Oxbridge · Qualities Required · Routes to the Bar · University

A Diverting Diversion on Diversity

The last post having garnered 50 comments and counting, it seems worthwhile to distill the arguments here. I discern a number of distinct threads. Oddly enough they emerged in almost exactly the reverse order in which I list them here, but the listing is logical:

  1. Diversity isn’t a problem.
  2. Diversity is a problem but it should be dealt with earlier on.
  3. Why bother with diversity, when the Bar (usually expressed as the commercial bar) already picks the best people?
  4. Diversity is social engineering under a different name and is thus an invitation to a different form of discrimination.

The first answer stands on its own. The next two acknowledge the difficulty but seek, for different reasons, to ignore it. The last acknowledges that diversity is desirable but suggests that it can’t really be achieved without imposing something even worse.

The Bar does not reflect the society in which we live. That fact seems to me to be unarguable. Should it? There seems to be no good reason why not. There seems to be every good reason why it should. That proposition can be tested by asking whether people would support a bar which was only white and male. They would not. Such a profession would be exclusionary, discriminatory and full of people (from whose ranks the judiciary of the future would overwhelmingly be drawn) who were happy to keep it that way. From a moral, legal and representative point of view there can be no justification for that stance.

Why does the Bar not represent the society in which we live? Unless you are the type of idiot who buys into the proposition that those of different colour, race, religion, physical ability or income are also less intelligent and less equipped with the qualities required, it cannot be anything to do with the applicants. It must, therefore, be something to do with how they are schooled, or how we select them. What else could it be?

Assuming that how people are schooled is a part of the issue, is it sensible of the profession to simply wash its hands of the problem and use that as an excuse? It seems to me that the morality of that can never be justified. I am not particularly interested in belonging to any group of people whose response, faced with obvious injustice, is to say “I’m alright Jack”. When that group of people purport to be delivering justice, the hypocrisy is so obvious that I wonder how stupid someone has to be before they are incapable of recognising it. Not very.

It does seem to me, in that case, that the profession must conclude that it is not sensible to wash its hands of the problem. The risk it takes by so doing is that it comes to consist either of fools or of people whose commitment to the system does not extend to living by it. If that becomes the case then the profession will have no answer to those who wish to abolish it, or to so abbreviate its privileges as to abolish it. At the moment we make a huge point of our independence, our ethical stance and our ability to take unpopular stances. Those arguments are worthless if, on examination, we will only be independent, ethical and take unpopular stances if they don’t involve our own behaviour.

Finally, on this point, the argument that schooling is irremediable seems to me to be obviously nonsensical. What, then, is anyone learning in pupillage? Why is a barrister of 2 years’ call not capable of taking a difficult issue to the Supreme Court? We all acknowledge that the profession is one in which good barristers never stop learning. Once that acknowledgement is made, why is the state of learning at the time of application for pupillage so important – other than that it provides an easy way of distinguishing between candidates and encourages those picking the pupils to determine who is most like them?

You will note that all of this grants Oxbridge the place it holds in the hearts of what – to my mind – are far too many of you. The notion that Eton produces a particular type of person, ready to lead the world is now merely an amusing anathema to most of us. Even were it to be accepted (and I do accept it) that Eton produces people with a particular ability to be charming and to speak authoritatively, it would strike us as absurd that such qualities entitled anyone to anything, or could not be acquired later in life, or were the be all and end all of the qualities required for success. The notion that results obtained because one’s parents could afford Eton’s fees or because one was fortunate enough to obtain some sort of bursary to enable attendance there, were a signal of unmatched intellectual prowess would be similarly derided. The notion that Oxbridge provides something similar, together with subtle qualities permitting success in the practice of law – which practice Oxbridge does not even teach strikes me as equally absurd.

That there should be a required standard is not in issue. That the standard may differ from set to set is not in issue. A set might, for  example, decide that particular academic ability is necessary. What is questionable is whether, having made that decision, it is acceptable to determine that such ability is shown by Oxbridge attendance. I see no reason why that should be so. What if the applicant never applied to Oxbridge? If someone applied and was rejected, perhaps they should say so (the reaction of Oxbridge to that would be interesting – how, I wonder, would it view such a disincentive to apply?). Why is success in three A-levels which probably do not include law, and may not include any subject which invites a focus on a primary fact finding exercise and the drawing of conclusions therefrom, any help in assessing the ability required? Why is success at 18 or 19 demonstrative of an ability to develop in your 30s?

It does seem to me that we could do better, and that reliance on a set of indicators which are not aimed at the profession and apply to nothing more than the first few years of practice is simply lazy. That is not even to mention the downside to the current system – which is all too obviously that human beings tend to see reflections of themselves as being most desirable.

That leaves the arguments that attempting to ensure diversity is social engineering and therefore worse, and the argument that the current system works well, so why tinker with it.

I don’t myself accept that social engineering is wrong. Coming from an ethnic group which required an Act of Parliament to enable it to vote it seems to me that the argument is not as clear cut as people might think. If the Bar still took pupils on the basis of who they knew or met (as it did for Fat Bigot and for me) we would have no compunction about changing that system. Thereafter it is only a matter of degree, and it seems to me that those who assume social engineering (a prejudicial phrase if ever I heard one) is bad are actually saying merely that the proposed change is not to their liking. Had that ever been a legitimate ground of complaint the bar would still be a woman, Jew, Muslim and black free zone.

We purport to sign up to the view that all are equal and that what distinguishes the failed applicant from the successful one – apart from the inevitable elements of luck – is ability. If we don’t measure ability as well as we might – and we don’t – then why is an alternative route inherently objectionable? That would be a difficult question even if we could assert that the current system actually does pick the best applicants. I don’t know many barristers who would make that argument (see the picture illustrating this post). Paradoxically, the huge glut of applicants means that the system we use can be pretty appalling and it doesn’t matter. Arguably, we are in the same position as a prospector at the beginning of the gold rush: we might be colour blind and be using our bare hands instead of a sieve but there’s so much gold around that anyone can emerge with a nugget. The difference, of course, is that the nuggets left behind have feelings and have paid a whacking sum of money to lie on the river bed.

Procedural fairness – publicising the qualities required, the way to demonstrate them and the respective weight placed upon them – would show applicants and ourselves what we actually look for. It would force the profession to articulate it – which we often don’t. It would allow for testing of whether those things are what really makes a good barrister. It would permit challenge. It would produce better applicants and it would discourage those who really do not have what it takes. It would be fair, in a profession which exists to argue for fairness.

27 thoughts on “A Diverting Diversion on Diversity

  1. “The Bar does not reflect the society in which we live. That fact seems to me to be unarguable. Should it? There seems to be no good reason why not.”

    I believe there is every reason why not.

    It rather depends on which aspects of society are considered. Should the Bar contain a few convicted murderers, thieves and arsonists, together with illiterates, those who are not able to understand and answer points put to them and people whose answer to any challenge is to shout until they get their way and to punch if they cannot win by shouting? These are all aspects of our society and are included in PWC’s drowning “personality traits”.

    I would suggest anyone with any of these characteristics must be excluded. In other words, they must be discriminated against and the Bar must not reflect the society in which we live.

    Discrimination on grounds relevant to the job is essential. The starting point is the attainment of a certain level of academic achievement. It used to be a degree of any class now it is a 2:1. That will exclude a lot of very able people – people who could make a successful career at the Bar as many score-drawers have in the past (and we should never forget that the brilliant Robert Megarry got a 3rd). This aspect of discrimination is adopted today to limit the number of applicants although it is sometimes dressed up as something else. Can it be justified? It’s not for me to say although I would suggest that many of the potential candidates from “less advantageous” backgrounds will have spent at least part of their university years trying to acquire learning skills and social skills already possessed by some of their peers and might just fail to attain a 2:1 despite their pure academic ability being appropriate to that level of degree. If this is correct, it seems to follow that a lot of bright “working class” youngsters will not be in the pool of applicants for pupillage whereas many of similar ability from “advantageous” backgrounds will remain in the race. The mix will not be representative of the country as a whole.

    If, as I believe is likely, the numbers entering university and the numbers attaining at least a 2:1 is not reflective of society, it follows that those applying for pupillage cannot be reflective either. That being the case, how can the Bar redress the balance? Only, I would suggest, by discriminating in favour of those from certain backgrounds and, therefore, discriminating against those from other backgrounds. After all, you cannot discriminate against a person of dark pigmentation without also discriminating in favour of a person of lighter hue because every person excluded from a position is matched by someone who is given that position unmeritoriously. Similarly, you cannot secure representative diversity of social background from a pool in which the social background is already tilted other than by discriminating against people of one background in order to advance the cause of those from another. I cannot see how this is fair to those of greater ability who are excluded in order to meet some sort of “diversity” criteria.

    In theory we can postulate the case of two candidates of equal merit, one of whom falls into a category that someone has decreed to be under-represented and one of whom does not. There is an argument for giving preference to the former but it should always be acknowledged that the decision was made in order to produce a more “diverse” profession.

    In the real world there is (almost) never a situation in which two candidates are equally matched. One (almost) always appears slightly better than the other and slightly more deserving of what is on offer. Herein lies what I consider to be the second greatest problem with the drive for “diversity”, namely that giving preference to someone in order to achieve diversity (almost) always means giving the position to the less meritorious candidate. In this paragraph I have placed “almost” in parentheses three times because I have never, in many years and many many hundreds of pupillage applications, encountered a situation in which the panel deciding on pupils could not choose between two or more people although I recognise that it is possible.

    This illustrates why I believe the aim for diversity necessarily involves discrimination on the basis of factors that have nothing to do with the ability of candidates and their suitability for pupillage or a tenancy. That is not to say that social background is or should be ignored. All established chambers have taken people with rough edges in preference to the already smooth because the panel considering applications has seen a certain spark in someone, someone who is far less of a finished article than someone else with better paper qualifications but who has something about them that makes the panel think him or her to be the sounder long-term bet.

    The duty of every set of chambers is to select the best candidates to fill the available vacancies. If that leads to an imbalance in social background or anything else, then so be it. All that matters is that social background, and whatever other factors are currently thought relevant to “diversity”, are left out of account when decisions are taken at pupillage stage and junior tenancy stage.

    There is a difference between leaving out of account irrelevant factors and taking positive steps to achieve some ideal of diversity laid down from on high by the use of necessarily restrictive and inaccurate criteria. The former might lead to a more reflective/representative Bar or it might not. If it does it does, if it does not it does not. But that is not a matter for which the Bar can be criticised because, by definition, the process of selection applies a test of merit. The latter can only operate by way of discrimination against those who do not fall into the criteria to which special consideration is required.

    “Diversity” cannot be an aim in itself, it can only be a consequence of a system of appraisal that leaves out of account factors irrelevant to merit.

    1. There is an obvious requirement for integrity that excludes criminals from consideration. To suggest that diversity opens the door to them is to set up a straw man.

      There is a requirement for intellectual ability. As it happens I deprecate the need for a 2.1. It is forced on us by the huge number of applicants and the consequent need to apply a crude filter, largely for self-protection. I would much rather see BPTC places limited by assessment and interview. For precisely the reasons you identify I am concerned that the requirement for a 2.1 might operate in discriminatory fashion.

      However, even if it does, that hardly provides an excuse to say that anything else operating similarly is acceptable.

      Ultimately, however, I do not think you are grappling with my essential point. Positive discrimination is both a crude tool and one likely to cause resentment. The latter point – so beloved of those against positive discrimination – is of slight consequence when one considers how little anyone cares about the resentments of those held back by the previous approach, but must nonetheless be taken into account. But what I propose is a look at whether the criteria currently adopted – which you seem to agree do not allow for a level playing field – actually produce the best barristers, and change if they do not.

      By concentrating solely on leaving out factors irrelevant to merit, your views ignore whether ‘merit’ is what we are assessing when we pick young people with particular qualifications from particular places. Until we deal with that question we cannot assert that the system is neutral and objective. It almost certainly is not.

      Nor do I agree that chambers has any ‘duty’ relating to merit when it comes to picking candidates. Thus expressed, the process enables perpetuation of previous injustices. When I first sat on a pupillage committee the view was expressed that we did not want a woman, because we were looking for a pupil to do crime and the solicitors would not brief a woman in sex cases. That, it was said, was what was best for chambers. Chambers have a ‘duty’ to ascertain what qualities best define the potential of a barrister and how those qualities measure up against each other. And, at present, most sets aren’t even trying.

      1. “Chambers have a ‘duty’ to ascertain what qualities best define the potential of a barrister and how those qualities measure up against each other.”

        That is what I mean by merit. The difficulty, of course, is that no single objective test can ever be applied because honest and strongly held opinions differ about what those qualities are.

        Yet it must also relate to the circumstances of each particular set. To take an extreme example, an outstanding applicant with a dedicated desire to practice in crime should be rejected by a landlord and tenant set despite ticking every conceivable box on the “this is what makes a great barrister” form. More realistically, a set covering two main areas of law might be faced with a brilliant applicant in one field and a very good applicant in the other while only having a vacancy in the second field. Both might be taken on the basis that the first is too good to miss, or only the second might be taken on the basis that his/her slightly inferior potential is in the field in which chambers requires a junior practitioner.

        The difficulty I have with the whole concept of sets of chambers seeking to improve “diversity” is that I do not see what criteria they should apply. I understand and support the argument that social background or physical disability (or whatever else is relevant to the current lack of perceived “diversity”) should not be a ground for rejecting a candidate who appears to be the best candidate for the vacancy that needs filling. If that is all that is being argued for, I cannot dispute the argument. But I perceive a further argument being advanced, namely that sets of chambers should be actively seeking to recruit from the ranks of the officiously recognised classes of the “disadvantaged”. If this is so I do not believe it can be achieved otherwise than by rejecting candidates of greater merit in order to satisfy, in effect, quotas.

        It might well be that there is nothing between us and that we are both suggesting nothing more (or less) than a change of attitude to ensure that factors sometimes taken against otherwise suitable candidates should no longer be taken against them. This would, no doubt, make the profession more “diverse” but it would still fall far short of reflecting society as a whole.

  2. A few comments on the Oxbridge question..

    I was lucky enough to secure a commercial pupillage at my first attempt. I’m also an Oxbridge graduate. My own experience was that I was offered far more interviews than I expected, and I am convinced that my 1st class degree from Cambridge had something to do with that. However, once at the interview stage my degree made no difference at all. I performed well in the interviews where I spent weeks preparing, stayed calm and was able to demonstrate the abilities needed of a barrister. I performed less well in other interviews, and was rightly rejected from those chambers.

    So my own experience is that the Oxbridge degree (and the 1st class requirement) seems to act as a filter at the interview stage for commercial chambers. But why should the first filter be academic? Why can’t it filter by way of other vital qualities for a barrister: advocacy experience (though it’s true that this is perhaps less important for some of the commercial sets); evidence of independent achievement in some way; ability to write clearly and impressively on the application form. The best candidates can usually demonstrate all of those skills as well as legal intellectual ability, which is rigorously tested at the interview stage anyway.

    I’ve spent a long time sitting in waiting rooms with candidates who clearly ticked the academic boxes but seemed lost in interviews. There were generally lots of them at first interviews, but very few of them in the final rounds. Of course I’m making lots of assumptions, but it seems unfair that these people were almost automatically given a first round interview (because of where they attended university and their academic achievements at the age of 18 or 21) when there are so many other candidates out there who don’t get interviews at all.

    I was lucky to be offered a place at Cambridge. I could very easily have had a bad interview, or had reasons for wanting to stay at home to study, or not had parents who recognised that I was ‘academic’ and therefore encouraged me to sit scholarship exams for schools that were part of a very different world to the one in which I grew up. The bar needs to be reminded of how much luck plays a role in ‘academic achievement’.

    I don’t think Oxbridge graduates should get defensive about this. Perhaps Oxbridge does produce the best candidates for commercial chambers (as suggested by the figures in the study in Counsel that kicked off Simon’s articles) but if so, then there’s nothing to fear from opening up the process so that it is more transparent, clearer, and better at giving opportunities to a wider range of candidates.

  3. Great post, however I think that there is one issue not being addressed in many of these discussions. How does one get the vast majority of Chambers to bring themselves to being more transparent?

    I think Matrix Chambers has made a great stab at this as can be seen in their “Traineeship Brochure” (personally i don’t like that they went all ultramodern with their terms, I think part of the allure of the Bar is its anachronisms). The list what they consider important, how things are weighted, etc. I think it benefits students as they can self select whether or not to apply.

    Yet I would think they stand alone. The rest of the bar seems to appeal for candidates with excellent academic abilities, advocacy, reasoning etc. Such cliches are impenetrable without guiding criteria. Talk of change is all well and good but causing it is a different matter.

  4. It takes a degree from an elite university just to follow the web of debate here, seriously! I think I’ll stick around. A sort of nano-pupil (forget Baby Bar, though. More the Gamete Bar). I might learn something.

  5. Interestingly, both Matrix trainees have an Oxbridge first. Does this suggest that even if you implement a broader range of criteria those with Oxbridge firsts are simply more qualified overall? Or that despite its apparent transparency, if you look at the criteria they actually use, more weighting is given to academic achievement than any other of their list of criteria? I’m not trying to make any kind of poitn, I just think it’s interesting.

    Additionally, although the focus here is on the commercial bar, I think that the criminal chambers, and especially those with broad left-wing practices are actually equally worthy of blame here. Despite being insistent that your university institution is irrelevant, they do require you to have spent a significant chunk of your life either undertaking an LLM, or working for free for charities or internships – a requirement that leads to a much narrower base of people than an Oxbridge degree.

    1. Anonymous,

      I would think that Matrix’s criteria are welcome. It lets people know that they place a large emphasis on academics. What is interesting to note is that the weighting on academics would appear to treat all 2.1s and 2.2s the same, the same with 1sts. This would lead me to conclude that all things fair, the Oxbridge tenants you refer to excelled in the interview stages.

      To be fair I think that’s a good thing. Once you get to interview stage with any job its your time to shine and show off that your not just good on paper. Those tenants must have had the pizazz to overcome all others and secure tenancy. That’s not to say that someone who, on paper, doens’t have all their academic glamour mightn’t bowl away the interview panel with their personal expeirences should they get to that stage. The crux is that the criteria set out filter not by where you come from but on what you’ve done. Obviously outside of Academics it is probably going to be difficult to pick up their points but still knowing its there helps.

    2. I have heard from friends that an Oxbridge first helps at the paper sift stage at criminal chambers as well.

      Past the paper sift stage, I wonder if the tutorial system at Oxbridge helps account for success at the interview stage. An Oxford-educated friend of mine (non-lawyer) was musing the other day that she thought the tutorial system had taught her to know when to fight her corner in a confrontation with someone with more knowledge/experience in a given field and when to back off. She also said that tutorials help you learn how to concisely argue your position orally using appropriate evidence.

      Both of these seem to me like skills that will help you at interview *and* in practice as a barrister. Clearly a bright, non-Oxbridge-educated would-be barrister can be taught these skills. But at interview, someone with these skills is going to come across as a better potential barrister than someone without. And the person without is going to spend the first part of pupillage (and maybe all of it) catching up to their Oxbridge peers.

      For the avoidance of doubt, I’m trying to explain, rather than justify Oxbridge success here.

  6. Your contention that Oxbridge provides no advantage is absurd.

    An Oxbridge undergraduate will often have to write as many words in a term as students at other universities write during a year (or in some cases during three years). They take this work every week and defend/discuss it orally, either one-to-one or in a pair, in front of their tutor. It is rare to have to write that much, and rarer to have the weekly pressure of tutorials. There is less focus on coursework than on exams. But when there is coursework it isn’t an essay at the end of term, it’s a dissertation: what other students hand in once every twelve weeks as part of their final grade, Oxbridge students do every week. There are some universities where you can do a degree purely as coursework. that cannot compare to Oxbridge finals.

    And the advantages are not just academic: there are more deadlines, the work is more research based, you have to work independently, spoken and written skills are developed in tandem. All of these are core skills for whatever job you do, but are especially important if you want to be self-employed.

    1. I didn’t go to Oxbridge, so I just want to clarify your point. Are you saying you’re writing 3000 words a week in 4-6 subjects? I just wanted to be clear, that’s all.

      Either way, you’ve hit the nail on the head, albeit rather obliquely. As you say, one has the experience of defending one’s ideas in front of someone who knows more about it than you when you meet your tutor. At the end of his degree, the Oxbridge candidate may well be better placed to succeed as a barrister.

      “At the end of his degree” is the operative phrase. Much as that candidate has gone from not having that experience when he left school to having it after he left Oxbridge, a any other candidate will acquire the same experience within…maybe three or four months of taking to their feet?

      I think the point the post makes is that the advantage that the experiences an Oxbridge degree undoubtedly confers is surpassed by the actual day-to-day realities pupillage. And, given that—particularly in light of the over-representation of students from fee-paying schools at Oxbridge—pupillage selection committees should be wary of assuming that the advantage Oxbridge educated students have at the interview/paper stage will last much beyond the first six.

      Particularly if that results in a profession where ultimately the wealth of one’s parents (or lack thereof) has a major effect on the likelihood of success.

      1. The average, across the last two years of my degree at least, has been writing three 3000 word essays every two weeks. The most I ever wrote for a single essay was 5000 words, although I also know people who get away with significantly less (although get significantly lower marks). None of these essays count for anything. In fact at Oxford, for law at least, 100% of the degree is based on the 9 exams taken in the final year over the course of 11 days – we don’t even get Saturday off.

        I have elsewhere made my position quite clear that Chambers ought not to differentiate as widely as they appear to between different universities, so I hope not to cause offence by this point: Oxbridge students do work harder. We have to write far more essays and the pressure to do well in your final exams is far higher. I don’t know whether any of this makes me a better potential barrister; I just hope there is some point to it all.

      2. No, Bar None, they do not necessarily work harder. They are REQUIRED to work harder because that is what the system demands but I can assure you that some students outside of the Oxbridge system work as hard, if not harder, of their own volition.

        They do not, however, get the additional value-added edges that Oxbridge provides on top of the hard work.

      3. JH,

        I am perfectly happy to accept that there are some students, perhaps many students, who work as hard if not harder. I think that is especially the case where people have to balance a job/family care with their degree; I have huge admiration for such people. However, these exceptionally hard working people are to be found at every university, including Oxbridge. There are plenty of people here who go beyond even the high level of what is required of them.

        However, in terms of the workload of the average student; Oxbridge students are required to work harder and so DO work harder. I am not asserting that students at other universities are incapable of working as hard, merely that they don’t; because they don’t have to. If you did choose to write an extra couple of essays a week and go beyond the call of duty in order to get yourself a first, then I congratulate you; that is precisely the reason that I have elsewhere suggested that a first is a first, wherever it comes from. I am happy to concede that you worked as hard me; the average student however, did not.

      4. Bar None,

        With all due respect, I’m always more than a little wary of anyone who makes a bald assertion such as “I am happy to concede that you worked as hard me; the average student however, did not.” Such claims seldom hold up to scrutiny.

        As I say, with all due respect, but (I think) you read law? A medic or an engineer at a decent Redbrick would have not only had at least six hours of lectures a day but all their out-of-class work as well. I had several friends studying engineering who routinely worked 60+ hour weeks during their final two years. To suggest that merely because you went to Oxford you worked harder is simply an attempt to justify an a priori assumption that the degree is worth more. It should be rejected out of hand.

        Of course, that’s quite aside from the fact that the Oxbridge teaching schedule is nearly six weeks shorter than at most other universities.

        I have no doubt that your assertion holds true for the arts, humanities and social sciences. It may possibly hold true for the natural sciences. Attempting to lump every subject together is worthless. Reductio ad absurdum

        Although, as you identify, convincing a pupillage committee of that would be a considerable challenge.

      5. I’m sorry, I thought we were just talking about law students. That was probably a stupid assumption. I can’t compare subjects but I would imagine that medics and engineers at Oxford have to work exceptionally hard, if not harder, also. Even if my point only holds for the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, that is quite a large group.

        The term dates point is consistently misunderstood. Oxford has 24 teaching weeks, plus a week at the beginning of each term when we sit mock exams. Although other universities have longer terms, their teaching weeks (not counting exam weeks) are roughly the same, especially when you deduct reading weeks (which Oxford does not have). We also don’t get bank holidays off. I don’t think that adds much to the term length but I always thought it was unfair (I was sitting a mock exam during the Royal Wedding). If the term dates are shorter that just demonstrates how much harder we have to work to fit it all in.

        I accepted that this was going to be an unpopular point, but to make clear once again: I don’t think this experience gives me inherently greater potential as a barrister. Nor do I think that other students couldn’t do it. I’d be interested to hear comparable tales from other universities about how many essays/hours work/teaching weeks (for law and non-law) people were required to do/did though. If I am completely wrong in my estimation I will concede the whole point. Otherwise I feel just as entitled as JH to be upset by people who suggest that I did not have to work harder than other students.

      6. This rather reminds me of those tiresome arguments as to which of the subjects was harder that used to periodically happen when I was an undergraduate.

        The truth of the matter is that it is impossible to tell which is the “hardest” subject or university since how hard anything is is an entirely subjective matter. For example, the hardest exam I ever took was GCSE French. It was far harder than anything in my Oxbridge finals. Why? Because I was awful at French, didn’t enjoy it, and struggled for two years to commit anything to memory. Equally, in some ways Oxbridge was easier than the GDL since you were quite entitled (and it was quite common) to spend a whole essay simply criticising the question being asked. For the GDL, we had to bite our tongues and play the game (if you’ll excuse the mixed-metaphor) no matter how stupid the question which I found quite hard to do.

        It is the same with Universities. I am sure if Bar None was at an ex-Poly, he would still be churning out 4,500 words a week, if not for coursework, then for extra-curricula law journals or devoting the time to other things. Equally, I know I would have had to work far harder at a coursework based University than Oxbridge since I don’t like writing coursework and much preferred all-or-nothing final exams. Attempting to reduce “hardness” to a question of hours of contact time or words-per-term seems to be using an inappropriate metric.

      7. With respect, JN, one begins to wonder if you are not perhaps looking for something to criticise rather than responding to BarNone’s comments. A cynical observer might suggest that the question had some personal significance to you.

        If the amount of work that BarNone says is required of an Oxbridge law student is correct, I can safely say that it is far more work than was ever required of law, engineering, medicine or languages students at my (redbrick) university (those being the departments I am familiar with). There were some people who did more work than that, and some who worked phenomenally hard and reaped the rewards of that hard work. I do not understand BarNone to be suggesting that that is not so. As either a minimum requirement or an average, however, students at my university did not do as much work as he says was required of him.

        As I read his comments, what BarNone is saying applies only really to the average candidate. That candidate will emerge from Oxbridge having worked harder than he would have elsewhere. If, however, you are an exceptional candidate I don’t think anyone meant to suggest that the extra hours that you put in and achievements that you managed are any less impressive because of a non-Oxbridge background.

    2. I think this thread is good/bad for a couple of reasons.

      First, it highlights the perception that Oxbridge receives. However, its clear that this assertion takes on a self fulfilling prophecy; people believe oxbridge to be the be all and end all, people in oxbridge view themselves to be the be all and end all, the come out and the cycle begins anew. That isn’t to say they aren’t great, they are. Yet this “we do more therefore better” shouldn’t be the only metric. I think graduates of those schools need to realise that they are very talented people but aren’t entitled, they need to prove themselves. It can be damaging to say, we all work hard. Only those who have the motivation will, Oxbridge is just like any other university with its slackers.

      Second, we lose the run of ourselves in the foregoing. Academics are important but aren’t the only consideration (a C.V. runs roughly two pages, OLPAS a little more) for a chambers. Consider the student who could have probably got oxbridge, yet it wasn’t until the end of school that they get their ass in gear and achieve. Perhaps they feel hard done by, a little inferior. Maybe they get motivated to work hard. So they opt to involve fully in student life, debating, politics, go on an exchange and do the same there -all while trying to keep the grades up. By the fact that their university works on a semester basis, one could assert that they don’t work as hard as those mentioned above. Yet their actions defy that. What does this mean then?

      In pupillage applications, Chambers are going to filter. Yet they won’t dump a ton of applications because despite a 2.1 let’s say, they’re not from “Top” universities. If they did then the system is probably breaching equal opportunity. What’s the next way to filter? Relevant experience. That’s where a non-Oxbridge candidate can make their case and progress.

      As for that point about Oxbridge being the best at excelling in interviews due to tutors questioning them? That’s utterly ridiculous. Granted, you will gain the skills of arguing your point but those exact same skills can be acquired and refined in a debating chamber, moot court or on work experience/internships. Oxford has no monopoly on teaching oral argumentation, quick thinking and confidence.

  7. And this is precisely why they excel on paper and in interviews.

    On top of this; someone earlier suggested that a graduates of other universities MIGHT develop these skills. They might. And then again they might not.

    Can you blame a Chambers for picking the near finished diamond as opposed to a rough diamond that might just fracture and fail to polish up and meet the grade.

    I do get quite upset at the assumption that I did not work as hard as an Oxbridge graduate or that my legal education is in anyway inferior. I would still dispute this with anyone who wished to take issue with this. I went far and beyond what was necessary to get a 2:1 (or perhaps even a 1st)- I lived and breathed the subject. But do I have the finesse? No I do not. Can I develop that finesse? I have no idea. Would I blame a recruiter for picking an Oxbridge graduate over me (for interview or for pupillage) – no I would not.

  8. Not pleased to have just discovered this discussion. Simon, I’m afraid my contribution is an anecdote, and you’ll forgive the anonymity due to the subject matter.

    I met a barrister whilst dining this year. I asked him what his current practice took in and he said that he was engaged in a lot of pre-charge intervention work, but that he was on a ‘bog-standard rape’ at the moment. A bog-standard rape! There is surely a line between using humour to make one’s job approachable and being insensitive.

    A few minutes later I asked him where he read law. He inclined his profile, pointy nose in the air and said ‘Cambridge’, as if I had asked him to state, in one word, why the universe is expanding and he had given me the correct answer.

    A few minutes after that, whilst standing in the queue for the buffet, he said ‘it’s funny, one of the things you are supposed to do as a mentor is give advice, but if you ask me, anyone who will make a good barrister ought to be able to get on without advice from others’. He was not my mentor. He drank more than all of us despite having court the following morning, was extremely insulting about one of my BPTC tutors, and left as soon as the wine was finished.

    Now, my problem is that for every diligent, deserving Oxbridge grad whose qualities cannot be faulted, there is one of these free radicals, going around hoovering up the degree, then the Outstanding, then the pupillage, then the tenancy and finally the active practice as if all matter is drawn to him. These are the ones that deeply upset me. They have done nothing except be themselves, from the moment of their birth, with all their obvious faults and are rewarded with a productive, secure life because this adversarial profession – the challenges of which yield to confident thought and presentation – is designed to pay out on their lack of self-awareness.

    He evidenced himself to be wanting in a number of qualities that, in your view, the Bar values. He would make an excellent investment banker, or adviser to David Cameron. Why is he a barrister? Why is he a barrister instead of someone who actually appreciates the significance of what they are doing (and saying?)

    1. I think that the Bar is prone to attract the self-procaimedly self-reliant. The difficulty is that even those of us who are genuinely confident in our self-reliance have attacks of the heebie-jeebies every now and then (try hanging around in the clerks’ room on your mini-pupillage and hearing the reaction to the words ‘clear tomorrow sir’). There are a largish number who discover fairly early on that they are a bit more nervous than they thought. Some freeze and never progress, some quit, some learn and a depressingly large number try and make themselves feel good by hauling down other people.

      That’s bad enough when it is between members of Chambers but, alas, it sometimes extends to pupils, students and staff. The only silver lining is that he probably applies the same view of giving and receiving help to his work so he’s going nowhere. One of the great pleasures of the Bar is that help is so freely sought and received. In his defence however, ‘bog-standard’ isn’t an insult. It’s a common description of a case which has no distinguishing legal or factual feature. One wouldn’t say it to a client or a complainant but, used as between barristers, it does not indicate a lack of care or concern.

      James – I am impressed by your continued presence here, but puzzled. If all lawyers are so unpleasant then why do you seek out our company?

  9. I have never been involved in the selection of interviewees for a pupillage, but I can only assume that the ‘2.1 cut off point’ is used simply as an economic expedient; the resource in question being the interviewer’s time. I rather suspect the same applies to the less tangible distinction of ‘desirable’ universities (however that is defined). My cousin, who has had direct involvement in such matters, can corroborate SG’s assertion that the academic credentials are useful for securing an interview, but from then on, it’s a level playing field: he has lamented about the number of candidates who appear brilliant on paper only to utterly lack charisma and intellectual flair in person. Is there a better solution though? Would considering all candidates with a 2.2 give false hope to many who simply do not possess the academic ability to succeed in a profession which already seems to have many aspirants who are deluding themselves about their chances of securing a pupillage? I am told that some (though not all) chambers will ask for a breakdown of marks achieved throughout the degree. I believe that this could be a sensible approach when looking at the final grade, i.e. a 2.1 with an average of 69 should (theoretically) be preferable to a 2.1 with an average of 60, though why first and (in some cases) second year grades which do not contribute to a final mark should be considered is beyond me. I have always been surprised by the curious fascination many solicitors firms have with first year grades when the candidate has already graduated.

    As for the ever controversial topic of universities, I believe that attending an elite institution should confer some small advantage, but only a marginal advantage which should be viewed within the wider context of the application itself: for instance, if choosing between several candidates from Oxford with a 2.1 and little else on their CVs and a candidate from Oxford Brookes with a 2.1 who has also won numerous national mooting competitions, scholarships, completed outstanding work experience and had several articles published, the coveted interview should go to the latter candidate. Admittedly, it is highly contentious to say that one university is likely to produce better barristers than another, but if all other factors are exactly equal between two or three applications (if such a scenario were possible in reality), but one applicant achieved a 2.1 from Cambridge and another achieved a 2.1 from, say, Sheffield, I believe that the responsible person would be fully justified in selecting the Cambridge applicant (though if the decider had received their degree from Sheffield they may well be inclined to choose the Sheffield candidate, perhaps). This would be based upon the assumption that, in terms of pure probability, a randomly selected Cambridge graduate is (maybe only very slightly) statistically more likely to be more academically able than a randomly selected Red Brick (etc.) graduate. In my experience as a Cambridge graduate this is a fair assumption, though I do also have several friends who did not attend Oxbridge who are as able as all but the very best of Oxbridge.

    Another facet of Oxbridge which appears not to have been mentioned on any threads is the extremely high standard to which many extra-curricular activities are pursued. Do other universities run extra-curricular activities to a high standard? They certainly do, but I can think of none (though I am always happy to be corrected) that do things to the same (sometimes world class) level in certain instances. I’m thinking especially of drama, particular sports, and choral singing. It is (or at least was) true that a small minority of individuals are offered places largely on the basis of their ability as, say, a rugby player, but in the majority of cases, these teams or ensembles earn their elite status through rigorous discipline and sheer hard work. Is singing ability directly proportional to advocacy ability? No, but experiencing first hand at a young age the dedication, sacrifice, and attention to detail required to perform well under high pressure (for instance, as a soloist on a live radio/television broadcast or in concert at the Salzburg Music Festival/ Met. Opera House, NY) surely has useful applications to many careers, especially ones which consist of significant amounts of public speaking, such as the Criminal Bar. Do all Oxbridge students have these experiences? No, but they are at least exposed to the opportunity of potentially having them. Are these experiences the only way to acquire such skills? Again, no, but they are still an excellent, if not one of the best, means of acquiring such skills. Do the vast majority of Oxbridge students engage in many extra-curricular pursuits to a high (if not quite world class) standard? In my experience, yes.

    Certain chambers (especially top commercial ones) do seem to have a strong Oxbridge bias, but a closer inspection will reveal that the majority of the tenants not only possess an Oxbridge degree, but they received the 4th/3rd/2nd etc. highest first in their year as well as numerous prizes for excellent essays, dissertations and making an outstanding contribution to college life. Several scholarships are standard and working fluency in multiple languages are commonplace. Therefore, the discrimination is not so much against non-Oxbridge candidates; it is against those that are not academically superlative. This is hardly unreasonable: naturally any chambers will choose the very best candidates it can; chambers paying £50k+ for a pupillage tend to attract some of the best candidates and consequently these chambers can choose the best of the best. Despite holding a respectable degree from Cambridge, I am under no illusions that a simply having BA Cantab after my name qualifies me to be considered in the same league as the tenants of chambers such as Fountain Court. A brief perusal of the educational background of its junior tenants will illustrate the points made in this paragraph (and some from the previous paragraph also) http://www.fountaincourt.co.uk/people/juniors/.

    The pupillage selection process should, I believe, be given some credit when compared to the selection process in many other industries. At least all applications will (I think) be read by a living person, as opposed to a first stage filtering by a computer. Candidates are also given some opportunity to express on paper, with a limited degree of freedom, why they want to be a barrister and why they believe that they would make a good one. Though not perfect, I believe that this is preferable to the tedium of the ‘give an example of a time you showed initiative’ or ‘give an example of a time you worked in a team and showed leadership’ style questions so ubiquitous on other graduate job application forms. Prospective pupils apparently do not have to go through multiple rounds of psychometric testing or ‘in tray exercises’, nor do they have to endure contrived and phony ‘assessed group exercises’, in which four HR professionals will sit in each corner, furiously scribbling down notes and imbuing the whole proceeding with the ambiance of a ghastly anthropological experiment. In many industries and professions, interviews can be mechanical processes requiring little more of the candidate than to wheel out a litany of carefully prepared answers. Such procedures could be conducted by a robot (and, in some cases, the ideal candidate would be one too). That the bar discriminates against robots, both real and metaphorical, is surely a positive thing.

    SM is right to champion the need for the publication of a list of qualities required and respective weight given to such qualities. However, there is a great difference between simply doing this and doing this well. To put in the context of the ‘real (i.e. non-pupillage) world’, many companies will publish ‘key competency areas’ or other attributes which they seek in their prospective employees; it’s pretty clear that they feel awfully good about themselves for doing this. Unfortunately, the reality is often less helpful: key competencies sought are often revealed to be little more than banal buzzwords: ‘initiative’, ‘drive’, ‘creativity’, and ‘ability to work in a team’ are favourites; surely these are basic skills required to succeed in any job? Stating the obvious is another favourite: accountancy firms recommend that strong numeracy skills and an interest in the business world are advantageous (an accountant with sound numeracy skills? Well I never!). If you require such fundamentals to be spelt out for you, I would suggest that you are not quite ready for the challenge of full time employment. A more cryptic example comes from the website of an eminent law firm where it is stated that they are looking for an elusive quality known as ‘BerwinLeightonPaisnericity’ and helpfully add that ‘you’ve either got it or you haven’t’.

    Whilst these problems do not justify inertia, they do highlight how this area is fraught with difficulties: if this is the best that companies who routinely spend tens or hundreds of thousands a year on PR/HR/Advertising/Recruitment professionals can come up with, then individual chambers have an arduous uphill struggle. Would all barristers agree on all the qualities required to succeed? Would they agree upon the respective merits of each quality? What about intangible (even subjective) features such as charisma, independence and originality of thought, erudition, ‘flair’ (I do not know if these are characteristics are integral to success at the Bar or not, I am simply throwing them out as examples).

    As you can probably tell, I am currently neither a practising nor a prospective barrister. I am, however, tentatively considering a career change in this direction. Sites such as this are a useful research resource. As an objective and external observer it appears that the pupillage selection system has unique problems which need to be addressed: the major challenge seems to be selecting the right candidates for an interview. Yet it also possesses unique strengths; an interview conducted by a pupillage panel consisting of challenging questions requiring quick thinking, rigorous reasoning and logical argument whilst remaining calm and eloquent is, I believe, a far superior test of character, determination and intelligence than three separate but identical interviews asking the candidate to give an example of a time that they demonstrated character, determination etc. ad nauseam. I have only seen one sample OLPAS form (2010), but from what I have seen, it does, believe it or not, give a greater scope for personal expression than the majority of other job application forms. I also admire the no nonsense approach adopted by chambers in their websites: chambers do not resort to gimmicks intended to make the job seem more attractive than it actually is. Why do PWC have pictures of an afro-haired guy gleefully jumping into a large pile of leaves on their recruitment website? The relevance of this to the rigours of the ACA and the art of audit escapes me. It may be the quixotic perspective of an outsider combined with a jaundiced view of the ‘real world’ speaking, but I don’t believe the situation is as quite as iniquitous as it could be or as many people think it is, nor is it without its advantages. Having said that, if I were to decide to take the plunge and four years down the line I was still awaiting a single interview, it’s safe to say that I would feel differently.

  10. Hope you don’t mind me jumping in here, but I wondered whether an opportunity to explain your degree classification would ever be appropriate, maybe on the application form or at interview, a kind of personal summing up of your own strengths and weaknesses and how you have developed over the degree period.

    Personally, I have just completed a four year part time law degree and achieved a 2:1. I missed out on a First by 3%. However, I am very proud of what I achieved, as during those four years, I was made redundant, my husband’s business was forced into insolvency, he has had to go bankrupt, we faced losing our home, he started another business with my help, and I started one of my own, I also had two pregnancies whcih left me in a lot of pain during two exam periods, bore and took care of two little boys full time, with the associated sleep deprivation. I am also a full time housewife, have an allotment and care for my elderly mother in law.

    Yes I only got a 2:1 instead of a first, and with my desire to go into commercial law, I know it is a setback. But I would defend myself that I did not work less hard during those four years than any Oxbridge candidate, and woudd strongly argue that my degree was worth less. Alright, so someone from Oxbridge may have to write 3 3000 word essays in two weeks. I had to prepare written answers for seminars each week, expected to be about 2000 words each, and the majority of these I did at 11 o’clock at night, usually after working all day, cooking meals, washing and ironing, and often typing whilst feeding a small baby, in addition to courseworks, exam revision and dissertations on an average of four hours sleep a night!

    Yet there is no answer box to provide this information, nor do I think it would be very much appreciated, I didn’t even feel comfortable using it to display evidence of amazing time management and multi tasking skills!

  11. A very interesting read, thank you, i have only recently discovered this blog (a bit too late it seems!).

    I must admit I am cynical when i hear people talking about this issue. It does not seem a stretch to me to imagine that people will state one thing and practise something entirely different. It seems to be the ‘appropriate’ thing to say, and until you actually do something about it, making yourself feel better counts for very little.

    The fundamental point is that minorities are seriously underrepresented at elite academic institutions, and the Bar is is no way placed to deal with such a deep problem. Chambers have needs and requirements and it is not a cop out to say it is someone else’s issue. It really is. I studied at a famous london public school and then read law at Cambridge, and while the university is renowned for being more focused on ability in its selection process than Oxford, that doesn’t change the fact that i only saw about 5 black students in my entire time there, and only 1 wasn’t educated privately. And I’m from London, so i noticed.

    Things like this will change. But it takes an awfully long time. We only have to look at women in the law to see that it is a very long process and it requires societal shifts to take effect. I commend people for having opinions, but making grand statements and trying to manufacture a false situation which pleases one’s conscience, does little to help anything, and certainly doesn’t address the basic underlying reasons for this state of affairs.

    As for this obsession about Oxbridge and getting a first, it really doesn’t say very much in any case. You can go through your entire course without once thinking about the implications of what you are studying, or what it actually all means.It’s only a BA, and frankly most of the teachers really don’t take the BA very seriously, it’s just ticking boxes. Simply working hard and memorizing your way to know how to approach problem questions allows you to get a first in your finals (roughly a quarter of people get one). And, to my mind, i don’t think the best barristers are those who can simply learn by rote.

    I am saying it does not take a large degree of intelligence to get a first from oxbridge, simply diligence and a basic brain. So don’t be intimidated at all, it really doesn’t say alot. I hated my course, they seemed to think that by studying law i had already, aged 18, decided on the career i wanted for the rest of my life. It was all linked to the law firms, who’d pester you constantly, and their desire to snare poor young misguidedly ambitious students into their profession. The only legal theory they pointed us to was a non-compulsory course, and it was in my final year. The rest was pure donkey work.

    And you’d be forgiven for thinking I am bitter because I didn’t get a first in my finals. But I reached that conclusion after a year of my degree, i just didn’t see the point of it all. I wanted to grow up, to make friends, not be told that i had to sit in the library all day and night. I got a first in Part 1A (where 5% get firsts) but that only made me realise how little i knew about phiosophy, about history, about literature, about life in general. Memorising cases about the Land Registration Act really didn’t matter to me at all. I shudder to think how little some of these young lawyers really know about anything other than law. And yes, I didn’t go to a single lecture for 2 years, lied my way around attending supervisions and handing in essays, suddenly realised with 2 weeks to go i was on course to fail, then crammed my way to a 2.1. I promise that says much more about the general level of students than it does about my own intelligence. This isn’t meant to be about me.

    So for any of you scared that you don’t match up on paper, don’t be scared in the slightest. If you are an interesting and well-rounded person you probably are one step ahead of most of these supposedly outstanding candidates. Keep persevering and you will achieve your aims. Self-confidence is the single most important thing.

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