Routes to the Bar · The BVC

As One Door Closes – It Shuts In Your Face. UPDATED.


People send me interesting information. Personal details redacted. Hat-tip on request. I have added hyperlinks to make tracking the argument easier.

Dear Mr Myerson,

Below is the text of an email which I have sent to my BVC group today, regarding a change to the law which will affect out-of-work BVC graduates. As far as I am aware, many students go onto the BVC with the mindset “I’ll give it a shot, but if it doesn’t work out, I can always transfer to being a solicitor”. As of 1st September 2010, the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority will no longer provide Certificates of Eligibility to barristers who have not completed pupillage. This will mean that they cannot sit the new “Qualified Lawyers’ Transfer Scheme” test. I suspect this will affect a large proportion of students on the BVC, who will never secure pupillage in any case.

In my honest opinion, the (now) BPTC providers and careers services at law schools should alert students to this risk, as the changes have not yet been well publicised. I would also be grateful if you could post this on your blog, seeing as many of the current BVC graduates who read it may benefit from realising that they have approximately 14 weeks left in which to secure their transfer, and avoid stumping up staggeringly high LPC fees to become solicitors on top of those fees they have already paid for the privilege of becoming ‘barristers-at-law.

The email reads:

This won’t concern those with pupillages, but read on for interest in any case.

For a number of years, a scheme has run which enables certain lawyers to transfer to becoming solicitors in the UK. The Solicitor’s Regulation Authority would grant them a ‘Certificate of Eligibility’ to sit the QLTT. This would specify the ‘Heads’ they needed to be tested on in the QLTT and any other experience they were required to gain before they could become a full solicitor. Essentially, they sat the exam, then did their ‘experience’. Once they had fulfilled the conditions of the Certificate, they could apply for admission to the solicitor’s profession – without the need for a training contract.

To be considered for transfer, applicants only had to show they could ‘practice under their professional title in their home jurisdiction without the need to complete additional education, training or assessments’. Barristers-at-law were an exception to this. Students who had passed the BVC were exempt from this criterion even if they had not completed a pupillage.

However, as of 1 September 2010 (i.e. this September), the QLTT is being replaced by the QLTS (“Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme”) [The proposed Regulations are here].

Barristers will not, any longer, be exempt from the standard eligibility criterion; all barristers will now have had to complete their full training (*including pupillage*) to be eligible to apply for transfer on the QLTS.

However! All is not lost yet. All of you who want this back-up option must apply for the Certificate of Eligibility now – before 1st September 2010. After this date, the SRA will only consider applications for the QLTS. I’m not sure when you would have to sit the actual QLTT (I imagine within a reasonable time after this), but you could finish your experience in your own time after that – as it would require on your certificate. When you finish the experience, you can then apply for admission as a solicitor.

The effects of this sea-change will be that we are left with a heightened problem of out-of-work barristers-at-law, who are thereby pushed out of a legal career altogether by the immense cost of attempting to fund the LPC themselves at a latter date and locate a training contract.

My money is on the fact that the scrapping of the QLTS scheme has not been well advertised by the BPTC providers, who are eagerly awaiting their new golden geese as of 1st September this year, many of whom had a plan along the lines of ‘I’ll give it a shot and if not, I can always transfer’.

Think hard.

UPDATE.

On your collective behalf I took this up with the BSB. Obviously as a Regulator they are supposed to be the big bad Woolf (geddit?), constantly keeping an eye on you and checking for defaulters. In fact, they are cuddly and helpful. I was given the information within 24 hours. I have summarised it for your convenience below – apologies if some of it is already well known, but it seemed sensible to include everything in the one Post.

There are two routes to qualify as a lawyer in England and Wales.  To qualify as a barrister, individuals have to complete the BVC (Bar Vocational Course) and a 12 months pupillage.  To qualify as a solicitor, individuals have to complete the LPC (Legal Practice Course)  and a 2-year training contract.   On completion of pupillage or a training contract, individuals are then deemed qualified as barristers or solicitors, respectively.

Both professions have schemes in place whereby qualified lawyers are able to transfer to become either barristers or solicitors.

Qualified lawyers transferring to become solicitors in England and Wales have to undertake the QLTT (Qualifying Lawyers Transfer Test).  The Law Society (now the SRA) have had a provision in place whereby an exception was made for the BVC graduates in this respect: they were considered to be ‘qualified lawyers’ and therefore eligible to undertake the QLTT and transfer to become solicitors.

In November 2008 the SRA carried out a consultation process in relation to qualified lawyers transferring to become solicitors.  The closing date was February 2009. The BSB was consulted on their proposal to omit the exception made for BVC graduates to permit them to undertake the QLTT.  The BSB had no objection to the SRA’s proposal.  The BSB accepted that BVC graduates were not qualified lawyers and therefore should not be deemed eligible to undertake the QLTT. It is now, of course, necessary to complete pupillage in order to describe yourself as a Barrister.

The SRA’s proposal was based on the proposition that the new scheme should ensure parity with the domestic route to qualification.  It should be noted that LPC graduates were never eligible to apply for the equivalent transfer to become barristers as they were never considered to be qualified solicitors.   If LPC graduates decided to become barristers, then they were required to undertake the BVC.

The LSB (Legal Service Board) approved changes to the QLTT scheme in March 2010.  The new QLTT regulations come into effect in September 2010.  As of this date, BVC graduates will no longer be able to apply for a certificate of eligibility: as stated above, they are not considered to be qualified lawyers.  Only BVC graduates who have completed pupillage will be eligible to apply to transfer to become solicitors under the SRA’s qualified lawyers transferring scheme.

Therefore, BVC graduates who wish to transfer to become solicitors will first need to complete the LPC.  The SRA is in the process of considering whether any exemptions should be granted to BVC graduates from the LPC, and if so, from which aspects of the course.

It has been brought to the BSB’s attention that some BVC students were considering transfer under the pre-September 2010 rule, and that the new rule (put in place by the SRA) now makes it impossible for them to do so.  It was said that the change was not widely publicised by either the SRA or the BSB.  In addition, students were critical of the BVC providers who did not make them aware of the forthcoming changes.

Because this is an SRA decision, it is a matter on which the SRA should be contacted.  Further information about the new scheme can be found on the SRA website  http://www.sra.org.uk/sra/news/press/LSB-approves-new-qualified-lawyers-transfer-scheme-regulations.page

Thus, the straightforward answer is that there isn’t much  that can be done: the rule was changed, approved by the LSB, and the BSB supported the change.    As of 1st September it will be in operation.  Get your application in before that date if you are thinking of transferring is perhaps a piece of advice that could be given to those who qualify. As to the BVC Providers: it can properly be said that they are entitled to assume that you aren’t doing the BVC so that you can qualify as solicitors and they aren’t obliged to commit commercial hari-kari by giving you information which may be irrelevant but which may damage their own interests. On the other hand, morally they ought to make clear that the qualification they offer is not now a route into the solicitors’ profession, particularly as that represents a change to the previous position.  In my view you can properly ask them to do so and I cannot conceive that they would refuse.

Life at the Bar · The BVC · The Future

Bit of a Kicking


I have repeatedly asked for people who want to challenge the views I express to write to me and I will print what they send, providing it is sensible and that I can verify that they are genuine. So, when it happens, it would be churlish to ignore it. What appears below has been sent to me by someone who saw the article in Legal Week – where I replied to some complaints about the criminal Bar.

I have their permission to interject occasionally – I have put my comments in red type. Because it is quite a long response I am publishing it in two parts. I think it’s quite persuasive – as Lord Keynes famously said, “When the facts alter, I change my mind. What do you do sir?” So, I am thinking.

I must admit that, prior to reading the article mentioned above, I had never heard of you. And having reviewed your blog, I have to say, you seem like a decent bloke (thank you) – well aware of the challenges facing young people seeking pupillage and the infuriating stance of BVC providers.

But unfortunately that doesn’t change the fact that my first reading of your article last month made my blood boil. And I notice that you have, recently, requested someone submit a response, with “real facts and identifiable sources”, to counter your assessment of the situation at the criminal bar.

Well I am not, alas, a practitioner, and thus unable to comment on the attitude of ushers, life in chambers, or the loss-leader culture.

However, it seems you are throwing down this gauntlet on the basis of certain accusations that you are “out of touch”. And what I can do, I believe – through reference to the real facts of my own experience and the identifiable source of, well, basic maths – is to provide the reasoning behind this accusation. In doing so, I will underscore the flawed premise of your article.

The sweeping comments with I take issue are:
1. That pupillage awards ensure pupils can meet essential costs (I said this or something very close to it);
2. That it is feasible to maintain one’s livelihood on a very low income for a sustainable period (and this) and;
3. That anyone who disagrees with these deductions is money-grabbing, shallow and lacking appreciation of the true value of the profession (I’m not sure I said this, although I think it is true of some people).
So, I have taken the liberty of assessing the merits of your statements.

Firstly, are pupillage awards at the criminal bar sufficient to “ensure that a pupil can pay their rent, travel and eat without too much worry”? Well according to the statistics the basic award at the criminal bar for a pupil could be as little as £10,000 (this is accurate).

So what are the costs? Well, a quick search for a Zone 2 flat-share on Gumtree London informs us that even the most basic single room will cost the tenant, on average, £500 per calendar month, or £6083 per annum. That, of course, is not including bills. Let’s assume our pupil shares with four others. Council tax in Zone 2 would amount, on average, to £15 per month. Meanwhile, money comparison websites can give us an average monthly figure for heating and electricity of £20, and the average Thames Water yearly bill gives us another £5 per month. The – let’s face it, for the modern pupil – essential internet connection fee adds a further minimum of £5. The equally obligatory mobile phone, another £30. That all amounts to an additional annual cost of £912.50.

The cost of a Zone 1 & 2 travel card is presently listed by Transport for London as £1,032 per annum. I will assume that the pupil is never required to travel to Zone 3, or to Zone 4… or Surrey… or Kent…

As for food, I defy even the most stringent budgeter to sustain a weekly grocery shop amounting to less than £7 per day, or £50 per week, in London – another £2,607. That amounts to total yearly outgoings of £10,635, which – hey presto – already surpasses the lowest award of £10,000.

This is before allowing for any other costs such as hygiene products, clothes (which would include court-worthy suits), any sort of emergency costs, or – God forbid – a social life, including the obligatory drinks with chambers.

But it is not enough to view pupillage as an isolated event. The BVC is of significant cost to any individual. Unless you are privy to some third party source of financial support, the only option for many a student is the professional development loan. More on my own experience later, but for now I will disclose that the bank loan I took to enable me to pay the course fees and cover one year’s living expenses in London, which was specifically tailored for BVC students, was for £25,000 (which suggests a total living expense for the year of £13,000 without repayments of the loan as BVC fees were about £12k).

There would be a brief repayment holiday on my loan, but ultimately the terms required a minimum repayment of £410 per month. Add this cost to his monthly outgoings, and our pupil is suddenly short of around £460 per month to feed and house himself.

Perhaps we can propose a box under London Bridge?

So how about the case of, as you say, the “almost terminally unfortunate pupil”, who is unable to “earn proper money” between the ages of 25 and 30? Your statement that we would “only” be waiting 5 years for a decent, sensible wage seems to insinuate that it would be frivolous to expect otherwise – surely we can survive without a Mercedes until we’re in our early thirties?

Well I’m afraid that, for those of us without another means of financial support, life simply isn’t that luxurious. It would not be a case of holding out for life’s perks – it would be a constant struggle to make ends meet (this seems a weak point to me – making ends meet is a struggle for many young people).

To save further argument, I will ignore the “anecdotal” evidence that I have heard from various sources, including close personal friends, as well as Alex Deane’s article, regarding the difficulties of receiving fair remuneration as a junior practitioner.  And unfortunately, I was unable to find further analysis of the Bar Council statistics you cite as your frame of reference (the most useful reference to those statistics when googling “barristers’ earnings” was your article!). Try http://www.barcouncil.org.uk/trainingandeducation/CareersHome/Funding/WhatBarristersEarn/ which is where I got my figures, although the link now seems to be broken.

So I will assume our junior is expected to live on a mean of the lower average – or £20,000.
Accounting for tax, such an income would leave our junior an extra £30, monthly, over and above his predicted essential outgoings, for those five years he awaits his “proper wage” (although some years will be better and you can set off your professional expenses against tax which alters the equation considerably). Not to mention an added repayment of around £50 per month to the Student Loans Company through earning over £15,000. And let’s not forget that this would come on top of an already turbulent 12 – 18 months in negative figures – leading, possibly, to further loan repayments.

Would the satisfaction of the work vindicate our struggle? Yes. Would we pursue our passion regardless? Absolutely. If it were an option, I certainly would do so. But the only means by which I, personally, could maintain this position would be by sinking myself further and further into debt. Even if this were a viable option, it is unlikely to be a realistic one in the current financial climate.

And this brings me to your final assertion, as I proposed would be addressed – that those of us who bemoan the state of pupillage awards and income at the criminal bar have little sense of the true value of the vocation, seek only material riches, and probably were not good enough to outshine the competition in any event.

Well, forgive me if I have misread the tone of your statements, but you seem to have overlooked a fundamental point. The lack of pecuniary reward in the earlier years of practice at the criminal bar does not deter only those who would seek to undertake it in order to glory in its riches. It also deters – and in fact, prohibits – some very talented and passionate candidates who do not have access to a significant amount of alternative financial backing. I’m flabbergasted as to how your article could so succinctly dismiss this possibility.

Well, I said that I would evidence my argument with reference to my own background. This is my experience. I graduated Durham University with a good 2:1 in law and some sensible extra-curricular experience. I also waitressed throughout my time at university in order to pay my outgoings. Thereafter, I spent a year working for a small but significant criminal law firm who managed several high profile cases, also volunteering in justice policy research and in court.
(It is probably worth noting at this stage that my wage with the firm was £12,000 per annum. I was living outside of London at this time, yet still found it necessary to supplement my income through part time waitressing.) I graduated the BVC having narrowly missed an outstanding, but with outstanding grades in advocacy. And, following that summer’s OLPAS round, I had ten pupillage interviews lined up with criminal sets.

I attended none of these interviews. Quite simply, I did the math (That’s a shame for the Bar).

There are issues here about which we could quarrel, and I would like to see the maths reworked with professional expenses deducted, but it does begin to look as if – in London at any rate – the minimum award isn’t enough.

I will publish Part 2 later in the week – and tell you what I have done about this communication. Comments are welcome – and thank you to my anonymous correspondent, who took the trouble to tell me rationally why I was talking nonsense. They could be a Judge 🙂

Further Degrees · No Pupillage · The BVC

Filling in Time


3136852517_afd1690d0dBelow is an email (published with the writer’s permission), which reflects a not uncommon problem. A selection of interviews pre BVC, which suggests that there is a reasonable chance of an eventual offer, but the prospect of a post BVC year to fill before beginning.

Dear Simon

I’ve been reading your blog for a while and it did say we could get in touch…

I finished my law degree this year, and have just been through my first OLPAS round. I was put on one reserve list, but ultimately got no offers. I know this is not uncommon, and should really have been expected, but it still comes as a bit of a blow. I do think I have a reasonable chance of getting pupillage eventually, and will not just be wasting my time and money on the BVC, but it appears that I will probably have to have a ‘gap year’ post-BVC now. I think I would feel a bit better about it if I had some idea of what to fill that year with – I would rather get some sort of relevant/interesting work than just get any old job, but I do need to do something that pays the bills; I thought you might know of some options. I believe paralegalling is the standard option, but I have heard of people struggling to get paralegal work as they are ‘overqualified’. A friend has recommended the Law Commission, but I’m not exactly sure what that would involve.

In a sense, of course, the answer is that if you have pupillage it doesn’t matter and you should simply make as much money/have as good a time (delete as appropriate) as possible. Or your Chambers-to-be may have some recommendation or requirement. But there is also the possibility of another season in which you make the play-offs but don’t get promotion, as all Leeds United fans know.

On the basis that what you want to achieve is to shine up the CV it would be sensible to consider where you are applying. Paralegaling is fine providing it is relevant to your pupillage. Working as a commercial conveyancer isn’t going to help if you are doing personal injury work. You would not be overqualified if you already had a pupillage – sometimes this seems to be an excuse for not taking people on in case they never leave. But unless you really think that you need to prep yourself up to know the technicalities of your chosen area or that the firm for which you work will brief you, I don’t myself see that paralegaling has much to offer. It seems to me to be the default choice because it is (or was) relatively easy to get a job and that the job is vaguely legal. Most paralegals are anonymous to anyone with a brief to give away to a junior tenant.

The Law Commission is a good idea but your academics need to be good. It concerns legal research and policy, which always helps to broaden a CV. Because it is a competitive appointment it looks good. It is not currently recruiting, but keep an eye out here.

A temporary post with the government would also appeal. There are some of these around and they can be accessed here.  You could also try Justice (go here) and Liberty (nothing currently available but keep an eye on it here), the CAB etc. All of these would look good on a CV because the organisations are broadly respected (yes, even the Government) and the work is likely to be interesting and challenging, at least in the perception of an outside observer.

Working abroad would be good if you could do some human rights work – death row, or even the UN. This shows a commitment to the law and its processes and – as the vast majority of Barristers recoil from the death penalty with an almost visceral disgust – it also speaks well to the reader of the CV. Probably the best known organisation is Reprieve and they can be found here. The UN page is here.

If you are interested in crime you could always try the Legal Services Commission. Most lawyers have certain views about them but the inside track would always be helpful and, providing you don’t spend your pupillage interview defending the reason why Barristers are not officially allowed to be paid to think about a case, you will be ok.

Finally there is that good old-fashioned standby – ushering. The pay isn’t great but you get to meet loads of people, you learn a lot about the job and it’s interesting. It gives you something which is just as important as substantive knowledge – an idea of how the system impacts on those who have to use it and an ability to talk about the law as if you were on the inside. It should also get rid forever of some of the airs and graces to which certain members of this great profession occasionally become prone. See your local court centre for details.

I have not dealt with post graduate degrees because I have already posted about them here and here.

The original correspondent – who would prefer to remain anonymous – got a sneak preview, which seems only fair.

Routes to the Bar · The BVC

Summing Up


ventingThe last few posts have dealt with the help the Bar should give applicants, the way in which applicants should be assessed, the faults of the current system and the merits of unfunded pupillage.

Unsurprisingly, there is little consensus – although it would be fascinating to know the ages of those asserting that ever more sophisticated and expensive systems will improve matters against those saying that ultimately good interviewers can judge the right candidate.

There is, however, consensus about 2 things. Firstly, the current system isn’t working. Secondly, knowing whether one had a pupillage before starting the BVC would be a good thing.

As far as the first point is concerned that is rather taken as a given. I acknowledge that the system benefits the providers at the expense of the students, but repeat that no one forces students to take the BVC. The points made about research and evaluation of your own chances are valid and the pressure to change the BVC is dissipated if comments appear to be as much self-interested whining as genuine concern. On the blog it’ s easy – I allow anonymity and I have no power to change anything. If I were looking to seriously evaluate some of the comments below, I would insist on knowing what chance the commentator has of pupillage before I took the comment on board.

There is a tendency for two issues to be wrapped up together when people talk about the BVC. The first is what the BVC should teach. My own preference is for an approach which asks the profession what those coming out of University lack by way of skills and knowledge. The BVC should fill the gap – unless it appears that the Universities are not delivering on key areas. The second is how the students who have completed the BVC are selected for pupillage. One option  might be to make the BVC much, much, harder. Those graduating from it would then have an imprimateur which would stand them in good stead – and much reduced competition. Just as University results make a huge difference to prospects, so too would the BVC grade (at present it barely matters). Of course, the risk of wasting money would be sharpley increased, but I wonder how long that would last. Once word got round that you may actually fail the BVC, I have a hunch that not so many people would apply to do it.

As to the second matter, I don’t know when the system slipped. When I was called, pupillage before the BVC or to start the year the BVC finished was the norm. Now the pupillages awarded tend to be for the September or October the year after the BVC finishes, leaving a number of people with a year to fill. As many of you have pointed out, it also leaves the gamble as to whether to do the BVC to be made without any idea of your chances.

I think the Bar should do something about that. However, the difficulty is that in order to interview BVC and pre-BVC candidates without preferring the former one would have to strip out of the interviews anything covered by the BVC but not at University. That renders the question of what the BVC teaches either irrelevant or – depending on your point of view – so taken for granted that it isn’t worth asking questions about. That was, of course, one of the complaints about the old system and is one of the reasons why I am an abolitionist. A practical way of achieving this, however, would be to move the interview period back to September, for pupillages the next September. Of course, that may be unnecessary if the BVC were made more difficult. The BVC would then add real value and people may not want to apply for pupillage until they knew their chances. Moreover Chambers would, perhaps, not want to risk being left without a pupil. But it may be that a smaller cadre of potential pupils would not mind filling in a year.

As to interview techniques, the discussion in the posts below is exhaustive – or has exhausted me. I don’t know a single barrister who doesn’t do the best they can. I believe that we can learn more about how to interview effectively. I don’t believe that there is an effective replacement for a decent interview by the people actually doing the looking.

Qualities Required · The BVC · University

Distance Travelled: Cost Incurred


51rwbs6shzl_bo2204203200_pisitb-sticker-arrow-clicktopright35-76_aa240_sh20_ou01_I think the distance travelled issue requires some explanation. Pupilpedia has commented on the post below:

If I understand your point about being driven the distance as opposed to walking it, then I, like James  C above, strongly disagree with the sentiment. I would appreciate you outlining further what you mean (apologies if I’ve overlooked it somewhere), because the arguments against seem overwhelming. I can only assume that I have missed something if the following example is a result of your suggestion:
my parents are successful, and send me to the best possible school, I then go to Oxford to study law (coincidentally the same place that my father studied law) and apply for pupillage. Someone else, who has been to a terrible school and got to Oxford to study law, despite his father not attending university at all and currently being on jobseekers, also applies for pupillage. I turn up to interview knowing and understanding things to a similar degree as the other candidate. I am not favoured because I haven’t travelled as far as he has. The logic being that he has worked harder, used more brain power, whatever, to get to the same position as me.

This is not quite what I am saying. This suggests that the distance travelled is the only issue. I do not think anyone is suggesting that. What is being suggested is that distance travelled should be a factor. So it should. The logic is not that the other person has worked harder or used more brain power. The logic is that he can be justifiably regarded as having more potential. Why? Because without any advantages he has got himself to the same place.

My father was a Judge. I know for a fact that lawyers’ children grow up with an instinctive knowledge of intangibles. They know how the relationship between a solicitor and a barrister works. They know how Chambers tend to operate. They know a bit of the jargon. They have met other barristers, solicitors and Judges and feel comfortable round them. They know what A levels to do, what Universities to apply to, that mini-pupillages are a requirement and so forth. These things apply to a lesser extent to those who have gone to good Universities and had middle-class upbringings. It is foolishness not to recognise it and, once it is recognised, it needs to be factored in. Otherwise, the risk is that potential is not measured – all that is measured is comfort levels. The Bar is a career in which you are only within the your comfort zone if you have stalled. It’s how you do outside it that matters.

Pupilpedia goes on:

Quite apart from the fact that it would be absolutely impossible to measure the relative distances travelled, it would be waging a class war. Couldn’t you look at it conversely and say that it is ME who has been disadvantaged because I have not, by unhappy chance, been given the same opportunity to demonstrate that I am equally as capable of coming from a deprived background and being successful? I may have the same potential as this other candidate, but I have not been allowed to show it, yet. And what if a close relative of mine died just before I took the exams? Or my very successful father who sent me to the best school used to abuse me? How would that be taken into account in measuring distance travelled? As far as I am concerned, that model of distance travelled should have absolutely nothing to do with assessment. It seems to be nothing more than discrimination.

I don’t regard the distance travelled as demanding a precise measurement. It is one factor to be taken into account. It no more requires a precise measurement than whether the Oxford student went to a decent college to read law, or a less popular one to read theology (although the chances of entry are very different).

Nor, in my early middle-age do I see myself as a class warrior. This is about equalising things. If you cannot show your potential in terms of academic achievement (and I must say that a first class degree would show exactly that in my book – they are hard to get regardless of background) then find another way to show it. Climb Everest. Organise a successful charitable project. A death in the family is obviously a different issue and academic tutors can and should speak to it.

The question of a different system has largely been dealt with in the comments but I want to just pause for thought regarding Managechange’s suggestion:

Psychometric profiling has been used extensively in the commercial world for recruitment, selection and development for many years; particularly for professional appointments requiring high calibre candidates.

I would also suggest ‘People Specifications’,  ‘Job Specifications’, ‘Personal Attribute Requirements’, ‘Chambers Profile’, ‘Chambers Requirements’, a published ‘Interview Structure’ etc, etc.

The BVC students are already complaining about cost. Who on earth would pay for psychometric profiling? People specifications is a nonsense from an office based world (where it might – although in my experience as counsel for quite a lot of commercial enterprises over 23 years, it does not – have some meaning). Job specification is something that the prospective pupil presumably knows. Personal attribute requirements sound like people specifications but otherwise they mean you ought to be able to work efficiently and get on with people. If you didn’t know that was necessary please don’t do the BVC. Chambers profiling is something we already do – otherwise pupillage applicants don’t know who to apply to.

Chambers requirements are a good idea and so is a published interview structure (I would also publish the assesment structure so people know which things matter most). Finally Managechange:

Most importantly I would suggest training for interviewers.  How much training does the average Bar interviewer have on how to interview? (nil) How many times will a Barrister apply for a job after qualifying? (once or twice after 15-25 years) and yet they are the ones conducting the interviews!

I am training barristers twice this year between now and pupillage interviews on how to interview and how to approach equality and diversity issues. That is organised by and for my Circuit by a man (presumably one of those out of touch barristers so famous on this blog) who has just become a Judge. Moreover, every application for panel work now takes the form of a formal application so if any barrister wishes to work for the government or a local authority or go up a CPS grade s/he will have applied in writing. Moreover, any barrister will have asked questions in a formal situation whilst looking for specific points on many occasions. Many senior members of a pupillage committee will, whilst sitting,  have assessed people for honesty, accuracy, ability to deal with issues and overall impression – a job which the public trusts them to do well even though they do not know one end of a Personal Attribute Requirement from another. I agree that these things are not interviews but I’m not sure that interview training adds a lot to the experience gained from examining a witness.

These “solutions” are expensive. Chambers do not pay any member to do this. Maybe they ought, but until that happens it is a labour of love. Proposing expensive solutions from the commercial world – however snappy the titles – is simply unrealistic. The cost would have to be passed on to those applying. Nor are they necessary. There is no evidence that the Bar consistently picks people who are no good.

Once one acknowledges that the Bar’s choices are consistently acceptable we are talking about improvement. I simply do not understand how people can simultaneously advocate expensive professional assistance, whilst rejecting a straightforward assessment of potential based on distance travelled as a factor.

Improvement would involve extending fairness and ensuring that those without hope were adequately warned (and ideally rejected) before they spent their money. It involves transparency and better feedback from interviews. It also involves applicants acknowledging the risks they are taking and accepting failure with the same grace with which they would accept success.

Qualities Required · The BVC · The Future

Keeping On Keeping On


The last post attracted a lot of comments. LawMinx makes a fair point when she writes:

Having got down, last year, the nitty gritty at one particular chambers where I was one of the last four bieng considered for three pupillages, only to be rejected at that stage, I must say I feel pretty damned, and found it a tremendous confidence knocker. While the whole process is pretty soul destroying, from BVC to Portal and back again, one ultimately rises and falls on one’s own merits. Thats Life – but when wounded by it even the most stalwart and philosophical are never going to think it fair, unfortunately………..

I accept that, and I understand that complacent comments from those already there aren’t welcome.

On the other hand, I have repeatedly stressed the need for change and fairness as well.

What I have discerned from the comments on the post below is an unhappy willingness to focus on the demerits of the system rather than the merits of the individual. There is a reluctant acceptance that even in a perfect system there will be those who do not succeed but the emphasis is on the proposition that failure is the fault of the Bar. There is also an unhappy whiff of those prepared to agree with any change – providing it is not one which adversely affects their own chances.

I have difficulties with that approach. Firstly, I don’t think it makes a good barrister – this is a job which puts a heavy emphasis on personal responsibility. Secondly, it fails to acknowledge that the majority of barristers are bothered about applicants – people can perfectly properly take the view that the professional and public interest is served by maximal competition and the only ones who suffer under that system do so voluntarily. They can also take the view that wholesale change is not required, without that meaning that they are uncaring. Thirdly, it fails to appreciate tthat no system is going to be entirely fair – particularly when it must embody strenuous competition, vocational training, strict selection and the means to pay for it. Fourthly, it fails to acknowledge that some pretty outstanding people have emerged in the last few years – even from the shambles that the unreformed BVC can be said to have become at one stage.

No one makes a BVC student become a BVC student. It is striking how few of the comments suggest that, had the author only realised what being a barrister involved and how tough it was, they would not have paid their money. That suggests that the profession is conveying a realistic idea of the challenges involved in obtaining a pupillage.

I think the focus must be on getting the very best people. Because access to the profession is perceived as privileged that necessarily involves diversity issues. Otherwise we don’t get the best people – we only get the best people who have thought that the Bar may be for them. That’s why, in my firm view, we should measure distance travelled and that’s why an applicant whose parents have already succeeded off their own bat hasn’t travelled the distance. This is about how far you have walked – not how far you were driven. It involves competition because competition widens the pool and challenges the applicants. It involves fairness and transparency because that is how we retain the public’s confidence and create the pool from which we want to chose in 20 years’ time. Fairness includes not taking advantage of those who have no realistic chance. That cannot mean preventing them trying, which is to treat them like 3 year-olds, but rather to make sure that they understand they cannot expect to succeed. It also involves making the training element something of genuine worth – whilst remembering that it is training for the Bar and not for anything else.

The profession is actively engaged in this discussion and a large number of people give up a large amount of their time – largely for free – to deal with it. It is wrong to confuse results you don’t like, and outcomes unfavourable to an individual, with a lack of effort or willingness to make changes.

No Pupillage · Oxbridge · The BVC

Moving On


mban776lAs Mr Foster seems to have stopped talking to me I thought I would move on to other matters. Obviously, if he contacts me again I will let you know.

There are some issues which arise from the whole OTC (Obvious and Tangible Cheating) saga.

Firstly, as I have already said,  more needs to be done to assist students with things such as applications and CVs. That is not to say that students should be helped to write things such as letters and CVs. The Bar demands judgement as perhaps its primary quality and the selection of what you think we ought to know is quite properly viewed as a test. That is why having someone write your letter for you is wrong. But the Bar should offer more transparency. There is no reason, for example, why Chambers should not publish the qualities they are looking for, with a view to assisting applicants point out those qualities in applications. In terms of judicial appointments and silk this process goes under the dreadful title ‘competencies’. But the idea is a good one. I will deal with this in more detail in due course.

Secondly, a culture in which people really don’t see anything wrong in what OTC are doing is one which needs reform. That, I think has to start with educational establishments and it should take the form of a simple one strike and you’re out test. Cheating should be looked for, placed on the permanent record of the student and should be a required disclosure to Universities, post-graduate providers and Chambers. That does not need to equal expulsion. If there is some reason (incipient mental breakdown being a potential candidate) then the cheating might go unpunished – at least on the first occasion. But the proposition that OTC only offers help is bunk. Chambers should be asking applicants whether they have ever paid for such ‘help’. They should be kicking out anyone who cannot explain why, or who lies about the answer (at whatever stage they have reached). Chambers should also be reporting any pupil or tenant working for OTC to the BSB. The proposition that you can’t defeat cheating is both defeatist and self-defeating.

I extend this to the writing of essays – whether by way of ‘model’ answer or otherwise. The test is simple: if the teaching isn’t good enough at your institution then you should be able to recover the cost of your payment to OTC by way of legal action for breach of contract. If you wouldn’t sue then you shouldn’t use what you’ve bought. Try working harder.

Thirdly, the sponsorship scheme offered by the Inns would – if operated properly – make a real difference to those who feel that access to the profession is lacking. I am not criticising the Inns here, but the sponsorship programme needs to be extended widely (especially in the provinces, where many BVC students now study) and properly used by students. Your sponsor is the person who could review your CV, offer advice on specialism, given a realistic assessment of your chances of getting where you want to go and provide basic advice as to Chambers to aim for. Most of them are willing to do all that – but you have to ask. So, if you haven’t got a sponsor yet, nag your Inn for one and then make – and keep – contact.

Fourthly, students have to take responsibility for themselves. I found some of the comments on the posts dealing with this issue deeply dispiriting. Yes, the BVC costs a lot of money – and in my (now publicly stated) view, too much. Yes, I agree that the teaching there is not all it could be. Yes, some people (quite a lot of people) are chasing a job that they simply will not get because they are not equipped to do it. But that state of affairs – although depressing – is not a giant conspiracy. It is a result of supply exceeding demand. It is all too easy to blame the Bar for this, but I’m afraid that my reaction is – grow up. You are adults for crying out loud. No one is making you do the BVC. Wicked Barristers are not going round your Universities with lies about the easy pickings to be had at the Bar. Most are saying entirely the opposite. If you do not inform yourself of the reality and you cannot take an honest view of your own abilities then, I am afraid, the problem is yours. The information is out there – go and research it.

Two subsidiary points from that: firstly, there will still be some people who are unlucky. The only thing I can offer – cold comfort indeed – is that sometimes life is like that. One of my fellow students at the BVC used to say “life’s a bitch and then you die”. There will be some people who have what it takes, work hard, set realistic goals and still fail. Whether that puts you off is, again, down to you. There is no guarantee of success. Secondly, what OTC and the like offer is a way out of that prospective failure by making you look like what you are not. That’s why integrity dictates that you don’t take what they offer.

Fifthly, the Bar urgently needs to find a way of measuring progress and potential, rather than just the standard reached and potential. The proposition that people are academically complete at age 21 is ridiculous. It unfairly discriminates against people who went to poor schools, or who mature later, or who don’t work until they find something they are truly enthusiastic about. There is a real need for research about how to measure the comparative distance from Eton to Oxford and from City of Leeds School to John Moores University (examples only). That requires the Universities to be up front about what they expect from their students from year to year. I would make this a priority because it is the only way I can see to truly open access to the profession. We ‘know’ that Oxford is a better University than (say) Cantebury. Why should we not ‘know’ the (intellectual) distance any particular applicant has travelled to reach the University at which they study?

Finally, if we are not going to replace the BVC with a different model – which is my preferred option – then the aptitude test proposed in the Wood report should be put in place as soon as possible.