play in advancing diversity but I think that this question of diversity; providing opportunity and recognising potential is something that should be addressed years before the individual applies for pupillage.

      2. I respectfully disagree, JH. I want to distinguish between ability at different things, and potential for different things.

        People from Oxbridge have (on average) demonstrated academic ability, but at that point only barrister potential. They have not yet demonstrated barrister ability. Surely the only useful criterion for pupillage et al is barrister ability, not academic ability? However imperfectly measured.

        My prescription for the situation is that the Bar as a whole undertake a Bar grad evaluation exercise, which would independently and objectively assess each student on the points mentioned by Simon: judgement; lucidity; robust self-belief; an ability to move on; a willingness to work hard at uncongenial tasks; an ease with many different people. For people as brilliant as barristers think they are, good tests for each of these things could easily be figured out.

        A good body to undertake these tests would be the Bar Council, or even the BSB. (Imagine that, the BSB measuring Standards at the Bar. It will never catch on.) The results would then be available to pupillage committees, who could then select the students for interviews based on their demonstrated abilities as a match for that Chambers, rather than the students applying. Criminal sets would have quite different preferences from commercial sets, which would be different again for family sets. That would be a process I could respect.

    2. I think the difficulty with your argument (JH) is not primarily that it is anecdotal – which is a weakness – but that it mistakes the value that Oxbridge adds for potential.

      There is no doubt in my mind that an Oxbridge education provides something extra. The classes are small, the teaching is good and the standards and expectations are high. People ought to come away with something about them. The difficulty is twofold: firstly, it can obscure the potential of a non-Oxbridge candidate (especially one who has not had the similar benefits conferred by a decent school). Secondly, it means the profession is not diverse.

      The search for diversity is not about tokenism. I am not arguing for the granting of pupillage to people who cannot cut it – however diverse. Diversity is about representing a society in all its different ways. That means an acknowledgment that what you regard as relevant and necessary may not be so. When you say that you believe Oxbridge candidates have greater ability and potential you are falling into the trap of allowing 2 institutions to do your thinking and assessment for you. If you reflect on it, it cannot be true unless you are also saying that ability and potential are permanently fixed aged 18 or 19.

      We are a profession that promotes justice. If we don’t take very good care to implement justice in our own recruitment then we will hardly produce those who will fight for it on behalf of others…

      1. Simon, I accept that my argument is in part anecdotal, but it does back up what the statistics suggest.

        I do agree that diversity is a good thing; absolutely. But I do not believe that diversity should be the driver.

        I accept also that people mature at different rates and potential and ability might reveal itself at a later stage. I am perhaps concentrating solely on the Commercial Bar as opposed to the Bar in general, but in my opinion, the qualities sought by the Commercial Bar are perhaps a little more subtle than just ability and potential; the subtle differences that an Oxbridge education can bring.

        You say that we should have a profession that reflects society – why? I have never been able to understand why this should be so in any profession. Surely the only requirements are that you are good enough to do the job. When we start talking about “reflecting society” then we might as well pick people at random from off of the street and throw them in at the deep end.

        It is about picking the right people for the job and in my opinion the Commercial Bar, by the very nature of the people that they deal with and the intellectual rigours of the legal problems that they deal with – it calls for the most academically gifted people and for those who are sophisticated, eloquent and at the very top of the game.

        I accept that much more should be done to increase opportunity and promote diversity. In my opinion, however, this has to be done at a much earlier age.

        You say that if my argument is true, then potential is fixed at 18/19 – no, I disagree and what is more I do not think that this is my argument at all.

        Potential is not fixed at any given age; however, where that potential can take you – well, perhaps that is fixed and determined at certain times and points in life. Maybe we should just accept that life is unfair. The choices that you make, the decisions that you take; even being in the right place at the right time – that, I am afraid, is life… it can be and it is unfair.

        Yes – diversity should be encouraged; most forms of discrimination should be stamped out – but discriminating on the grounds of somebody having more of the necessary attributes for the job (however subtle those attributes might be) – that, in my opinion, is not an abhorrent form of discrimination.

      2. I’m afraid I do not think for one minute that the qualities required at the commercial bar are either as subtle as you suggest or can only – or mainly – be achieved by attending 2 places. My view is based on 25 years’ experience litigating commercial work, and opposing Barristers from those chambers.

        We should reflect society because otherwise we lose its respect. It is a straw man argument to suggest that the alternative is plundering the queue at Tescos. The alternative is ensuring that privilege does not dictate opportunity. When my father was called to the Bar in 1951 there was an unofficial quota of Jews permitted in most Chambers (often equalling none) and on the High Court Bench (other minorities had not even been contemplated). It cannot sensibly be argued that progress since then has been backward. The lesson is that widening the pool leads to more achievement.

        Nor is it correct that commercial work makes the demands you assume for it. Some of it does. Most of it does not. Most disputes – however expensive – are not legal nightmares. It was Lord Salmon who said that there was no case so complicated that it could not be reduced to 2 issues.

        In my view the proposition that life is unfair – which it can certainly be – should represent something to overcome, not an excuse to do nothing and carry on as before.

      3. I am obviously compelled to defer to your far greater knowledge and experience, but I nevertheless argue that a subtle difference is suitable justification to prefer one candidate over another. I again defer to your opinion that those subtle differences may not be a requirement for the Commercial Bar but they are, I believe, suitable distinctions to make between candidates.

        From the outside looking in, I can see why it is as it is and whilst it may frustrate me, I can see why an Oxbridge candidate (of equal ability) will always be a far better candidate than I will ever be. I would perhaps even argue that those subtle differences are not quantifiable; they are about overall impression.

        And that is why I argue that the drive for diversity must come earlier than at the pupillage application stage.

        If that advantage (the subtle difference) is the result of privilege and not potential or ability – then my argument is that it should be changed at the point of impact; increasing opportunity to access to “those institutions” that will provide a candidate with those subtle differences.

        In many respects this is happening and has been happening for a few years but it will not change in an instant. Many young adults from a state education and with parents of modest means are accessing Oxford and Cambridge and many of those have achieved pupillage and tenancy at the Commercial Bar. This is where the drive for diversity should really be focussed.

        As previously stated, I defer to your knowledge and experience but I have personally, many times in the past, fallen foul of opportunity courtesy of a subtle difference; the difference of a mere inch might as well have been the difference of a mile. Eliminating the effect of a subtle difference, however, smacks of positive discrimination to me.

        Whatever marks a person out as a better candidate than me – subtle difference or a huge one – they are a better candidate.

      4. JH, it’s also possible that your under-successes may not have been by as small a difference as you would like to think.

      5. I sometimes wonder if the Commercial bar is really hunting for people who, upon finding themselves pocketing the best part of £100k (or, if chambers recruitment websites are to be believed, more) within a year or two of getting tenancy, don’t immediately think “well, I’m in my twenties and earning more than most people could ever imagine earning. I’m not too bothered about getting into Sumption territory so I think I’ll relax a little.”

        For that, you probably do need people from extraordinarily wealthy backgrounds, or at least exposure to those kind of backgrounds. And, if about half of Oxbridge students were privately educated, Oxbridge is probably not a bad place to look.

        One could get very cynical about this. I do wonder if it’s really worth it though, given that the problem appears to concern only a handful of chambers.

  2. I got a first from a non-oxbridge university. I didn’t apply to oxbridge as it was not possible financially for me to move away from home. Therefore, I went to my local university.

    I understand that people at Oxbridge may be academically better than some other students. But this is not an absolute. There are some excellent students that didn’t go to Oxbridge. I have had difficulties competing with Oxbridge students simply due to the university I attended.

    It frustrates me that the choices people make when they are very young can determine whether they can enter a career much later. This is emphasised by the fact that some young people don’t even have the luxury of being able to make a choice.

  3. “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. ”

    This is, I think, a key for sorting out many of problems with the current application system. There is currently so little information about what each chambers is looking for and how they assess applications that candidates who apply for pupillage are often shooting into the dark. It applies across the board and not just to sets which filter by high academic standards. For example, if a set is mixed, do they expect candidates to have experience in all areas of the practice or only some? Or is practical legal experience so highly rated that it is essential or are more marks awarded for skills developed elsewhere?

    Having the marking schemes available would not only be fairer on candidates but have the benefit of reducing the number of hopeless applications, since many candidates would not waste their time on filling in forms if they knew their abilities did not match those which the set sought.

    One figure from Andrew Neish QC’s article which I thought was particularly interesting was the high percentage of tenants at the commercial who had studied the Conversion Course and Bar Finals at City University / ICSL. Since all of these courses are the same, wherever they are taught, the Commercial Sets’ unique preference for one over the others does suggest that their archetype of a Commercial barrister is heavily based on looking at themselves rather than thinking what skills are required. That is, of course, unless they know something about the quality of the City Law School that the Magic Circle firms which have outsources their training to BPP and the CofL don’t…

  4. ~Am I missing the point, or is the issue of oxbridge/ non oxbridge but a very small part of the diversity issue? I’m actually rather tired of this debate. The fact remains that, no matter where you went to university, the Bar Council firmly states that if you have a qualifying law degree, you have a qualifying law degree.

    Of course, if this is the only issue of diversity that pervades the thinking of the bar, then those already disadvantaged by dint of race, colour, nationality, ethnic or racial origins, citizenship, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, religion, age or disability are absolutely screwed in any event, despite statements to the contrary.

    If it thinks that it has this particular aspect sewn up, then I think its sadly mistaken.

    1. The article in Counsel that promoted this debate – at least as I read it – focussed on the top commercial sets and the near total domination by Oxbridge graduates.

  5. I can’t square Simon’s observation The reality is that almost half the graduates from Oxbridge come from private schools, and the fact that there is one black student matriculating at Oxford in September, with JH’s claim I think candidates with an Oxbridge background, on balance, have greater ability and potential.

    If JH is right, the people with the greatest potential as barristers are probably born to parents who can afford to send them to public school. And they certainly are not black.

    1. I agree with your general point JN but I just wanted to make sure you’re not making it on mistaken facts. Is your only one black student assertion based on the comment by David Cameron a few week ago? Cameron misread the statistics which state that only one black ‘afro-Caribbean’ student is attending. Although the number of black students is still very low (but is actually very good when compared to the number of black students nationally getting the requisite grades), the overall percentage of ethnic minority students is around 19%.

      Like I said though, I agree with your point in substance that there are people who are excluded from ever getting to Oxbridge by virtue of circumstance, I just think it is important that the facts are not over exaggerated.

      For anyone who is interested, the current ethnic origin statistics are available here: http://www.ox.ac.uk/about_the_university/facts_and_figures/undergraduate_admissions_statistics/ethnic_origin.html

      1. With respect Bar None, two points. For one, as you say, the figures you link to are for students matriculating in 2010. They cannot speak to the ethnic profile of the 2011 student body. And second, as you also agree, a black student is very different from a student from an ethnic minority.

        Logically, therefore, everything you say may be true, yet there still may only be one black student entering Oxford next year—every other ethnic minority student may be Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, etc etc. Or, to put it another way, saying only one matriculating student is black does not require the rest be white.

      2. JN,

        I was simply inquiring as to where you got your figures from, since as far as I am aware the statistics for the 2011 intake have not yet been published. This is hardly surprising since most students have not yet taken their exams, so it is impossible for anyone to know how many black students are matriculating in 2011.

        I do not dispute that it is logically possible that only one black student will matriculate, I merely consider it unlikely given the trends in past years. I have presented the facts which are available to me; if you have any to substantiate your claim, please post them.

        I agree, of course, that ‘ethnic minority student’ is different to ‘black student’; I was merely using it to illustrate the point that Oxford is not as posh and white as some presume. The statistics I link to also explain the situation re: black students. Excluding those of mixed race background, and those who declined to answer, there were 20 black students accepted for 2010 intake out of 227 applications. It is that last number which we really ought to be concerned with; it is unsubstantiated comments such as yours which continue to perpetuate the myths about Oxbridge and which thereby deter able applicants from applying.

        I as I begun by saying; I agree with your general sentiment that more needs to be done. However, exaggerating the situation merely belittles the substantial progress which has been made; it is nothing but counter-productive.

      3. I think one could get too hung up on a ‘bean counting’ approach to diversity. Whether or not Oxford will boast more than a lone black student next year will be interesting to see; Cameron’s stats may well be incorrect. I think there’s an issue regardless of whether Oxford manages to give offers to 20 black students out of 2,500 offers (< 1%), or one. To be blunt, it is crap either way.

        The issue that both Oxford and Cambridge must both grapple with is that of educational background. I've no doubt that students who have educations costing of the order of £15k per year have exceptional GCSE and A-Level results. And I've no doubt that, with the extensive coaching most fee-paying schools provide, they excel at interviews. Frankly, for that kind of money, one would expect it.

        The aim should be one of finding students with comparable potential. Or, if you would allow me a brief sailing analogy, the people with the most expensive boats may well travel around the course the fastest. But this does not make them the best sailors. Perhaps Oxbridge needs to develop an academic equivalent to the Portsmouth Yardstick system…

      4. JN,

        I do not dispute that Oxford should, as should the Bar, develop a system based more upon potential than achievements to date isolated from the circumstances in which they were achieved. If you see my initial post, this was largely what I was arguing for. However, I do not think it is helpful to assert that racial discrimination has anything to do with it; the fact that Oxford ‘manages’ to offer 20 places to black students as you put it is directly linked to the number of applications. Yes, white students were offered more places, but that is hardly surprising when their 9532 applications are compared to the 227 made by students of black ethnic origin. Although the success rate of the latter is lower, this is largely explained by the greater percentage of applications to highly competitive subjects such as medicine.

        There is a world of difference between 20 students (or 39 if we include those of mixed race background) and one. 1/2500 is 0.04%, 20/2500 is 0.8%. At the time of the 2001 census those of black ethnicity accounted for around 2% of the population. If 50 black students were to attend then that would be representative of the country; although we still have a long way to go, significant progress has been made.

        David Cameron’s stats are wrong. He was talking about last year.

      5. Bar None,

        I certainly wouldn’t accuse Oxbridge of intentional and direct racial discrimination. Unfortunately, if the selection procedure—as it appears to—favours pupils of fee-paying schools, the universities can only work with the ethnic profiles of the schools that feed in. And I’d imagine the reason why ethnic minorities—black students in particular—are underrepresented and less likely to succeed is more to do with education background than race.

        But can you imagine the to-do if Oxbridge published an intent to ‘handicap’ the recipients of private educations? People who are able to whip up £30k+ a year to put the two kids through a private school would go ballistic to know they could no longer buy their kids an advantage in life.

        In the end, it’s not worth getting hung up on a throwaway comment about race. Wealth and family are the biggest issues and hopefully, if Oxbridge were to recruit from a more a more racially diverse pool, the diversity stats will slowly balance out.

      6. I’m happy to draw a line under this particular debate at that. My original comment was only ever intended to enquire as to your sources; given that even the Prime Minister can’t seem to get it right I just wanted to know where this ‘one black student’ myth was coming from.

        On a different but related note, of particular relevance to your last point about rich parents, how do you feel about this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/may/09/universities-extra-places-richest-students ?

  6. ” The article in Counsel that promoted this debate – at least as I read it – focussed on the top commercial sets and the near total domination by Oxbridge graduates.”

    Just goes to show just how wide of the mark commercial sets are then doesnt it?

  7. People shouldn’t be too enthralled with the idea of being at a ‘top commercial set’. True, they offer fabulous pupillage awards and the possiblity as a tenant of high paid, high profile work with the best solicitors. But as Simon will know from litigating against them, not everyone at a top commercial set is busy, and not everyone is happy. The bar is what you make of it. The set where ‘everyone is from Oxbridge’ may not be the place where you will flourish.

  8. I have trouble getting my flabby old brain around the concept of “diversity”. To me it appears something different from “merit”. Who would prefer to live in a diversitocracy as opposed to a meritocracy?

    On the face of it “diversity” refers to two things. One is an aspect of unfair discrimination and the other is an aspect of social engineering.

    Combatting discrimination on the grounds of pigmentation or gender is, in principle, easy because you can readily identify the factors that must not be taken against candidates. This is also the case with discrimination because of social background. I can understand that candidates should not be rejected because of their social background when they are, on all other criteria, on a par with those who remain in the game. In this respect pursuing “diversity” is just another aspect of anti-discrimination policy. As such it is not only desireable but, in my experience, has been the general practice at the Bar for at least thirty years.

    The other aspect is far more difficult and I doubt that it is either attainable or, frankly, desireable. For any set of chambers to set out to attract candidates of different backgrounds in order that the set as a whole will be “diverse” might seem laudable but it necessarily means that social background will be a basis of positive discrimination – which is just a polite way of saying that those who (through reasons that are not under their control) don’t fit into the required category will be discriminated against just as if their unattractive characteristic were their pigmentation or gender.

    More than that, applications for seats in chambers rarely involve more than one or two vacancies so decisions over the applicable criteria are specific not general. Building a “balanced” set is done by considering individual applicants year-by-year. I find it thoroughly unattractive that a set might feel it necessary to say “we’ve got too many toffs, this time we need a bit of rough” or “we’ve got too much rough, we need a toff or two” purely in order to attain whatever picture of “diversity” is currently in vogue. Is it not inevitable that an outstanding candidate will be rejected in favour of someone of ability, but lesser ability, who happens to fit the prescribed profile?

    Picking on smart commercial sets for being stuffed with Oxbridge firsts is rather a non-issue in this debate. (Incidentally, it should not be ignored that plenty of people who have started practice in other sets have transferred to the big-name sets once they have proved themselves to be outstanding regardless of their university or class of degree.) I cannot see why the university attended by any individual has anything to do with the general concept of “diversity”. Of course a broad argument can be constructed that more toffs than scum go to Oxbridge so taking Oxbridge graduates means you take more toffs than scum, but that’s hopelessly shallow. The question should be whether the big-name sets take toffs with Oxbridge firsts in preference to scum with Oxbridge firsts and I am not aware of any evidence that that is the case to any significant degree.

    You might as well pick on the self-proclaimed specialist sets in human rights for being crammed full of champagne socialists. Does not “diversity” require them to adopt tenants with a wider range of political views? If not, why not? Why should sets full of toffs be required to take non-toffs in the cause of “diversity” while sets full of Islington chatterati lefties are allowed to continue to discriminate on the basis of political opinion?

    The only question that matters is whether a candidate appears to be the best candidate to fill the vacancy. Do they appear to be able to do this very demanding job to a high standard, do they appear to have the character that would draw work from the solicitors who instruct chambers, do they appear to have the character to give confidence to the lay clients, do they appear to have the character to work harmoniously with other members of chambers and to be the best asset to chambers from the pool of candidates? If the answer to these questions produces a string of toffs or a string of produce from sink-estates and bog-standard comprehensives then so be it, they will be the best candidates for that set at that time.

    And don’t forget to look at history. Look at the number of highly competent barristers who came from modest homes, attended polytechnics or modest universities and were given a chance because a set of chambers spotted something in them and was proved right. They are not rare beasts, not rare at all. Look at the last two lists of new silks, you won’t find many toffs and Oxbridge firsts there.

    As the product of state schools and a non-Oxbridge university I find it insulting to be categorised as being of a kind that needs some sort of special treatment. Maybe the high-falutin’ sets would never have welcomed me, but nor would the political sets; I knew that at he time so didn’t waste effort applying. I’d rather not be part of them than be accepted on sufferance because my presence allowed them to tick a “diversity” box on a meaningless form.

    1. Diversity doesn’t require positive discrimination. There are two types of diversity we might focus on: diversity of outcome and diversity of application. Of the two only the former might involve some form of positive discrimination, and even that need not be the case.

      Diversity of application simply requires Chambers to widen the pool from whom they recruit. There are two ways of doing this: first, greater involvement in access initiatives to dispel the myths about such Chambers and encourage applications from talented candidates. Second, a recruitment policy which does not exclude those automatically who haven’t been to a top university. I have no evidence to claim that this is the case, although it is a very easy way to narrow down your number of applications so it wouldn’t surprise me if it was the case. If a Chambers at least ensures diversity of application then, in theory, if they still continue to pick Oxbridge firsts as the best candidates there can be no complaint.

      Diversity of outcome however will only follow from diversity of application in one of two ways. Either through positive discrimination or through recognising the qualities that non-Oxbridge firsts bring to the table. If we recognise that there are many reasons for not getting an Oxbridge first and that those who have not attained such dizzying heights may nonetheless have just as much potential to become good barristers; then giving pupillages to them is neither tokenism or positive discrimination; it is simply recognising that they are better, albeit on a different scale.

      A useful parallel can be drawn with Oxbridge which has employed both of these techniques. It is probably correct to say that the top few public and private schools in the country, with the best teaching, produce the best candidates in terms of confidence, achievements to date etc. However, Oxbridge no longer simply recruits from those top schools because it recognises that other candidates may be better on a different scale; i.e. potential.

    2. I could not agree more strongly with the sentiments expressed by “Fat Bigot”.

      Just because a section (or many sections) of a community are not represented in a branch of a profession or in an occupation does not mean that they are being unfairly discriminated against.

      Not all forms of discrimination are wrong.

      No right thinking individual would accept that discrimination on the grounds of sex, race or religion (examples used by Bar None and SM to support a drive for diversity) is acceptable; but discriminating on the grounds of ability or overall impression simply cannot be equated to these unacceptable forms of discrimination.

      For the last few years it has become extremely fashionable to seek a workforce that “reflects the community”. I, like “Fat Bigot”, am very uncomfortable with this.

      It is sufficient, in my opinion, that a profession is accessible to all. I happen to think that this is the case with the Bar and the Commercial Bar. Sadly, the reality is that certain sections of the community more easily and more frequently meet the merits test; that does not mean that the merits test is wrong or needs manipulating.

      I happen to agree with Bar None – much more needs to be done at a very early age. More needs to be done to inspire; to make it clear that hard work can and does pay off. Would I have been inspired by having a Barrister come into school at the age of 11 to give a talk? In truth, probably not… but I might… and I certainly know many who probably would have been inspired.

      It is my own choices in life that have narrowed my opportunities. My own.

      I do not think that it is fair or reasonable for others who do give a far better overall impression – others who do have ALL OF THE “nice-to-haves” – to miss out because they had a more privileged up-bringing. If ability and potential are equal in two candidates – why should it be wrong to make the final selection on overall impression?

      Providing you are not making the choice because candidate A is a “toff” and candidate B is “scum” then I do not see the problem. If the decision is taken on objective criteria then it would seem to me to be perfectly fine to me.

      I genuinely believe that if candidate B is objectively better than candidate A then most, if not all, pupillage committees would recruit candidate B. The reality, however, is that candidate A is more likely going to be the more impressive; not always – but mostly. And that, I believe, is the reason why the statistics are as they are.

      The drive for diversity should begin at a very early age – it should be about inspiring people from an early age and making them aware that “anything is possible” if they work hard and apply themselves; it should not be about manipulating entry criteria.

  9. “Diversity doesn’t require positive discrimination.”

    The GLS thinks so.

    So do Matrix.

    Why not the rest of the bar?

    There is nothing to loose by this – and perhaps quite a bit to gain.

    Bar None, you make the assumption that everyone coming to the bar must have a first whether oxbridge or no.

    If thats not discrimination, I dont know what is.

    1. Matrix may talk the language of diversity, but their recent tenants are (almost) invariably white, middle class, and with a clutch of degrees from elite universities (almost) invariably including Oxbridge.

      To get an interview for pupillage, sorry ‘traineeship’, at Matrix, you need at least a first-class degree according to their scoring system and preferably at least one masters degree. In addition, the profiles of junior tenants at Matrix seem to suggest that their ideal ‘trainees’ will have done several years of volunteering work for NGOs across the world. These things cost money, serious money, and when the basic expectation is that candidates will have done all these things (or at least so many candidates have that to be a contender one needs to have set up a circus in Kabul), regardless of a set’s policy on diversity or how self conscious they are about widening participation, at sets like Matrix, a career at the Bar seems like the preserve of the rich.

      It is clear to me on the BPTC currently that the Bar remains a rich mans sport, with a very small proportion of students from comprehensive school backgrounds – but that might just be my provider.

    2. Minx,

      The point I was trying to make is that positive discrimination is not ‘required’ to achieve diversity; whether we ought to employ it anyway is a quite different question. As it happens, I don’t believe that it is necessary or realistic.

      I don’t believe at any point I have suggested that a first is required for the Bar, if I have, that was not my intention. I myself do not have a first and the increasing amount of time I am spending commenting on this blog, rather than revising, is decreasing the likelihood of me achieving one by the minute! To put all this in perspective, I should also make clear that I have no intention whatsoever of applying to the commercial Bar; I am a crime guy, through and through.

      My point has always been that there are many ways to demonstrate potential ability as a barrister; academic achievement is undoubtedly one of them, whether through outstanding A-Level results leading to an Oxbridge education or achieving a first. Exceptional A-Level results and degree results are indicative of exceptional potential as is exceptional achievement later in life. Although the reality is that the vast majority of successful applicants will always have to show at least one of these, I have never suggested that it is an exhaustive list. My argument has simply been that, because of the potential effect of the many extraneous variables, it is unwise to focus on only one factor in a recruitment policy.

      A wider net is is good for both diversity and the Bar; it makes sure that none of the big fish get away.

    3. Positive discrimination is not the answer to the problem of diversity at the Bar. There is no principled difference in ‘positive’ discrimination and ‘simple’ discrimination. You are are favouring one candidate above another, not because of ability of aptitude but because of their race, gender, age or academic background.

      Such a measure is only ever harmful and a double edged sword. Proponents of diversity (as I am sure we all are) should be focusing on educating the decision maker – whether they be academic institutions, members of the Bar, the judiciary or the applicant themselves – then having the patience to let these changes trickle through over time as people graduate and enter the profession. Trying to rush through changes for instant gratification in order to ‘reflect’ the make up of society makes proponents no better than the actions and attitudes of those whom they are opposing.

      The ‘wild card’ scheme does not need to operate on the basis of, nor do I think the idea is to promote, positive discrimination.

      If the following were adopted then the initial bias would be overcome without the need for any positive discrimination:

      1) Chambers are permitted to continue with their current recruitment criteria (Oxbridge based) at the application stage and then select X number for first round interviews on that basis (say 20 candidates).

      2) Those who do not feel that they satisfy the Oxbridge clique apply separately to a central pooling system indicating which chambers they wish to be put forward for interview with. Candidates from the central pool are then selected without reference to the institution which they attended and possibly without reference to the qualification received (as long as minimum standards are met). Based on other criteria the best 2 candidates would be selected from the pool for interview at the relevant chambers.

      3) Chambers would then interview their chosen 20 along with the additional 2 – meaning that no one from the Chambers process has lost out to positive discrimination and those from the pool have been offered an opportunity to impress based on information other than academic background.

      This would at least over come the first rejection hurdle based upon institution and offer some people the opportunity to impress the panel at interview who would otherwise not have been offered that chance.

      Pure ‘positive discrimination’ is rarely the answer; better to provide education for decision makers and then apply a little patience.

  10. It has always seemed to me that the difficulty with criticising civil sets for taken on a very large number, if not exclusively Oxbridge candidates, is that you are earmarked as jealous or having a chip on your shoulder for not being selected yourself to attend Oxford or Cambridge.

    For me it is not necessarily a question of jealousy. I will openly admit that I did apply to Cambridge and was rejected. However this is probably due to my AS levels consisting of AABB, where as my final A-Level results consisted of five grade ‘A’ with 100% in a number of examinations (this was before it was possible to be graded A* at A-Level which I understand in now the case). In turn i did then attend a good institution and was given the opportunity to study internationally at world class institution for a period. As a result I have no issue with this initial rejection.

    I accept that Oxbridge students do work incredibly hard, quite possibly with a more intense study program than other institutions. However what I find to be the issue is it would appear that when applying to certain chambers, you are immediately put on the no pile because you did not attend Oxbridge. If a set can demonstrate that all candidates were given an equal opportunity (beyond merely being allowed to apply) then for me the issue would be settled.

    The article in Counsel pointed out that an Oxbridge education does not actually mean that a candidate has the best qualities for being a barrister. I am sure that I will be judged for saying this, but inter-personal skills, in my experience, are not something which those candidates from Oxbridge necessarily possess.

    I do back this up with with personal experience after obtaining a mini-pupillage with one of the top commercial/chancery chambers. The other mini-pupils introductory conversation consisted of “which college are you from?” – the reply of not coming from an Oxbridge set resulted in the conversation being cut short and them walking away. I also experienced the same attitude from member of chambers and felt like I was often used as the butt of jokes which appeared to stem from my educational position.

    The top chambers, with an oxbridge make up, are of course going to recruit from those who they feel most socially comfortable. This is one point of the interview process. To me the ‘wild card’ scheme is a good idea, as long as those candidates put forward do reach a level of academic quality. The point of the scheme appeared to be, to allow potentially suitable candidates to overcome the initial hurdle of rejection based purely on undergraduate institution. Fortunate candidates are of course by no means guaranteed the pupillage, and will face an up hill struggle to impress the panel – but they will have the chance to try and impress. For me that is the importance of the potential scheme.

    1. Minx, I don’t think the GLS approach is ‘positive discrimination’ as such, at least at trainee level, I think the approach is, or aims to be, background blind. So:

      1. You meet the set standard academics, residency, nationality etc Yes/No

      2. You sit an ‘objective’ test, with top scoring candidates going forward

      3. At the assessment process; interview, group exercise, presentation etc none of the assessors have seen your CV and so assess your aptitude/competencies as you deliver on the day.

      Is it perfect no, does it select those who deliver under pressure on one or two days rather than a decade of academic achievement, yes. Though I think if you are selecting Barristers, how you perform on the day, under pressure is actually quite a good test and actually rather relevant, whether it is doing advocacy or delivering difficult advice to a belligerent Minister.

      Does it produce a more diverse group of candidates, yes? Do many of them have more ‘life experience’ (read older), yes? Have more of them come to the law in different ways with diverse backgrounds, yes? Is that is because the GLS looks at a wider set of criteria than simple academics, I think it probably is.

      The problem, it is a very expensive process, that does take a lot of time, but for any organisation or group with an interest in their future recruitment is important. I recognise for some chambers the full process may be out of reach and that ‘Pupillage is a yearlong interview’ but I think it is an interesting model in this discussion.

      1. I think Minx’s point in relation to the GLS and Matrix is specifically about their guaranteed interview scheme for people with self-declared disabilities. Both have a recruitment process where you can tick a box saying you consider yourself disabled and, if you meet the other minimum requirements (e.g. 2.1 degree) you are guaranteed an interview.

        This type of scheme is standard in civil service recruitment. But it does not apply to any other types of potential discrimination.

  11. If I could title this little interjection, I’d probably call it something like “A little further back”

    Which I am. As a 17 year old in sixth form education I am absolutely convinced that I want to become a Barrister. And I have to admit that I found your website and all of its straight facts about the competition at exactly the right point. It pulls no punches and knowing that my ambitions stay strong through all the hard statistics makes me feel that I am definitely making the right choices. It’s also great encouragement to know what I could have and what I will need to get there – it helps me work hard when I’m still doing subjects totally unrelated to Law right now! It shows that everything is critical.

    At 17, I still have everything to play for. Only my GCSEs are behind me right now, and my future is very much still in my hands at this point (think AS levels coming up over this month). It has been all good up until this point. The question I’m wondering today – Mr Myerson, and other pupillage applicants – what do you think pupillage applications will be like five years from now? Five years seems like plenty of opportunity for things to change – the question is really ‘will I be coming up when the pressure has started to ease off or will I be up against even more competition?’ As people with their fingers firmly on the ‘pupillage pulse’ right now, I would be fascinated by your speculation.

    Right now, I’m hoping that the independent bar will still exist- do the chances of Solicitors and Barristers turning into one profession seem as remote as they ever were?

    Fascinated and looking forward to hearing any input – thanks
    Adam

    1. Addendum: I would also like to throw in an apology as it seems I’ve just shoved an unrelated question into a heated debate. Sorry!

    2. I would say you are in the best position now to make the right choices.
      Although I knew I wanted to pursue a career at the Bar when I was your age there was very little information and guidance on the correct steps to take.

      If I was to do it all again I would, for example, not study undergraduate law – but rather something like politics and then do the GDL. This seems to place people in a much better position for the BVC and it seems that chambers prefer candidates from a non-law background.

      Good luck 🙂

    3. AMYA(M),

      I don’t think it is an unrelated question at all. I think the one thing everybody in this debate is agreed upon is that we should be helping demystify the Bar and encouraging aspirants such as yourself. If we can’t even do that, then this whole debate really has been pointless.

      My main piece of advice is to start early; find out about the law and about both professions (and alternatives), get some legal work experience if you can. You seem to be on the right track by asking questions here anyway.

      I agree with naw12 that the first thing you need to think about is whether you want to do a law degree at all as it is by no means a requirement to becoming a barrister/solicitor. I disagree that it will necessarily put you in a better position though, my understanding was that about 50% of pupillages went to people who did an LLB and 50% to those who converted; there are certainly merits to both options.

      In terms of where pupillage applications will be in five years; the trend for a long time has been increasing numbers of applicants for decreasing numbers of pupillages. Although the situation will differ depending on the area of law you are looking at, I don’t see the trend changing dramatically.

      Lastly, despite everything that has been said here, it remains true that academic achievement is vitally important. Especially if you are aiming for the commercial Bar, but even if you are not, try to get in to Oxbridge. Irrespective of any prestige or advantage it may give you, they are fantastic places to study and live. I have, for the most part, loved my time at Oxford; it is a truly unique experience which; even facing nine exams in three weeks’ time; I wouldn’t trade for anything…

      …(except perhaps a pupillage).

      I wish you the best of luck.

      1. Just realised you did actually put your name at the bottom of your post, so there really was no need to abbreviate to AMYA(M)! Good luck Adam.

    4. Thanks for taking the time to reply, both 🙂

      I suppose you could say I have started early. I’ve spent some time around courts, observing. I’ve been pretty cheeky on the work experience front – going round and asking individuals from both sides of the legal profession for a little time with them, and I’ve been met with some success. I’ve amassed about five weeks of work experience altogether (past and booked). There’s my grades – no worries. Extra-curricular stuff shouldn’t be a problem. Open days booked and I’ve already been to Oxford’s law one. Fascinating stuff. I’m pretty keen to do Law at university – it takes a chunk of time and money out of it and

      As regards to law – I have to admit that criminal, family and defamation seem the most interesting parts for me. So I suppose Oxbridge isn’t absolutely essential. Not that that will stop me from trying, of course! It’s exciting and fascinating to think ahead like this – I have to keep reminding myself I’ve go a long way to go, though.

      Cheers,
      Adam

      1. PS – Ha, I’ve just noticed I left an ‘and’ hanging at the end of my first paragraph. It should read ‘and I really want to gain an in depth knowledge of the law, learning the why and how as much as the what, if that makes any sense.

        And I ought to add while I’ve got you – “no worries” shouldn’t be interpreted as “I’m so arrogant as to think I’ll walk them” but instead “I know I have it in me and I hope to prove as much in my exams.”

      2. I’m not sure how much use this comment will be to you, but do try to remember that going to university isn’t just about learning a bunch of facts. During your first degree, be that an LLB, BA, BSc or whatever, you’re learning a lot about critical thinking, developing your ability to conduct original(ish!) research, and ultimately changing from being someone who can do brilliantly on an A-Level exam because you’ve been taught the material to someone who can write a brilliant 12,000 word dissertation off their own bat.

        Also—although it is seldom mentioned—the experience of living away from home, being responsible for yourself and learning how to interact with very different people are a major part of university. All of the developments mentioned above can/will take place no matter what you study (within reason!), and arguably you will have more time for the non-academic experience of university if you aren’t studying law.

        In short, don’t think that just because the LLB is three years you gain three times as much insight into law. The GDLers will pretty much cover our first two years in one year, and they can do this primarily because they’re more mature when they start and have most of the academic skills they need. The LLB is great if you’re genuinely interested in studying law as an academic subject, and electives/dissertations can be very rewarding. But if you think you might rather study philosophy, classics, history, politics, a modern language, a science, or anything, go for it. If you look at barristers of less than seven years call, you will find the best sets (and firms) have roughly the same number of LLBers and GDLers.

  12. “On analysis, professional success also requires other qualities [than academic achievement]: judgement; lucidity; robust self-belief; an ability to move on; a willingness to work hard at uncongenial tasks; an ease with many different people.”

    Gaining a first class degree demonstrates judgement and a willingness to work hard at uncongenial tasks. Those more mature candidates who, for whatever reason, didn’t do themselves academic justice earlier in life have the option of gaining a distinction on the conversion course.

    I’m unsure about the Oxbridge bias. I think I’d go along with SM’s view that it’s actually about the value that those institutions add, through the supervision system which inculcates eloquences and intellectual rigour. In addition, The Oxbridge students I know have tended to be intelligent, driven and hard-working.

    The proposal that enthuses me is ‘procedural fairness’. At the moment the lack of transparency in some Chambers’ application procedure breeds bad practice, myths and conspiracy theories.

    However, a number of commercial sets do already publish detailed selection criteria. In my limited experience, they’re ahead of many other areas of the Bar in this.

  13. Matrix and the GLS exercise positive discrimination in offering a guaranteed interview scheme to those considered disabled.

    This is not to say that a guaranteed interview equates with guaranteed success in securing either a training contract/pupillage ( GLS) or pupillage ( Matrix), but at least it levels the playing field.

    I wait to see how many of you will complain that this is unfair.

    1. In what way does the playing field need levelling for these candidates?

      If successful in getting through to interview on the ‘normal’ route I would think that chambers would be obliged under disability legislation to take steps to facilitate the needs of such candidates at interview. GLS and Matrix obviously do as they guarantee such candidates an interview.

      If a chambers is discriminating on the ground of disability then this is surely a far bigger issue that needs to be resolved.

      I am not complaining straight away that this is unfair,, i will wait for you to justify the point: Namely, Why do disabled candidates require preferential treatment for obtaining an interview, compared with ‘able bodied’ candidates – when the selection criteria is meant to be the application as a whole?

      The issue with the COMBAR scheme is to resolve the apparent fact that it is not the application viewed as a whole which is being used for selection purposes – but rather academic institution as the primary factor and then additional information as the secondary.

      P.s. I apologise if my language causes any offence i do not know the correct language for disability etc

  14. I wonder whether I should make the blood of all current and future applicants for pupillage boil by saying how I obtained pupillage. Yes, I think I will. Because I couldn’t afford to go into pupillage after taking the Bar Exams I found gainful employ at a private college teaching law to A Level, LLB and Bar students. One day during lunch one of my teaching colleagues mentioned that her husband would be able to take his first pupil in a few months’ time and wondered whether I would be interested. An interview was arranged because the set of chambers was one of the few in those days that insisted on an interview before taking anyone.

    I said my hellos, sat down and was faced with the chairman of the panel (later a Senior Circuit Judge) saying “We understand you know X and that he’s keen to have you as his pupil. Do you have any questions for us?”

    Oh happy days.

  15. “In what way does the playing field need levelling for these candidates?”

    I am so angry at the degree of ignorance displayed in this comment, I dont think I can be bothered to dignify it with a response – suffice to say, I encounter people like you every single day of my life, and you make it an absolute nightmare.

    Take a look at the Equality Act.

    1. With respect it was a genuine question.

      As i said, I would think chambers and all employers are required to take steps to accommodate the needs of such individuals when it comes to interview and working life.

      But this issue is about selection for interview which is meant to be about academic ability, commitment to the Bar, achievements and experiences. All of which at the first stage are assessed on paper applications.

      I made it clear that I disagree with discrimination simply on the grounds of disability and other issues such as gender and race etc.

      So what I am asking, quite sincerely, is why do such candidates require a system which leap frogs the paper application stage so long as minimum requirements are met? It is a genuine question not an attack or ignorant question. I am talking purely about the initial paper sift of applicants.

      I am sorry if my interest caused offence.

      1. I think perhaps the point is that unlike with race or gender (at the Bar at least), there actually still is genuine discrimination against those with disabilities. It is much easier to find ways to hide that discrimination at the paper stage since there are so many more applicants and the assessment is more shallow. Requiring disabled applicants to be given an interview also forces Chambers to ensure they are physically accessible and challenges stereotypes.

        I can’t comment on whether such discrimination does exist at the Bar, but I believe that if there is a genuine concern, those would be the reasons for differential treatment.

    2. I think you are right to say it is ignorance and not malice – and it is a subject on which I am sadly ignorant as well. Is there such discrimination against the disabled that this is necessary? I do not know myself, but it is certainly shocking if there is.

      Guaranteeing interviews is a very strong measure, and I am afraid my ignorance is such that I do not see the reason for it – can you explain?

      1. I think it is very easy to see disability: “blind” on an application form for example and think, how could they possibly succeed as a barrister?

        I appeared before Mark Higgins (Harcourt Chambers) in a moot last year; despite being completely blind he was razor sharp and able to find the relevant passage in the cases I was citing before I could. He did not let his disability, if you can even call it that, get in the way at all. Until you meet such inspiring people in person, it is easy to dismiss them. A guaranteed interview protects against discrimination by eliminating ignorance and prejudice, making malice harder to hide and by giving people a chance to prove the realities of their (dis)ability.

      1. Ed: That sort of comment is absolutely unacceptable. You should be ashamed of yourself.

        Apologise please.

      2. I think that someone finding ignorant people’s behaviour “make [their life] an absolute nightmare” is someone who does not have perspective, given that a large majority of the human race today suffers worse than having to deal with fools: starvation, physical danger, disease. I wonder how such a person would deal with working at the Bar.

        If that is offensive, please feel free to delete my previous remark and this one too. However, I do not see anything unacceptable in either.

        Of course, it is always possible that I misunderstood Ms Minx’s position from her previous words.

      3. I think it is perhaps the implicit sexism which is objectionable. I don’t know if it was intended, but that is how I read it.

      4. Believe me when I say that it was in no way gender-specific. There are plenty of emotionally fragile males.

  16. Commercial sets are comprised of self employed persons, who are self reliant and, for the best part, receive no state subsidy. Why should such persons not be able to recruit to their own number whomever they so please and by whatever criteria they choose to apply. Indeed, why should they even be expected to divulge such criteria; other equivalent businesses and professions do not.

    The chambers have to sell themselves, and increasingly so to clients based abroad. Whether Oxbridge affords the best education or not can be debated at length, but it is perceived to be the best and, in the big money arena, that’s what sells. Chuck in a few cons after the clients have ambled through a historic Inn, a few inadvertent mentions about how Johnnie Double-Barreled went to the same Oxbridge college as Judge Posh-Boy and your average Russian robber-barron, who can barely string together two words in his own language, let alone in English, will be falling over himself to write cheques for those 6 figure retainers.

    When bright kids from other universities sell as well, or better, to prospective clients, the commercial/chancery bars will be the first to recruit such candidates.

    Until then, nothing will change. And why should it ?

    1. A provocative post, anon. But I suspect a lot of the tenants at the top commercial sets would broadly agree. Of course they would never be allowed to say as much whilst purporting to represent chambers -because their well-paid marketing person would veto it.

      But why should they not be honest? The commercial sets are like their clients – they look after themselves very well. How could they possibly be as successful if they didn’t? The bottom line for them really is the bottom line. Lip-service will be paid to increasing diversity, but ultimately it won’t form part of their business plan. Why should it if it won’t increase anual profits per barrister?

      Also, why should these elite sets have to shoulder a task which is not their’s but society’s – namely to improve the chances of the less fortunate from reaching the top of the professions? It’s really not what they are in business to do.

      On the other hand, what these sets absolutely cannot do is discriminate against pupillage and tenancy candidates with non-public school, non-Oxbridge backgrounds. But to a vast extent extent I think you will find they do not. Again, that would not be in their interests, given that they are simply looking for the most brilliant future barristers – wherever they may have come from and whoever they may be.

      1. “why should these elite sets have to shoulder a task which is not their’s but society’s – namely to improve the chances of the less fortunate from reaching the top of the professions?”

        It is not the task of anyone to improve the chances of the “less fortunate” reaching the top of any profession. The top of a profession is reached once applicants at the bottom have roughly doubled their age, by which time anything about them that might once have been described as “less fortunate” is part of the very dim and distant past.

        Obtaining pupillage or a tenancy at a big-name commercial set does not place you at the top of the profession. It places you at the bottom of the profession, although it will give you exposure to solicitors with very tasty work. What you do with that work will determine how far you progress regardless of your pigmentation, gender or physical state.

  17. Fat Bigot’s comments are based on the false premise that people with ability will be “seen” and thus the cream will go to top chambers. Those that are not seen are not as able as those who are.

    The Bar suffers from a methodological myopia and needs a new pair of glasses. You can call them “Diversity Goggles” if you like. Take the trouble to put them on, and you just might find a kid from a comp/mature applicant etc who can kick your arse up and down chancery lane.

    But I do like how FB got his pupillage: everybody knows OLPAS and funded pupillages have spectacularly backfired in delivering diversity.

    In the meantime, I brief counsel from time to time. I only do so where I know they will add value. I am wholly uninterested in which uni you went to/how old you are or what race or class background. My only question is whether you will assist me in winning. Funnily enough, 100% of my safe hands barristers probably wouldn’t get a pupillage today.

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