Interviews · The BVC

Public Service Announcement

ImageI find it absolutely astonishing that I am writing this, but I think you ought to know.

I was teaching at the Middle Temple students course in York this weekend. I was told that the BPTCs (all of them) were teaching the old, superseded, Code of Conduct as their “Ethics” course. Yep, that’s right – £17k to be taught something that does not apply. Apparently, because the exact format and content of the new Handbook wasn’t clear, it was decided that it was easiest to teach the old Code, which definitely wouldn’t apply when all of you qualified. Words just fail.

The BTPCs should be ashamed of themselves. Ethics should have been timetabled to start when the precise terms of the Handbook became clear. Space should have been made to do it. Defaulting to an easy, but irrelevant, position is unacceptable.

The BSB should have realised the difficulty and sorted it. Not much point regulating the profession unless you give a stuff about its students.

Meanwhile, BSB students please understand that the new Handbook changes a lot. Particularly, ethics questions about missing convictions for criminal clients are – under the old Code – answered by saying you can mitigate on the basis of the information presented by the Prosecution. That answer is now WRONG. For what it’s worth, I also think it’s wrong to say that you do have to tell the Judge there is a missing conviction – that is taking the duty to the Court as if it trumps the duty to the client. It doesn’t – both duties exist together. I think the right answer is to tell the Judge that they cannot rely on the Prosecution’s record, but to say no more than that. Other views welcome.

Barristers, please bear in mind that those interviewed who qualified in the year 2013-14 are not being taught the ethics that apply to the profession. Cut them some slack – and when you take them on, make sure that the first 6 months includes the ethics training for which they have already paid but have received no value whatever.

What have we come to? Perhaps the entities making money out of students could provide a percentage of it to offer more pupillages for the beleagured publicly funded Bar. Now, that would be robust regulation.


Alex Aldridge of Legal Cheek has got a quote from the BSB’s head of Education and Training, Simon Thornton-Wood, who says:

“In setting out the 2014 BPTC course, providers asked that the syllabus be agreed early in 2013. The development, review and approval process for course materials in a programme of this scale requires very careful advance planning. It was not until the Legal Services Board approved the new Handbook in July 2013 that there was any real certainty it would be coming into force this year.

“We’ve worked closely with both providers and students to make sure that, by the end of their BPTC, students know about the new Handbook – and the key changes it introduces – which will be fully reflected in next year’s syllabus and exams. That said, it is important to point out that the core principles of the professional ethics to which we expect barristers to adhere remain unchanged from previous years.”

Hmm. First, what’s the point in planning a course 9 months ahead knowing it would be wrong? The BSB regulates. Even if the BPTC providers asked for this, they don’t have to have it. We’ve been asking the BSB not to impose QASA but that hasn’t meant it’s rolled over to have its tummy tickled. Secondly, the core principles have altered in quite a large way in the eyes of a great many practitioners. Thirdly, we teach ethics not core principles. Fourthly, the prospect of the new handbook not coming into force this year have been remote and the BSB could have – *gasp* – made two plans: one if it did and one if it didn’t. Fifthly, plenty of the students on the course last week did not know of the new handbook or the changes and they aren’t being taught it. Otherwise, great quote.

Interviews · Life at the Bar · The Future

Unfortunate Sunday Quotes

quote-035-unfortunate-coincidence-parkerThe Express is expressing concern about the government’s plans – a worthwhile thing to do and a poser for those of us who had previously condemned it for its politics and interests. It is a dreadful thought that we may not have been entirely correct. But, faced with evidence, it is always necessary to reassess. That is what honest and sensible people do.

So, I want to draw attention to what is said in the penultimate paragraph of that article. In full, this is what it says:

The Justice Secretary added: “We will continue to uphold everyone’s right to a fair trial – quality assured duty solicitors and lawyers will still be available just as they are now – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look again at how the system which provides this is operated and deliver better value for the £1 billion of taxpayers’ money spent on criminal legal aid a year.”

It is a direct quote from our beloved Lord Chancellor. The part which struck me with some force was the bit that says (with my emphasis added):

quality assured duty solicitors and lawyers will still be available just as they are now

That does seem to indicate that QASA and the new proposals are linked – exactly as the Bar has been saying.

That now being seemingly confirmed direct from the horse’s mouth (oooh – so polite), this may be a good time for those at the BSB who have been saying the opposite, to reassess the position. That may be painful, but it will also be sensible and honest. I am perfectly happy to accept that our beloved LC has never said this before – but he has said it now. As Dorothy Parker said (I paraphrase) you can’t trust blokes who promise to love you.

Circumstances alter cases. It is now possible to argue, based on the evidence, that forcing QASA through will actually assist the Government to progress its plans to endanger us all. If that is even a possibility, it ought not to happen.

There may be a counter-argument. If so then, if I am sent it, I will publish it in full.

Interviews · Other Sites · Recommended Reading · Routes to the Bar

New Kid on the Block

I want to introduce you to a new site called The Pupillage Pages. It has been added to the Useful Links list below. The site is run by two pupils to be (that is to say, they have secured pupillages and start in due course). I’ve reviewed the information and advice they provide and it is solidly reliable. For those of you applying this year it should be of assistance.

The site is super-duper up to date and makes me feel old and tired. It includes live fora, the development of which I shall watch with interest. It also includes a space for people to keep each other up to date on applications and progress. I would like to think that everyone will contribute to that part of the site in a careful and constructive way, focussing on disseminating knowledge to their peers: as trying to get barristers to agree is commonly compared to herding cats, that might be slightly optimistic but I live in hope. For those feeling bilious, the Wall of Shame will be open here for business as usual.

The authors are open to advertising. Although I have mixed feelings about this, I know that they have invested in the development of the site and I trust them to declare any conflicts of interest. It seems to me that they are unlikely to go in for quite the same amount of expression of opinion as I do, so the issues are not as tricky. Certainly, what is currently up there is trustworthy. It is also better, more focussed and more in depth than the Bar Council’s new “Become a Barrister” website. I say that with some regret, because the very fact that the Bar Council has produced such a site is good news and one which would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. The difficulty is that professional bodies have to keep it to information only and the site is thus a bit vanilla (if this site is – as I hope it is – chilli, then The Pupillage Pages is, say, saffron. Any competing spice analogies gratefully received below). The authors are also anonymous. I have urged them to out themselves, because it seems to me that when a site offers information, those wondering whether to use that information are entitled to know the background of the person offering it. They have, perfectly reasonably, said they would like to discuss that with their Chambers. I very much hope their Chambers support the endeavour. For the time being I am prepared to say that the authors know what they are talking about.

I am excited, because the site seems to me to potentially fulfil a real need. Some of its content is covered here as well, and that has the advantage of allowing you either two opinions, or the comfort of agreement. Some of it will, hopefully, consist of information which I frankly doubt I would be given – information directly from Chambers for example – because I wish to retain the right to criticise and suggest improvements. Some of it consists of basic information which I am too idle to put up because it is available elsewhere, but there are distinct advantages to gathering it all together in one place. Go and have a look and let me – and them – know what you think.

Interviews · Routes to the Bar · Which Chambers?

It’s That Time of Year Again

Last year I invited comments about the way in which Chambers dealt with applicants.  The results proved interesting and I published those too, together with a follow up celebrating good practice.

I would like to repeat the exercise this year, both because it provided people with an opportunity to say what they think, and because it measures what has changed (if anything). I am interested in acknowledgements, arrangements for interviews, interviews, application forms, rejection letters and general behaviour (last year a lot of people were upset by failures to respond which are simply rude).

Can I suggest a minimum expectation below and then – below that – a more than minimum expectation which should, in my view, be the minimum.

  • An Application Form which allows you to differentiate yourself from the crowd insofar as you are able to do so.
  • If applicable, a reasonably prompt acknowledgement, which arrives within the time stated.
  • Arrangements for interview which are flexible enough to accommodate one alteration.
  • A process which sets you at your ease and gives clear clues as to what is demanded from you by way of manners, dress (formal unless specified otherwise) and timing.
  • An interview in which you feel you are given an adequate opportunity to convey your personality and ability to the panel (even if you didn’t actually do it).
  • A rejection/acceptance/invitation to second interview which arrives when they said it would.
  • A rejection/invitation to second interview which explains why you didn’t make it in terms which allow you – on a good day – to feel that it was not the same one sent to everyone and which avoids unhelpful platitudes such as, ‘The field was very strong this year and we took someone else. Bad luck.” As a rough test, if the letter could be written today, it’s unacceptable.
  • If feedback is offered, a personal conversation of no more than 10 minutes – or 2 emails – which actually address why you didn’t get it and leaves you with good ideas for future changes. I do not think feedback ought to be offered as of right: it is incredibly time consuming and no one pays the Chambers to give it to you. But if it is offered, it ought to be real.
  • Courtesy.

You will note that eccentricity (the interview with the Smarties on the table is a classic), brusque questioning, strict time limits, brief letters and failure to acknowledge your application are all ok on their face – even the last. The yardstick I have adopted is that expectations are properly generated and managed. If a set isn’t going to acknowledge the applications of those not called for interview that’s fine: but it must say so and must give a date by which, if you haven’t heard, the answer is no.

Now to the things I would like to see. If anyone experiences any of these, please tell me:

  • Information about what qualities are required. I don’t mean the usual ‘bright applicants’. I mean a specified class of degree (not as a ‘normal’ thing), specific subjects, particular extra-curricular experience (such as a mini-pupillage at the Set) and anything else which prevents you wasting an application.
  • Information about what the set are looking to see demonstrated in the application form and in interview. When I apply to be a Recorder or a QC I am told what it takes to get the appointment. I must display ‘competence’ in particular areas and I am encouraged to give specific examples to demonstrate it. There is no reason why pupillage interviews shouldn’t be the same.
  • Information about the subjects that will be covered. Insofar as possible, the interview should test what the job tests. Therefore, the questions should not ordinarily be given away because responding to questions is part of the job. However, most barristers don’t go into Court to deal with a professional negligence case and then get asked about parents who refuse blood transfusions. The interview doesn’t much replicate the Court experience if that’s what happens.
  • A tour of Chambers which can be very brief provided it takes in how to find someone if you are lost, and the location of the lavatory.
  • Feedback which tells me what I lacked, as a result of which I didn’t meet the competencies, and/or why I wasn’t taken on because of what successful candidates demonstrated which I did not.

Let me know and feel free to quote me. I am bound to say that I don’t think Chambers will necessarily take the slightest notice, but you should feel entitled to back up your request for minimally decent treatment. Anyone brave enough, when asked if they have any questions for the Chambers, to ask why they are not adopting best practice as set out above, will win a gold star for courage and should report back immediately. Do NOT do so unless you believe you are not irrevocably compromising your chances. This is not a crusade, it is an attempt to make things better. It does not require martyrs but if you are given the opportunity and can take advantage of it, then go ahead.

Interviews · Routes to the Bar · Which Chambers?

A Bit of a Kicking Back

Part of the problem with having email on at home and in Chambers is that it sometimes gets lost in the mix. Last week Kris emailed me having not been able to post. What she said was this:

Dear Simon
Unfortunately, I don’t seem to be able to leave a comment on your blog today. Normally, I’d forget it – but you may need to hear it – or not!

The following is what I tried to leave:


I’m glad you’ve got it all in hand. Silly me.

As for your presumption of my having an entitlement mentality – you can guess again. I started out swabbing decks in the Navy, having barely scraped through school. I got my 2.1 and LL.M at a respectable (I call Russell Group) School. I even got my dissertation published in a law review – and am amazed that academics continue to refer to it. So thank you, but I understand the Bar, and the world generally, doesn’t owe me a living.

I had 10 years’ experience working for solicitors, including taking cases to appeal. I hit the buffers without a practising certificate. I was encouraged by my barrister line manager and others I’d briefed that I had what it takes to do the business as a barrister. I’ve done the mini-pupillages and I continue to volunteer.

I’m a nice girl and I don’t hold grudges – even though it will take some time to forget the telephone slam-down by the BSB. (I suppose the Head of Education at my Inn shares my “entitlement” mentality too.)

I’ve had enough. Even I had to accept my usual “If I took ‘no’ for an answer, I’d still be a seaman in the Navy” kick this in the arse drive was getting me nowhere.

You think I’m the Lone Ranger? lol. Herewith a link < Will you single him out as a deluded inadequate or will somebody please now wake up and join the dots?

Thanks for your offer of assistance re the BSB. I’ve taken your earlier advice and secured my qualification as a solicitor some time ago. I am genuinely grateful for your steer in that regard.

Firstly, nice to hear from you and I trust that you don’t mind that I have posted your comment. It seemed to be that, having ripped into you, your reply should be readily visible.

Secondly, of course I accept that you have worked to get where you are. I don’t, however, accept the points you make on the thread below. I have followed the link you include here, and have found an account of a lousy interview. We are not arguing about whether some interviews are poor – I have made my own view clear about that issue on a number of occasions, and tried to suggest ways in which the Bar could improve. But bad experiences do not equal institutional policy.

Like it or not the tension between funded pupillage (small number of applicants selected, playing field as fair as we can make it) against unfunded pupillage (much expanded numbers – although not as large as some of you think – but much easier for those who have money from family or previous career) will not go away. In my view you cannot square that circle by complaining that funded pupillages are given to white males from middle class backgrounds. Not only is it not so, but most Chambers are trying to expand their selection procedures. That an individual – however deserving – didn’t get pupillage, doesn’t prove the contrary.

I have also heard from Nicholas Green, the Chairman of the Bar for 2010. He says (slightly edited to exclude irrelevant information):

Thank you for your email and for forwarding on the feedback you have received on the pupillage award, which I read with interest.  All pupillage regulations (including the amount of the award) are dealt with by the Bar Standards Board.  I have spoken to Valerie Shrimplin (the Head of Education Standards) at the BSB about this issue to understand the extent to which funding is being considered by the ongoing review of pupillage.

I am assured that your email and the attachment will be passed to Derek Woods QC, who is leading the review of all aspects of pupillage.  The issue of funding, including the amount of funding, is being addressed in the review.  I am afraid that I cannot say much more than that at this stage, as the review is not yet finished (and I have not seen a draft).  I am told that the report will be considered at the April BSB meeting.

As for any advice to prospective pupils I am sure that there will be a number of proposed reforms arising out of the Derek Woods’review which will be of interest.

So, the people running the profession do listen and respond. No one is pretending it’s perfect, but the Bar is trying to improve its own communication and standards. Watch this space in April…

Interviews · No Pupillage · Qualities Required

Just Missing Out

dilbertFirstly, a hello to new readers. Thanks to WordPress’s monitoring tools (not quite CCTV in everyone else’s computer, but close) I can tell that some of the older posts are getting a lot of attention. Presumably, therefore, a new generation is gearing up for a shot at the grand prize. I wish you all luck and I hope you all have a plan B – obtaining pupillage is not getting any easier.

To make this clear, and to try and address the particular issue, I quote below from a comment sent by ‘Bedroom Barrister’, who I can be reasonably sure is a bloke.

I completed the BVC in 08, and since then have had 7 interviews. I missed out on my 1st choice chambers (provincial) on a vote of 2-1, and was placed on the reserve list for another chambers in London.

I do, I believe, tick all the ‘barrister candidates must have’ boxes: I have 2x scholarships, a masters, ran my own company, undertook several minis, taught Westlaw for Sweet &amp; Maxwell for 2 years, and had a career as a rugby player before coming to law earlier than originally planned through injury (I am 28)

My first choice chambers have re-interviewed me and turned me down for a second time. what I would like to know is, what the chuff can I do to go one step further and obtain an offer?

The one thing I have lacked to date is real advocacy experience, so I put myself through FRU as an employment rep and took up a position as a county court advocate (solicitor’s agent) to gain experience (although this is relatively recent).

I am, I believe, a friendly chap, I get on well with most, and I have a genuine, not rehearsed, interest in law and current affairs.

Friends tell me ‘if you’re good enough to get interviews you’re good enough to get pupillage’ but I am truly concerned that this isn’t the case. My entire life has gone on hold while I send out applications, my poor girlfriend has to put up with my cloudy moods, and I find myself for the first time not knowing what to do!

Any thoughts would be gratefully received!

You are right – you tick the boxes. What seems apparent from this is that so, too, do a great many people. Ticking the boxes is no longer sufficient in itself.

Tempting though it is to suggest that it is the name that is causing the problem (try Courtroom Barrister), it seems to me that what you actually lack is feedback. Because you don’t say much about your interviews I am assuming they went reasonably well. If your panel was divided 2-1 then it was clearly close. The question is what swung it the other way. This could be nothing, it could be a question of whether the other person was more likeable or more ‘deserving’ or cleverer than you. It could be that the potential pupil master saw more in them (I have taken part in discussions which included all the above). The problem is that I don’t know and nor do you.

So, the advice is to get on the phone and ask. It may be that you are simply unlucky – that is certainly a possibility. But it may be that there is something about your interview performance which is counting against you and which you could deal with if only you knew about it. That is what feedback is all about. Even if your chosen Set doesn’t promise feedback I would ask. They can only say no but having been interviewed twice they must have seen something they liked and they should be willing to help.

The comments on the posts below dealing with Chambers’ approaches to pupillage show that lack of feedback is a bugbear. I don’t think we are very good at it as a profession: too many people are told something like, ‘You were very good but not quite as good as the person we took on’. That is roughly equivalent to the fortune teller saying, ‘You will travel widely and meet a stranger’ – well durr.

Because we are not very good at it, you must be. Ask specific questions: ‘What was the difference between my CV and the person who got pupillage?’. ‘What was it in the interview that made the difference?’  ‘Could you please tell me the 3 criteria on which I scored lowest?’ ‘Did I score the lowest/highest of anyone interviewed in any criterion? If so, please could you tell me which one?’ ‘Did you identify anything lacking in my CV of interview which, had I displayed it, would have made the difference?’ In other words – push.

The only other advice about the process I can give is, if you try again, to identify a banker set. You are clearly good enough to get a pupillage. Almost everyone interviewed is good enough and those who get to the last 2 or 3 certainly are. There is no doubt that there is an element of luck involved. So chose a set a level below where you really want to go. It’s easier to move once you’re a few years call and, who knows, you may like it there.

Ok – the agony uncle bit is done. Next up is an issue about how to survive the start of tenancy (also a fairly frequently asked question). That will tie in nicely to the remaining posts in ‘Tenancy and How to Get It’ which I am aware I left unfinished. It should also help non-pupils gain some understanding of what barristers actually look for which may help in mini-pupillages. All of which will come in the next couple of months.

Interviews · No Pupillage · Which Chambers?

Wall of Shame Update

wallA source sings to me that Lamb Chambers (on neither the wall nor the buttress and so previously in a neutral position) has gone straight to the top of the buttress of acclaim charts by sending out the following rejection letter (so far as I can tell to all unsuccessful candidates).

Lamb Chambers regrets to inform you that your application for pupillage at these chambers has not been successful. There were well over 200 applicants for just 2 places and with such stiff competition it was inevitable that we would have to reject many very strong candidates such as yourself.

We must apologise for the tardy manner in which your application has been considered. We encountered insuperable problems with the OLPAS system this year and in the end were obliged to print off and sort all applicants by hand. The automated method for notifying applicants of the progress of their applications was unworkable and as a result we are obliged to transmit all email rejections individually.

Lamb Chambers is unlikely to subscribe to OLPAS next year and if you too have been inconvenienced by this system then we would like to extend our apologies on behalf of the entire Bar to you for submitting aspiring pupils to such an appalling ordeal.

And so say all of us – but in this case someone actually has said it. Good.

In an ideal world the authorities would establish what happened with the Portal and publish it. This is not a call to identify anyone responsible, but rather to demonstrate that what went wrong has been understood and sorted. I have always supported OLPAS as a system (see my very first post of all) but I think Lamb Chambers (who make the position clear for all to see here) have got this one right. Better go it alone than another year of a collective effort going so disastrously wrong.

What is needed now is urgent reassurance that next year will not just be better, but that it will be perfect. Otherwise OLPAS is in trouble. And I still think that would be a shame. There is plenty to be said for making the system a level playing field. However, at the moment the field may be level but it’s also muddy, treacherous to negotiate and full of clods.