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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 I was told that the BPTCs (all of them) were teaching the old, superseded, Code of Conduct as their “Ethics” course.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.

Life at the Bar · Routes to the Bar · The BVC · The Future

Don’t Send Your Daughter to the Bar Mrs Worthington – Or 16 Irrelevant Things About QASA

The BSB has posted “16 Facts about QASA”. These merit a look, as they demonstrate the way in which your regulator to be is thinking. Others, notably Legal Half Hour have already assessed them but there is room for one more…

1)  Doctors, teachers and policemen are formally quality assessed – advocates should be too.

No one is arguing against this. The issue is how to do it and whether the current proposals will achieve the specified aim. I am astonished that the BSB has not addressed this issue first. To take teachers as an example: you only have to know a teacher to know that an inspection triggers massive stress, high levels of absenteeism and an abandonment of actual education for the alternative task of passing the inspection. It would be difficult to find a consensus view that Ofsted has improved the quality of education. Ditto doctors and policemen.

It isn’t an argument to say that everyone has it so we must have it too. The Bar is dedicated to exposing poor arguments like this.

2) Delaying QASA won’t delay or stop Gov’s competitive tendering plans. It has no link to public funding.

This is not what Baroness Deach previously said. What she said was this: “In fact, if QASA didn’t exist, the government would have to implement its own quality assurance scheme to fit within the confines of OCOF and BVT.

Moreover, without a quality assurance scheme, it is difficult to see how the public could be assured that the people who offer to represent the most people who cannot afford their own representation for the least money will not simply use the first person who will take the minimum wage.

We could test this proposal in this way. Once BVT and OCOF comes in, all people employed in the public sector or who work with quangos, or who work for institutions receiving the bulk of their funding from government or government schemes (such as Universities), and all people involved in the regulation of legal services must use the lowest bidder awarded a contract for all and any legal work they require. Then let’s see who signs up. This proposal has the merit of ensuring that those committed to imposing the scheme are also users of it. There can be no principled objection, although plenty of unprincipled ones – the first of which will be that such people don’t want second rate service. QED.

3)  All advocates barristers, solicitors, legal execs will need accreditation at a level between 1 and 4 to undertake criminal advocacy.

This is true. Interesting that the BSB puts in a separate category of “advocates”. I have no idea who these people are but I think you should be told – there are alternative careers being hinted at here.

4)  To undertake criminal advocacy without registering for QASA would be a breach of the code.

This is also true if the BSB enacts that it should be so. It does not address the reason why it should be so. It is anti-competitive because it postulates only one scheme.

I am also interested in which provision of the Code it would breach. At the moment, I have to comply with para 2, which requires me to have undertaken professional training appropriate to my date of call, and to comply with the CPD regime. Is the BSB saying that it will not issue me with an unconditional practising certificate if I comply with these provisions?

5)  The Scheme has the support of the Lord Chief Justice and other members of the senior judiciary.

The whole point of being a barrister is that the Judiciary do not tell us what we must and must not do. The accused must believe his brief will tell the judge to go to the devil if that is what his case demands. The need to be marked, to move up a level or maintain one’s grade is deeply inimical to the proper relationship between advocate and judge. Lest anyone thinks this is merely the view of a noisy minority, the last 2 sentences are not mine but belong to Moses LJ.

In reality I suspect that the senior judiciary have agreed to back a scheme on the basis that something must be put in place. They may be right or wrong about that but their support is clearly not wholehearted and it is, in any event, irrelevant to the question of whether your regulator to be is correct in imposing it on the profession. This is like saying “my brother is bigger than your brother”, and about as sensible.

6)  In order to undertake trials in the Crown Court, advocates will need to be assessed through judicial evaluation in real trials.

Yes but.

A moment’s thought will show that your regulator to be is not actually committed to judicial assessment for advocacy, but only for trial advocacy. If you believe in judicial assessment then you should commit to it for everything. The BSB accepts that an incompetent plea on behalf of someone who could get 10 years + is not something that QASA should cover. That is unprincipled. So much for “standards”.

7)  Non-trial work levels 2/3 will be available to those who can prove competence against full trial standards at assessment centre.

The 4th consultation response to QASA has just been published. It says, JAG remains committed to providing a route for advocates to be assessed at an assessment centre in order to obtain level 2 accreditation for the reasons set out in the consultation paper and will not be making any change to the Scheme in relation to assessment options at level 2″. Thus, as this point makes clear, Plea Only Advocates can still do level 2 and level 3 work without judicial accreditation. Your regulator to be does not explain why the “full trial standards” to which it refers in this point, are not judicially assessed. There is one simple answer – that the assessment centre will be less demanding.

What is so distressing about this is the BSB’s abandonment of any set standard and thus its abandonment of its own profession. Barristers are to compete with people who do not have to undergo the same level of assessment to the same standard. I don’t altogether blame the SRA for this: if I could wangle it that the competition had to jump through more hoops, it would be hard to place the public interest above my own interests. But the BSB has no such excuse: it has simply supinely succumbed and it won’t even tell us why. So much for transparency.

8)  JAG will accredit a single assessment centre to provide QASA assessments for non-trial advocates and will monitor its performance

So competition is ruled out, and the monitoring of the monopoly holder will be by the people who ruled out the idea of competition. This, in some curious way, is apparently supposed to make you feel better.

9)  Advocates who can’t demonstrate competence against level 2 trial standards will not be able to appear in the Crown Court in any hearing

That’s because all Crown Court hearings are deemed level 2. It says nothing at all. For the BSB to try to sell the scheme on the basis of misdirection is shameful. I say that because, if I made a point like that in Court, I would be ashamed of myself.

10)  All criminal advocates will be required to confirm their competence every five years. This will include silks.

Fascinating. You get silk after a process which involves endless referees and at least 5 Judges being automatically consulted. That isn’t good enough for your regulator. Sound like a turf war.

Moreover, QCs practising commercial law are one of the country’s top attractors of business. The first silk to fail QASA – assuming any sign up – will imperil the entire system. If I were the government I wouldn’t be too happy about this.

11)  Silks appointed in 2010 or later will be able to apply to be passported into the scheme.

Excellent – not all silks are equally competent. I would be really interested to see the BSB’s research on this proposal, which might be commercially damaging to individuals. If there has been any it has totally escaped me. Otherwise, this is a shabby political compromise. There are barristers on the BSB’s main board. Presumably all the silks will now seek re-accreditation. If not it looks like they have thrown their criminal colleagues to the wolves.

I practice in civil and crime. Dear Auntie Ruth, what should I do?

12)  The level of case will be decided by advocate and instructing party. Judges will report abuses and disciplinary action may result.

On level of case, will it really? Actually, the instructing party will say, “this is what we think” and the advocate will agree or lose the work. The disciplinary action will be against who, do we think? The non-regulated commercial operator or the regulated professional who succumbs to economic pressure? And the Regulator thinks this is fair.

Interestingly, although this is a fact about QASA, it is an unhappy one. The BSB acknowledges that the Bar will not be able to dictate what class of work it will accept – a complete change from the current position – and that a barrister will be subject to professional discipline if, nonetheless, they take a case they cannot do. Surely the purpose of regulation should be to ensure that such conflicts do not arise.

13)  There will be a review of QASA after 2 years to assess whether changes are required to improve its impact.

But not to abolish it if it’s a dog’s dinner. Or to compensate people who lose out because of it. Or to assess whether its “impact” should actually be lessened. In other words, the review will not be a review of the scheme itself.

This is what Baroness Deech said 9 days ago: Further, the system will not be set in stone. There will be a two-year review to ensure it is working as intended, including looking at whether or not cases are being fairly allocated.” Is that the same as point 13?

14)  Evidence will be gathered during the operation of the Scheme and will be used to inform the Scheme review.

The latest consultation response does not mention how this is to be done, who will gather evidence, how it will inform the scheme review. The Regulator has neither asked for clarification on these matters, nor considered them important enough to seek a formal commitment to a fair review.

15)  Over 10,000 solicitors have notified the SRA of their intention to register under QASA when it comes into force.

So, presumably, the Bar should act now. Apart from the implicit threat in this point – and the BSB does not appear to have asked itself whether such a threat should properly appear on its website – so what? I don’t know when the 10,000 gave the notification – perhaps before it became clear that the MoJ did not intend solicitors to be the winners of the competition to supply legal services. But the fact that 10,000 Turkeys vote for Christmas isn’t a reason for a single other Turkey to do so.

What stands out from all this – and it is possible to say so now we are so near the end – is that there is not a single positive reason to support QASA in these points. Point 1 is the very best that can be mustered – that everyone else does it. Every other point is an inadequate, poorly reasoned and, in some cases, shamefully misleading reason why we should simply lie down and let QASA happen – presumably whilst thinking of the BSB.

There is, of course, an obvious case to be made for quality assurance and control. It will push standards up: it will ensure that young people are not separated from a huge amount of money on a promise of something that is vanishingly unlikely to happen: it may make chambers commit to pupillage before professional training and thus ensure a scrutiny of the quality of that training which is currently lacking, thus further assisting in raising standards: it will allow the public to have confidence that advocates are properly trained and are not reliant on their relationship with the Judge to carry on practising. All those points – and more – should be publicly promoted. But, of course, they cannot be because QASA confers absolutely none of those advantages. The BSB – your regulator to be – does not even pretend it does. So why is the BSB supporting it?

16) All criminal advocates will be subject to judicial monitoring whenever they appear in court.

No they won’t – or at least not to any new extent. Solicitors wishing to be Plea Only Advocates will not have to be judicially monitored under the scheme. They will be able to become re-accredited at assessment centres (p38).

So there it is. Obviously, my usual offer stands. If anyone from the BSB or QASA would like to deal with this, they will be offered a guest post and I will not edit what they say.

For those of you wishing to do criminal law, may I – with regret – offer you the following advice. Don’t come to the Bar until we know where this is going. I am aware that this advice suits the Government’s purpose – the best way to achieve the politically popular (for now) driving up of conviction rates is to ensure the Bar isn’t around to defend people. I am also aware that it is bad news for the profession, which cannot survive without a fresh intake – and I would point out to my colleagues who do no criminal work that this is a Pastor Niemoller moment.

But this is a blog dedicated to those who want to be barristers and I have always run it on that basis. I would give that same advice to my own children. As things stand, you would be better off as a solicitor. Even then, things will be tough and nasty. But you have more chance of employment and more chance of advocacy, and you may be better placed to join whichever big corporate friend is going to get the contract.

What you won’t have is the pleasures and perils of self-employment, the companionship of other barristers, the enjoyment of being part of a profession dedicated to improving standards  and speaking out for the least articulate members of your own society. But our own regulator is no longer dedicated to those things either and the odds are therefore that they will soon disappear for most of the Bar. By not paying £17,000 to a commercial provider who won’t tell you what your chances of pupillage are, you will simply be beating the rush.

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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.

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.

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Counsel Magazine has an interesting article by Andrew Neish QC, dealing with the lack of diversity at the so called ‘magic-circle’ sets. I’d like to link to it but Lexis-Nexis thinks I should pay to do so and, as I get my paper copy anyway, I won’t. If  you or your institution has an account then this is the link to the click-on.

The proposal is not one I like – to choose additional random candidates for interview. It strikes me that this is not so much diversity as tokenism. But at least the problem is being looked at, which is better than ignoring it, and an email address is provided for comments and contributions. However a more focussed, more interesting and more thoughtful examination of the same issue is Lawminx’s letter to a pupillage committee. Minx’s idiosyncratic style isn’t to everyone’s taste, but the Bar ought to read decent points made by non-traditional students. We might learn something.

Meanwhile, as the time arrives for the Portal gates to creak open, I cannot stress the need to research your choices too much. It is not enough to want to be a pupil at the particular set, or to want to do the work they do. Get on the website, look at the cv of every tenant under 7 years call and compare yourself. If you don’t match up, don’t apply. This will have the consequence that you won’t waste an application – the sets which are weighting their selection system to prioritise 1st class degrees from 10 Universities (of whom 2 are preferred) need not be troubled by you.

If there is to be a debate here, then it should be an honest one. As Andrew Neish points out, it isn’t really arguable that only people with 1st class degrees from 10 Universities can handle the complexities of commercial law (although – as he doesn’t say – it is hugely flattering to believe that this is the position). He may be wrong about that – I am not qualified to comment. But, if that qualification isn’t necessary then sets who find themselves unable to recruit different candidates should be explaining why.

If you are in doubt about whether to make an application, contact Chambers and ask them how they score the different qualities they seek. There is a world of difference between a Chambers giving a 1st 20 points out of a 100 and a 2.1 14 points and a Chambers giving a 1st 55 points and a 2.1 20 points. Both might say that a 2.1 is a minimum requirement but only one of them is offering you a real chance to let your extra-curricular activities catch up.

In times of recession people pull in their claws and barristers are no exception. Chambers are less inclined to take a chance on what they don’t know and less inclined to offer pupillage at all. It makes it even more important for you to match yourself with the right set. The debate about whether we approach diversity adequately is for another day as far as your application is concerned – although comments are welcome as always.

Meanwhile, if you are a “non-traditional candidate” (this normally means that your A levels – if they exist at all – were a long time ago and not brilliant, and that you have actually succeeded in a real job since then) then try and correlate your real life successes to what you perceive as necessary to success at the Bar and relate one to the other. Somewhere out there – if you do it properly – there might (just might) be a set of Chambers which is prepared to back you, rather than to take what is – let’s face it – a chance on someone fresh out of the BPTC. Just make sure that you emphasise your intellectual flexibility: I know of very few Chambers who believe that the BPTC turns out a product which is fit to practice and it therefore follows that we need to teach you. Don’t fall into the trap of allowing the pupillage committee to wonder whether you are able to learn.


Cheap Books

Claire from Hammicks has been in touch again. There is a student discount on a wide range of books. Moreover, she – or possibly the Bar Council – has managed to kick Archbold into giving a discount to students and young barristers. Not before time. The full list is here – it includes University students, BPTC students and pupils (for some books only). Hope it helps.

No Pupillage · Routes to the Bar · The BVC

Outside Help

Those of you who read this blog regularly might remember the little local difficulty we had with Oxbridge Training Contracts last year. I was recently contacted by a reader who wishes to remain anonymous. That reader wanted to take advantage of a commercial service offered by an organisation called Judicial Appointments Training. This is not cheating. It is preparation for interviews, offered on a one to one basis, with the aim of making you a more persuasive candidate. I said that I saw no reason why, if it was affordable to the reader, they ought not to avail themselves of it. The reader, in gratitude, offered to provide a report. Here it is. My thoughts are below.


I completed the BVC a year ago and have since had 8 interviews, none of which progressed to second rounds.  I felt my interview technique was letting me down and the little feedback I received from chambers was not helpful in pin-pointing where I was going wrong.  I saw pupillage interview training being advertised by Judicial Appointments Training (JAT) and decided to give it a go.

Arranging a training session

Most of the information about pupillage interview training is available on the JAT website;

I called the company for further information and was put through to Martin Soorjoo, one of the two trainers.  He was really friendly and willing to answer the questions I had about the service he provides.

I arranged a training session over the phone and received an email a few hours later confirming the appointment and requesting that I send a copy of my Pupillage Portal application and the names of chambers I had upcoming interviews with.  This is so that the training session could be tailored to the type of sets I had applied to.

The service offered

The service offered for pupillage interview training is a one-on-one session, including a mock interview which is recorded, and feedback.  The sessions are either 60 minutes or 90 minutes long.


Pupillage interview training is discounted by 33% for pupillage applicants.  The cost is:

–          £150       – 60 minute session

–          £225       – 90 minute session


The training is available on weekdays up until 9pm, subject to availability.

Martin was very accommodating in arranging a convenient time, considering I work full time and was travelling.


JAT is located in Clerkenwell, London.  The office is literally a three minute walk from Farringdon Tube Station, so it is easily accessible.

The training session

I was met by Martin on arrival and taken to a conference room.  The setting for the training session is similar to rooms used by chambers for interviews, so it felt real.

The session started with a discussion about me, my background and the interview experiences I have had so far.  The discussion then moved onto the strengths and weaknesses of my application and the types of things I could say about myself at interview to stand out.

I then had a mock interview that was videoed.  I had to leave the room and re-enter to make it as realistic as possible.  The interview itself was very tough and felt like the real thing.  It lasted about 30 minutes and covered different types of typical (and non-typical) interview questions, which were tailored to my application and preferred areas of law/practice.

After it was over, Martin gave a thorough de-brief on the whole interview, in terms of both technique and content of my answers.  Martin went through each question and rated each answer I gave.  Be prepared; the feedback given is frank!  However, it is also constructive and helped me realise where and how I was making mistakes.


After the session I had to dash to catch my train (my fault for not booking a later one!).  Martin sent me the DVD of my interview in the post a few days later, along with helpful documents about interview preparation techniques.

The continued support offered after the session is really good; I would not hesitate to email Martin with questions I have in future.  I think this says a lot about the level of service JAT provides its customers.


I found the experience incredibly useful.  The service provided is friendly and professional.  Martin was so helpful and puts you at ease.  He really works with you to make the most of the session.  In this respect, the training is very good value for money given that somebody with such experience of the Bar and pupillage interviews (he was on the pupillage committee at his chambers) is giving you one-on-one advice.

The advice given is practical and constructive.  It helped me realise the mistakes I have been making and how I can try to improve my performance for future interviews.  I also really liked that the mock-interview was tailored to sets I had interviews with; it is another example of how JAT work with you to improve your performance.

It’s not a quick-fix solution that is guaranteed to get you pupillage and those considering whether to try it should be realistic about what they want to achieve from the experience.  However, I noticed a considerable difference in the interview I had after the training and it has definitely helped me.

The price may seem steep, but if you can afford it and you’re serious about pupillage then it’s worth the money in my opinion.  If you’re like me then you’ve already thrown £10000 or more into BVC fees (and the rest) so £225 isn’t that much more in comparison.  Also, I don’t think that the service is overpriced at the rates charged; those running it are professional people with years of experience.  Also, it really is worth paying extra for the 90minute session as the time goes so quickly.

I know that my law school had a Careers Advisor who offered to do mock interviews, but I (foolishly) never took this up this opportunity.  Therefore, I can’t compare the service offered by JAT to any other providers of interview training.

Overall, I really can’t think of anything negative about JAT and would recommend the training to those struggling with pupillage interviews.

JAT (and I have agonised about putting up a link to their site because it is advertising them. But I reckoned most of you would look anyway) are not a sham outfit. The people running it are real barristers and there is no reason to doubt their experience or expertise. They are offering a service which is clearly wanted by sufficient people to make it a paying proposition. The prices are not, in this particular marketplace, unreasonable: it currently costs over £300 to get the same assistance with a Silk Application Form and that is without any help with the interview.  They are not over-promising on what they can deliver. I have absolutely no reason to doubt my informant’s judgement and I believe in my informant’s bona fides. The review is a real one. It might help.

I have two comments. Firstly, any barrister reading this whose Chambers does not publish, on its website, what it looks for in terms of qualities required, should now understand and be worried by the fact that people are paying to find out what they should be being told for free. It is time that the profession did something about this. Quite a lot of the know-how (by no means all) being provided by this organisation is stuff which Chambers could tell any applicant. Nor is it a big secret. Those who apply for Judicial appointment or Silk are told what qualities are required and how to demonstrate them. If it’s ok for the profession then it’s ok for applicants as well.

Secondly, I have no objection to people making a living by selling this sort of knowledge. However the BPTC providers should be paying for it. If they cannot provide it themselves then they ought to buy it in. To charge people £12,ooo and upwards and not to provide this sort of service is nothing sort of scandalous. I suggest that any applicant to any BPTC course, or any participant on a course, makes a formal request to their provider for such a service, as part of their fee. I repeat my suggestion that applicants ask for success figures in terms of pupillages achieved and that pressure is put on the providers to keep proper accurate figures. Pupillage is extremely difficult to obtain and quite a lot of you – if I may gently say so – are more optimistic than may be sensible. But you are entitled to have your prospects maximised for the money you are paying.

Now, of course, my informant had not taken advantage of their BPTC’s provider’s careers advice and it may be that, had they done so, they would not have needed to seek external help. But I have not been deluged with emails praising this aspect of the course. I would be interested in your views and your experiences. Are the providers sending you into interviews (and indeed into the Portal) full of confidence? Are they doing anything? Let me know.

Update: JAT are now linking to this post. They are not overdoing what was said about them, merely saying that there is a review. The rather restrained way they have dealt with what is a pretty favourable piece seems to me to suggest that they are a responsible and sensible outfit.