OLPAS · Routes to the Bar

Filling In the Form

"We ned to do something about excessive admin...I want you to fill out one of these forms every time you think you're doing some."

Inspired by @MTStudents‘ event last night, for the first time in ages I want to write about pupillage and how to get it.

For those who missed it, the ‘speed dating’ event allowed you up to 8 visits to barristers, each lasting 10 minutes. Each visit allowed you to ask anything you wanted. That has the distinct advantage that no one barrister need unduly influence any one applicant – a real help to those of us who occasionally wonder if we are pushing our prejudices too hard.

Most of my guinea pigs (you know who you are and thank you) wanted help filling in the Pupillage Gateway form, particularly the dreaded Section 8. This allows you:

  1. 150 words to say why you want to be a barrister.
  2. 200 words about areas of practice
  3. 200 words about your choice of chambers
  4. 200 words about why you will make a good barrister (not a morals question)
  5. 200 words about experiences and skills

We can argue about the questions (and don’t get me started), but there they are. Proprietary forms don’t seem that much better.

I acknowledge that each Chambers should by now be publishing a competency framework to help you fill in the application. If Barristers are allowed that when they apply to sit, then why aren’t we offering it to pupils? Essex Court comes near, although the website lacks the ways you can demonstrate what they want. Brick Court better still. But most Chambers are still confining themselves to vague statements of what they expect. Amazingly, this includes things like “intellectual ability”, “commitment to the Bar”, and “passion for justice”.

No shit Sherlock.

Anyhoo, there is some general advice I can offer.

First, you are trying to show 3 things. One: I know what your job is, because I’ve done the research. Two: I can do your job and these are the ways I have shown the necessary qualities already. Three: I am a nice person and happy to take one for the team.

That requires a level of abstraction. You need to ask what – for example – commercial law requires. Walk yourself through what barristers do in a commercial case (if you don’t know then do a mini). Then, don’t think about drafting pleadings – you can’t do that. Think about what qualities are necessary to draft pleadings.  Intellect is fairly obvious. Tenacity. Attention to detail. And so forth. Then you can ask yourself where, in your life to date, you have demonstrated those qualities. In doing so you will have thought logically about what the job is and what you can offer to demonstrate that you can do it.

Secondly, it may help to divide your thoughts into 2 columns – “driver” and “result”. That allows you to distinguish between why you want to do something and what that drive results in. Given that you are being asked at least 2 such questions (1 and 3 above), it is important to know what your motivation is.

Thirdly, be your own most rigorous editor. That really shows – it means you don’t repeat yourself, it means you express yourself concisely and it means you don’t repeat yourself.

Fourthly, take the time required. I have just completed a selection exercise that required me to write 2000 odd words in total. It took me over 7 hours.

Fifthly, make sure your CV tells the reader what they need to know about you. Ask yourself what questions will be asked. If you are a late entrant, what did you do in the meantime? I would, personally, compile my CV to answer those questions in the order in which they are likely to arise for you. I would not, personally, worry about formatting or font.

Sixthly, don’t be crass. This should be caught in the editing but if you have talked about ‘ordinary people’ you’re dropping a clanger (and I add that my guinea pig had already spotted that for themselves – well done). You have to be able to criticise yourself. Equally, don’t say that the BPTC has shown you that advocacy is your strength. It hasn’t. Because the BPTC course is not fit for purpose and no one believes you learn anything of use from it (providers please feel free to comment).

Finally, proofread and proofread again.

I still think question 4 is odd, but it essentially means that you can answer question 1 in 550 words and divide the result. However, for question 1 please do not say, “because I’m good at arguing”, or “because I have a passion for justice”. Such unevidenced statements are  no help to you or anyone else, and being good at arguing isn’t a help anyway. I have, previously, answered this question in a post. I provided the 150 word answer in a comment. But that was in 2008 – a lifetime for most of the readers I am now aiming at – so it is reproduced below:

Even though the lack of security is risky, I like working for myself, being at the sharp end and being judged on how well I do paperwork and advocacy, rather than politics. That gives me control over my maximally flexible and varied life, which is always interesting. I enjoy the camaraderie of my colleagues and the strategic and tactical challenge of coming up against them. When I represent those who need it, rather than judging them when that isn’t my job, I feel that what I do is genuinely of use to society. Despite rumours to the contrary, I can’t do this in any other profession and, what’s more, there is the possibility of a career change at 50.
I don’t do it for the money, the moral glamour or so that I am perceived as important.

Good luck.

PS: Anyone spot the deliberate mistake? Proofread – remember.

OLPAS · Qualities Required · The BVC · The Future · University

Diversity and Selection

This is an (enormously) expanded version of the article in this month’s Counsel. It responded to a proposal by Andrew Neish QC of the Commercial Bar Association to improve the system whereby those sets doing big commercial work end up with pupils who are overwhelmingly from Oxbridge and with first class degrees. In my view that happens because when those sets design their criteria for pupillage they prioritise academic achievement to an extent that a UN Secretary General with a 2.1 from a Redbrick University would find a problem obtaining a pupillage (I exaggerate slightly). In Andrew Neish’s view the relevant sets are focussed on academic achievement.

The proposal was that there would be ‘wild cards’ for each pupillage round, so that applicants without the appropriate qualifications would be invited for interview, chosen at random. I applaud the recognition that change is needed. But the idea of a wild card is, I believe, a bad one.

We ought surely to begin with why diversity is a good thing. I think, firstly, that there is an advantage to the Bar in representing the society in which we operate and which we seek to serve. There is a moral dimension to this as well: non-diversity is too close to discrimination to be comfortable. Secondly, restricting our selection to a particular group – however academically talented – risks missing those who would be the most able barristers. Our focus on academic excellence also plays into diversity in another way. Not only is there a lack of diversity in taking students primarily from particular institutions: doing so exaggerates the effect of the diversity issues pertaining to those institutions themselves. The reality is that almost half the graduates from Oxbridge come from private schools. That this is not remotely a reflection of the society in which we live is obvious, but that is not really the point in a profession which does demand academic ability. The point is that Oxbridge is not selecting the brightest and best. It does not even pretend that it is – hence its emphasis on widening the pool of applicants and increasing contacts with those schools educating about 80% of our children.

The wild card idea has these drawbacks: firstly, it removes the responsibility for diversity from Chambers. The proposal is that wild cards are allocated or randomly selected: Chambers should be capable of designing criteria which reflect other achievements than the academic. Secondly, it reinforces the idea of academic quality as the major determinant: Chambers should be encouraged to discover other qualities. Thirdly, it stops at interview: if the interview is designed to discriminate between candidates with superlative academic qualifications, it is unlikely to be a tool capable of choosing someone without them.

Setting up a system in which hopeless candidates are randomly selected for an interview designed to choose someone with wholly different qualifications is not diversity. Diversity is an acknowledgement that the current requirements are either too restrictive or are being operated in a way which prevents them having an equal impact on all applicants. There seems to be a view that those not at the starting gate by the end of their 3rd year at University are deemed to have missed the race altogether. The proposition, thus stated, sounds so nonsensical that it is difficult to accept any of us really believes it. In my view, although this job demands academic ability to a considerable degree, it very rarely and very inconsistently demands academic brilliance. Nor do I accept that academic brilliance can only be ascertained by particular results and qualifications from particular universities at particular times of a (young) person’s life. I do not regard this as a particularly contentious proposition, but it throws into sharp relief the issue of whether concentrating on results is even the way to identify academic brilliance.

It might be said that Chambers are not equipped to teach candidates, and so we are stuck with the results they have thus far obtained. It might be said, but it would be wrong in my view. People learn every day and performance improves through practice and experience (otherwise we could send the brilliant pupil straight to the Supreme Court). Nor does that argument address the mature applicant who brings something quite different to the job and who almost every Chambers says is welcome.

I believe we should try to identify potential through our own efforts and widen the pool of pupils. When there was only one Bar School, non-practising barristers were entitled to use the name, and – critically – financial support was available to at least some of those attending via grants and not just scholarships or awards, the position was different. There was then a case having lots of pupils exploited those pupils. Nowadays we expect our applicants to invest £13,000+ for a useless qualification and a small chance of a tenancy. If there are set of chambers that truly believe that the work they do can only be done by the exceptionally academically gifted and that such gifts must be manifested at an early age or by those practising as solicitors and and then changing over, they ought to say so fairly and squarely. A proposal that an application by those with other qualities might be met with a random opportunity to be interviewed by a panel looking for quite different qualities is insufficient. If the Chambers concerned are members of OLPAS then it is worse than insufficient, given that applicants would effectively be wasting a choice.

A start might be made by paying less. That would reduce the punt-taking considerably and would increase the number of pupillages, assuming that the investment in pupils remained the same. Is it really the position that talented candidates would go elsewhere because they were only paid £30,000 to train? Is it really the case that the profession is desperate to attract those who will only join if they get £60,000 as they train? The advantage of additional pupils is that Chambers has more to go on when it comes to choosing the best candidates. It also permits more tenancies to be offered than Chambers originally envisaged – helpful if a number of pupils do particularly well. One difficulty at present is that the concentration on academic results produces a vicious circle whereby candidates feel that post-graduate degrees are essential. That, in turn, generates another year of expense for which candidates can be recompensed by obtaining a pupillage at the Chambers with the highest awards. In reality, very few postgraduate degrees add anything and it may be helpful if we said so.

It is disturbing that a common thread running through this issue is the profit made by the institutions providing the necessary qualifications. It would, in my view, be a forward step if any institution wishing to offer professional qualifications was obliged to submit accounts, quantify the investment per student and correlate that against the academic results – which should be independently marked – and against the success of those students in securing pupillage, tenancy and professional advancement. I believe that this should include Universities offering law degrees. Especially now they are to charge students it would be fair for those students to know more than simply the general reputation of their institution: how good is the law department?

We should also impose procedural fairness. It is surprising, in a profession in which advancement is assisted by a clear statement of the competencies required, that it is not compulsory to offer candidates for pupillage the same opportunity. Chambers ought to publish – on their websites, on the Portal and in paper form, the qualities (the dreadful civil service word is ‘competencies’) they look for in order to allow candidates to demonstrate those qualities. At the moment we ask people to guess.

I suspect that we so often adopt the attainment of ever more stratospheric academic heights as the principal mechanism by which we choose pupils because academic achievement is simultaneously easy to measure and deeply flattering to those doing the measuring. On analysis, professional success also requires other qualities: judgement; lucidity; robust self-belief; an ability to move on; a willingness to work hard at uncongenial tasks; an ease with many different people. That list is almost certainly incomplete yet, to the extent that these qualities are looked for at all, it is hard to argue that they are scrutinised in anything like the same detail or given anything like the same significance. The other side of procedural fairness is allowing the candidates to know how the qualities required are assessed and prioritised by Chambers. Chambers ought to publish their marking schemes. If they attribute half the available marks to academic achievements and 10% to non-legal, non-academic attainment candidates could at least  know what was required of them. Indirect discrimination thereby caused (not many traditional Muslim women go to University a long way from home, for example) could be identified and addressed. The process would be transparent. When schoolchildren take public examinations they are told how much each question is worth. A profession ought to meet the same standard.

For those sets in the happy position of being able to afford two well-paid pupils why not design two different sets of criteria, both open to all? One pupil would be accepted according to each. They could slug it out and Chambers would make its decision – both, one or none – in the usual way. The ability to refine both sets of criteria as the project progressed would be a useful benefit. The ability to reflect the society in which we all operate would be another. The opening of eyes to the possibility of merit arising other than from brilliance would be a third. Even clients might like it.

OLPAS · Routes to the Bar

OLPAS – The System’s Unloveable Quirks

Welcome to those who have come to this site from LawCareers.net, which reproduced the Help post and made a donation to the Middle Temple scholarship fund for doing so, which was kind. I am grateful to the anonymous author whose post is reproduced below. One the one hand it does rather justify everything that you love to hate about the profession’s attempt to move your applications into the 20th century. On the other hand, at least it may help you to understand that a failure to communicate isn’t necessarily rudeness. Also: fill in your dates to avoid and – although I find it bizarre that this needs saying – fill in your full contact details. After all, you are hoping that Chambers get in touch with you.

I’ve read your blog for a few years and I thought I might follow your invitation to get in touch to offer a few thoughts about the administration of the Pupillage Portal. I think you have said that you are not involved in recruitment in your sets, so I hope this will be of vague interest in explaining why some things are almost inevitably going to be unsatisfactory and why some are more likely to go wrong than others. Assuming, that is, that you have not heard the others in your set grumbling about them already…
A major issue is that the parts of the software which chambers use to run the application process is very awkward to use (I think mirroring the parts which candidates use). To give a trivial example: it is very easy to trip up on its mail-merge facility since it doesn’t have a preview function, making it all to easy to send out messages which start “Dear [name]”. It is also slightly unclear sometimes just how many ‘confirm’ buttons one has to hit before the email actually gets sent, making it quite straight-forward to send out more than one set of rejecting emails. However, that said, if you were rejecting people en masse on the Portal, it did only require the ticking of an extra check box to send them an email at the same time so there is no sensible reason why some sets do not manage to do this, nor change the default Portal text to something a bit more friendly. Equally, for those getting good news, it requires just another tick to send them a text-message; something I think more sets could use.
It also appears that the software which runs the Portal was adapted from one designed for much larger organisations, with rolling recruitment and designated recruitment officers. This means it has dozens of features which I don’t think are ever used for pupillage. One example is that each application is allocated a status which slowly advances through the system. However, because there are so many statuses, to reject someone following an interview you have, for example, first to advance them from “invited for interview” to “interview booked” and then “interview attended” even if you were doing all the timetabling off the system. I think this may explain both why so many sets stop using the Portal to process the applications after the first interview stage and why sometimes someone’s status will mysteriously change (e.g. from “under consideration” to “in screening”) if the person administrating it needs to move everyone up before being able to do anything sensible with the applications.
In terms of pre-interview and first-round interview rejections, it might be helpful to know that the only sensible way of sending out the messages is to invite those who were going to the next stage first, and then (having double- and triple-checked) do a “select all” on those remaining in the current category and “bulk process” (this being the Portal’s rather charming terminology, not mine) them to “rejected”. This is why rejections can end up being sent a while after invitations for the next round, particularly if there are some borderline candidates whose fate must be determined before the main batch can be processed. Although, as I mentioned above, this is no excuse for sending out any information to those rejected once a final list is chosen since it only requires a couple of mouse clicks.
It is also easy to underestimate how much work is required just to keep on top of the applications. For example, when printed out, I think chambers had about 4,000 pages of text to deal with last year, so I can see a strong temptation not to furnish every member of a large panel with every application form before a first round interview. I was also surprised at how extremely keen candidates were: interview slots were booked within minutes of emails being sent out, although surprisingly few had filled in their “dates to avoid” on the form, which would have helped the process enormously. Though not as much as full contact details (e.g. phone numbers where people can actually be reached) and I wonder if a lack thereof might have a detrimental effect on an application if a junior tenant is doing the administration! That said, it was usually straight-forward to accommodate requests to move people around, if necessary, so I perhaps wouldn’t worry about asking (assuming there is a good excuse!) as much as some people obviously do, reading through the posts.