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Slightly Famous For About 3 Minutes

It has been an interesting few days and, in the tiny world of the legal blogosphere, I haven’t been so famous since those guys who would write your essay for you for money, threatened to sue me. I gather that Twitter has been even more lively, although I don’t use it myself because: a) I doubt my ability to stop once started, b) There is already far too much legal hot air out there and c) It is frequently so unpleasant that it adds little to actual understanding. The commotion has been because in the last post (also on Legal Cheek) I said that pupils contributed nothing to Chambers. That was an error. As I said in my comment on the last post, after Sara accused me of undervaluing pupils over at Stret Law:

You are quite right and all the points you make are entirely valid. I succumbed to irritation at the original proposal and made a sweeping generalisation.

We obviously have to pay pupils, otherwise Pupillage would be restricted to the already comfortably off and, perhaps, those willing to gamble with a massive debt. But they are not being paid for what they do – even though I agree that they are usually useful (and that includes all of mine). The balance is between what pupils need to survive and what the Bar can afford and – crucially – is willing to pay. There may be an argument there for London weighting.

That, however, has not stopped people having a go. Depressingly, the standard tack amongst those who want to beat up a bit of trade has been to accuse me of not caring about pupils and being a relic of the dark ages. I am not sure if that behaviour is based on a startling lack of research – after all, anyone reading this blog is unlikely to hold that opinion and the blog is hardly a secret – or simply disregarding reality for the sake of a momentary satisfaction. The justification for such a stance is usually that the blogosphere is an unforgiving place. This isn’t a justification: that there are lots of unpleasant morons in your home town does not justify you being an unpleasant moron. The blogosphere is the same and such “justifications” are merely an attempt to avoid personal responsibility. I am unimpressed. As I have said to a number of the knockers, I spend a lot of time answering individual emails from people looking for help. It would be a shame if those people were put off by reading a load of nonsense, and I don’t see any of those people making the accusations stepping up to help aspiring barristers. Bah, humbug.

On the other hand, as one of my correspondents said to me – whilst refusing to make any alteration to what they had written, despite acknowledging it to be wrong now that they had done the basic research – I wrote it. That being so, I ought to make it clear that of course pupils contribute something during pupillage. My original comment was made in the context of a suggestion that pupils should be compulsorily recruited and compulsorily funded to an extent which more than doubles the current minimum, and should be (and, I suspect, by a majority of people, was) read in that light. And, as I said above, I succumbed to irritation at a patently silly idea and made a sweeping generalisation. As Ambrose Bierce said, “Speak when you’re angry and you’ll make the best speech you ever regret.”

I do, however, stand by the view that payment to pupils should not reflect the value they contribute. It isn’t merely that defining such value is extraordinarily difficult: the primary reason is that the aim of pupillage should not be to reward pupils for contributing value or even for pupils to contribute value. The aim of pupillage is for a pupil to be trained to become a successful member of the independent Bar.

That means that Chambers should not be constantly assessing the value their pupil adds. The question should be entirely the other way around: ask not what your pupil can do for you; ask what you can do for your pupil. What I have found really worrying about the way that people are pretending to support pupils whilst pretending that I do not, is the way in which they have phrased such “support”. Far too many of the reactions I have seen are full of self-serving ersatz indignation and can be fairly summarised as: “Look at me. I can show I’m down wid da kids by saying they contribute value by helping established figures do their research and answer questions about new law and sit there taking notes. And, if I say so, I’ll look well cool and gain even more cred by calling out a silk”. But to respond in such a way is simply to demonstrate a misunderstanding of what we should be about: if that is how Chambers are valuing the pupil, then the pupil is being let down and, potentially, exploited (I wonder, does the fee note for work based on a pupil’s research reflect the supervisor’s hourly rate, or the pupil’s?). I should make it clear that this is in no sense any criticism of Sara, whose points were made in response to me and who was nothing other than wholly reasonable. I am addressing the “contributions” of those seeking to make capital for themselves by posing as the pupils’ friend.

Pupils should be encouraged to understand their supervisors’ cases, to contribute to the process of developing an argument and to practice drafting documentation. But they should not be used as a researcher, still less as a notetaker. Research is the barrister’s responsibility. If they can’t do it, or they have too much on, they should employ a librarian/researcher in Chambers, work harder or turn the work away. Pupils’ notes should be for the pupil’s own use, not because their supervisor would rather not take their own. You don’t learn much by writing down a note of the evidence or of a con.

The big commercial sets pay a lot of money to pupils because they regard themselves as competing with the city solicitors. Personally, I wonder if they really are. Don’t the pupils at those sets have a real passion to be a barrister? Are they really going to allow the amount of money paid to them aged 23 to determine their career? But that is none of my business, because I’m not in such a set. The only sadness, as I have previously suggested, is that those sets could do something to ease the crisis in pupil numbers by splitting their award in 2 and taking on double the number of pupils who then compete with each other. But for most Chambers, who don’t have blue-chip corporate clients, the money paid to pupils is a significant feature of the budget. If a pupil is paid the minimum £12,000 and Chambers charge 20% on what is earned, then a pupil will have to earn £60,000 before the money advanced by the other members of Chambers is repaid. If the pupil makes that sum in the first year of being taken on (and not many do), that is the equivalent of a 2 year interest-free loan. Furthermore, the basic economics dictate that if there are about 200 applicants for each £12,000 post, then there is no need to pay more.

The point is that the focus of this debate should not be about the amount of the award, providing it allows basic needs to be met. It should be about increasing the number of pupillages (which, ironically, was the point the initial article focussed on, even though I think the idea a bad one). However, the number of pupillages is currently outside the control of the Bar, because it is subject to external forces to which the profession can, currently, only react. Accordingly, the debate is actually about decreasing the number of people paying the providers an extremely large sum of money for which they get very little value (that word again). The sad truth is that the BPTC is the world’s most expensive lottery ticket and it is, moreover, a ticket which gives different people a different chance of winning, without providing the purchasers with any clue about what chance they actually have. This blog exists to try and assist you when it comes to how to assess and maximise your own chances. If anything that has been written recently (by me or anyone else) makes you doubt that, please be reassured.


11 thoughts on “Slightly Famous For About 3 Minutes

      1. Thank you Simon. For my part, I agree with your ‘Editorial’ sentiments number 1, and wonder just how many have researched their chances of success v money spent in gaining what could become a redundant qualification after 5 years of passing the BPTC. Life at the bar, eh?

  1. ya know? i reckon loads of the bright young things plugging through the bar course (have used generic title as lawdnose what they will name it next week…) have researched in great detail what you need to get pupillage. they really are a bit less stupid than that.

    the problem for anyone aspiring to the bar is that you can’t predict your chances (as simon notes with his lottery ticket analogy). numbers are a very poor guide. all they say is that a certain proportion of those completing the bar course get pupillage. it’s not a great proportion but if you compare it with the chances of an applicant for any job at random it wouldn’t be too discouraging. i don’t say that’s a like for like comparison, but imho it’s no less helpful than the bare figure that x% get pupillage.

    the difficulty is that as a well-prepared russell group (still not sure who they all are, but it seems to be the buzzword) graduate with a first or good 2:1, inn scholarship, vc or above, mooting wins, decent relevant pro bono or other voluntary work experience, appropriate number and type of minis, marshalling blah blah blah… you know you are in the group of good candidates. and you still don’t know whether it will be you or even what your chances are. the bottleneck is so extreme, the number of able candidates so great, you just can’t know. the myth of all these doe-eyed kids spending their own or their parents’ money without having really thought about it, is just that.

    1. I have to say that a good number of the people with whom I have contact don’t fall into either category – that is to say those who have done their research or those with the academic qualifications and CV that you cite. Most (not all) have looked at the numbers but what is lacking is objective thought. Everyone is – by definition – convinced it will be them. Otherwise, they would hardly be on the course. That means they are relying on luck for some of the requirements. Of course, you do have to have some good fortune, but there are a LOT of candidates out there who have the proportions of good fortune to previous attainment and ability the wrong way around.

      Given the bottleneck to which you refer, the appropriate attitude would be “I’m going to give this a real go. I won’t be crushed by failure because the random element of the process is apparent to me. My plan B is X and I am ready to put it into operation after Y attempts” (I would suggest 2 myself). In fact, even granted that aspirants feel that it sounds good to say “I’m going to keep going until I get my pupillage” (and I’m not sure it does), I encounter very, very, few people like that.

      I also encounter very few (but far more than in the category above) who say, “the reality is that the Bar Course will extend my student loan by about 66% in one year, but that is a risk I can justify because…”. You can justify the risk, but you can’t do it by saying “I really want to be a barrister”, unless you won’t miss the money. Different people have different pain levels for that sort of thing, but I prefer other justifications. The comparison with other jobs is inaccurate (I have been asking my clients how many people apply for management jobs in their organisations for a while now, and the figures are nowhere near 200. That may be because they are better at discouraging people who simply don’t fit the profile they are looking for and I continue to raise the issue of published competencies with the great and good). Moreover, there are very few other jobs which require you to pay £16,000 to apply, so I’m not sure that is a good justification either.

      I have recently done a lot of work with CVs and that is where I propose to turn my attention next. How to sell yourself is important, and most people aren’t very good at it.

  2. i disagree with your take on the figures, simon. i applied for jobs where there were just as many applicants as for pupillage. it’s all unscientific of course, but on my straw poll it isn’t that different. when i ran a business i had hundreds of applications to work for me for free – and my company was at the very lowest rung. it was a business that is perceived as being more glamorous than it is (as i believe the bar is). so i suggest that your statement ‘the comparison with other jobs is inaccurate’ is unsupported by meaningful evidence. your version of the odds has no more or less basis than my own; it’s just a different straw poll.

    now for luck – again it’s hard to claim to be objective because of the very nature of ‘luck’, but i believe it plays a huge role. i was very ‘unlucky’ not to get pupillage the first two years i applied. equally, when i got pupillage, it was lucky – i was no better an applicant and not a particularly good fit for chambers (they were far too crime-driven for me). it’s possible the chambers where i got pupillage were just a bit less ‘namey’ than others where i was turned down after final interview, but i had also been turned down by chambers that were considerably less well-regarded than the set where i ended up. i made perhaps 150ish applications and had one success. i accept that just because i can’t discern a coherent pattern doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but i am absolutely buggered if i can work out what the logic may have been.
    i do think an amateur recruitment process [that isn’t used perjoratively – it’s a recognition of the fact that most people recruiting at the bar do something else for a living] is a very different animal from ‘professional’ recruitment. the more applicants can understand that, the better their chances of success.

    i saw colleagues from the bar course get pupillage who i thought had little chance and others who struck me as excellent bar material fail to get pupillage. [mind you i see counsel who strike me as good and others who seriously don’t]. i am not in the position you are in recruiting for the bar, but i have had to recruit and i have for some years been training people in business to put themselves across including for job interviews. i have also recruited in different industries, so i have some experience (unsure of its precise relevance) of what some recruiters look for. i also spent time working as a recruitment consultant, though again i question just how much that taught me about the process.

    on ‘keeping going until i get pupillage’ – that is exactly what i was told by almost everyone i know at the bar. that may be because they identified someone who would, with time, have a good chance of success. but it is impossible to test, because by definition everyone who gets pupillage has kept going for the necessary length of time.

    justifying the risk? – my point (and i had thought from your lottery analogy it was your point too) is that you just can’t quantify the risk. statistics, while able to show patterns in gross, are absolutely hopeless when you get to the individual level. so it will never be open to someone to say: ‘i have to spend 16k on the bar course and i have x% chance of a career path that will earn me £y000 per year’. equally any decision to give it a go for x years and then try plan b will be plucked from thin air. while it may be sensible, it cannot be made on the basis of a detailed set of relevant facts because there is no such thing. it is more likely to be on the basis of desires, aspirations and what the individual will tolerate – and indeed you make that point yourself.

    i agree that the issue for many is in selling themselves. the cv of course (and i will be interested to read your thoughts on that pitch document) but for my money, even more crucially the interview – and its specialist subset the pupillage interview – is where people’s chances are made and broken. like most jobs you are far better off being good at auditioning than being good at the job.

    published competencies are all well and good, but that presupposes recruiters know what they need as opposed to what they think they want. they do at least give those who prepare hard a chance to prepare answers that will interest the interviewer. but i think you could ask your average bptc student to write the list and they’d come out with something pretty acceptable. and i reckon more applicants than a shortlist can accommodate will possess the key competencies. whether they can demonstrate that they possess them is of course the toughie.

  3. As a member of one the sets that pays a limited number of pupils a lot of money, a couple of points on the split the award and take more pupils suggestion:
    1. The same sets appear to be chasing the same candidates year on year. The size of an award is a consideration – not least because it provides a cushion if you are not offered tenancy or, indeed, against late payment of fees if you are. So if one set increases, all the other sets increase as well. There is some competition with city firms because they are trawling the same pool at undergraduate/BCL/MA level.
    2. The suggestion takes no account of the regulatory burden having pupils entails. Quite apart from having sufficient juniors with sufficient practices of sufficient interest (and with a sufficient desire to act for the greater good) to staff four/five seats for 2 – 4 pupils, interviewing, diversity training, pupil training, pupil organisation, compliance with all the checklists etc take up a considerable period of time. I used to estimate that having a pupil added 10 hours on my working week. The more pupils we take, the greater that burden becomes.
    3. If you take more pupils, you make yourself less attractive to the candidates you want. They are quite capable of doing the maths – ie 2 tenancies, 4 pupils – so that is 50:50; 2 tenancies, 8 pupils is a whole different ball game.

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