Oxbridge · Qualities Required · Routes to the Bar · University

A Diverting Diversion on Diversity


The last post having garnered 50 comments and counting, it seems worthwhile to distill the arguments here. I discern a number of distinct threads. Oddly enough they emerged in almost exactly the reverse order in which I list them here, but the listing is logical:

  1. Diversity isn’t a problem.
  2. Diversity is a problem but it should be dealt with earlier on.
  3. Why bother with diversity, when the Bar (usually expressed as the commercial bar) already picks the best people?
  4. Diversity is social engineering under a different name and is thus an invitation to a different form of discrimination.

The first answer stands on its own. The next two acknowledge the difficulty but seek, for different reasons, to ignore it. The last acknowledges that diversity is desirable but suggests that it can’t really be achieved without imposing something even worse.

The Bar does not reflect the society in which we live. That fact seems to me to be unarguable. Should it? There seems to be no good reason why not. There seems to be every good reason why it should. That proposition can be tested by asking whether people would support a bar which was only white and male. They would not. Such a profession would be exclusionary, discriminatory and full of people (from whose ranks the judiciary of the future would overwhelmingly be drawn) who were happy to keep it that way. From a moral, legal and representative point of view there can be no justification for that stance.

Why does the Bar not represent the society in which we live? Unless you are the type of idiot who buys into the proposition that those of different colour, race, religion, physical ability or income are also less intelligent and less equipped with the qualities required, it cannot be anything to do with the applicants. It must, therefore, be something to do with how they are schooled, or how we select them. What else could it be?

Assuming that how people are schooled is a part of the issue, is it sensible of the profession to simply wash its hands of the problem and use that as an excuse? It seems to me that the morality of that can never be justified. I am not particularly interested in belonging to any group of people whose response, faced with obvious injustice, is to say “I’m alright Jack”. When that group of people purport to be delivering justice, the hypocrisy is so obvious that I wonder how stupid someone has to be before they are incapable of recognising it. Not very.

It does seem to me, in that case, that the profession must conclude that it is not sensible to wash its hands of the problem. The risk it takes by so doing is that it comes to consist either of fools or of people whose commitment to the system does not extend to living by it. If that becomes the case then the profession will have no answer to those who wish to abolish it, or to so abbreviate its privileges as to abolish it. At the moment we make a huge point of our independence, our ethical stance and our ability to take unpopular stances. Those arguments are worthless if, on examination, we will only be independent, ethical and take unpopular stances if they don’t involve our own behaviour.

Finally, on this point, the argument that schooling is irremediable seems to me to be obviously nonsensical. What, then, is anyone learning in pupillage? Why is a barrister of 2 years’ call not capable of taking a difficult issue to the Supreme Court? We all acknowledge that the profession is one in which good barristers never stop learning. Once that acknowledgement is made, why is the state of learning at the time of application for pupillage so important – other than that it provides an easy way of distinguishing between candidates and encourages those picking the pupils to determine who is most like them?

You will note that all of this grants Oxbridge the place it holds in the hearts of what – to my mind – are far too many of you. The notion that Eton produces a particular type of person, ready to lead the world is now merely an amusing anathema to most of us. Even were it to be accepted (and I do accept it) that Eton produces people with a particular ability to be charming and to speak authoritatively, it would strike us as absurd that such qualities entitled anyone to anything, or could not be acquired later in life, or were the be all and end all of the qualities required for success. The notion that results obtained because one’s parents could afford Eton’s fees or because one was fortunate enough to obtain some sort of bursary to enable attendance there, were a signal of unmatched intellectual prowess would be similarly derided. The notion that Oxbridge provides something similar, together with subtle qualities permitting success in the practice of law – which practice Oxbridge does not even teach strikes me as equally absurd.

That there should be a required standard is not in issue. That the standard may differ from set to set is not in issue. A set might, for  example, decide that particular academic ability is necessary. What is questionable is whether, having made that decision, it is acceptable to determine that such ability is shown by Oxbridge attendance. I see no reason why that should be so. What if the applicant never applied to Oxbridge? If someone applied and was rejected, perhaps they should say so (the reaction of Oxbridge to that would be interesting – how, I wonder, would it view such a disincentive to apply?). Why is success in three A-levels which probably do not include law, and may not include any subject which invites a focus on a primary fact finding exercise and the drawing of conclusions therefrom, any help in assessing the ability required? Why is success at 18 or 19 demonstrative of an ability to develop in your 30s?

It does seem to me that we could do better, and that reliance on a set of indicators which are not aimed at the profession and apply to nothing more than the first few years of practice is simply lazy. That is not even to mention the downside to the current system – which is all too obviously that human beings tend to see reflections of themselves as being most desirable.

That leaves the arguments that attempting to ensure diversity is social engineering and therefore worse, and the argument that the current system works well, so why tinker with it.

I don’t myself accept that social engineering is wrong. Coming from an ethnic group which required an Act of Parliament to enable it to vote it seems to me that the argument is not as clear cut as people might think. If the Bar still took pupils on the basis of who they knew or met (as it did for Fat Bigot and for me) we would have no compunction about changing that system. Thereafter it is only a matter of degree, and it seems to me that those who assume social engineering (a prejudicial phrase if ever I heard one) is bad are actually saying merely that the proposed change is not to their liking. Had that ever been a legitimate ground of complaint the bar would still be a woman, Jew, Muslim and black free zone.

We purport to sign up to the view that all are equal and that what distinguishes the failed applicant from the successful one – apart from the inevitable elements of luck – is ability. If we don’t measure ability as well as we might – and we don’t – then why is an alternative route inherently objectionable? That would be a difficult question even if we could assert that the current system actually does pick the best applicants. I don’t know many barristers who would make that argument (see the picture illustrating this post). Paradoxically, the huge glut of applicants means that the system we use can be pretty appalling and it doesn’t matter. Arguably, we are in the same position as a prospector at the beginning of the gold rush: we might be colour blind and be using our bare hands instead of a sieve but there’s so much gold around that anyone can emerge with a nugget. The difference, of course, is that the nuggets left behind have feelings and have paid a whacking sum of money to lie on the river bed.

Procedural fairness – publicising the qualities required, the way to demonstrate them and the respective weight placed upon them – would show applicants and ourselves what we actually look for. It would force the profession to articulate it – which we often don’t. It would allow for testing of whether those things are what really makes a good barrister. It would permit challenge. It would produce better applicants and it would discourage those who really do not have what it takes. It would be fair, in a profession which exists to argue for fairness.
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.

Mature Entrants · Other Sites · Qualities Required · The BVC · University · Which Chambers?

Diversity


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.

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.

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.

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.

Life at the Bar · Oxbridge

Integrity – The Deadline Passes


fear_poster_med1The Deadline expired at 12 noon. So far I have heard nothing.

I will keep you posted.

Close of business: Still nothing. Except that the blog has had it’s highest number of hits ever for one day. Panem et circenses – everyone likes to spectate at a fight. But thank you Mr Foster…

9:15 am. More than 700 hits yesterday but not even a letter from Mr Foster. More like this now –homer_the_scream

8:40am. Nada. Passover is tonight so there will be nothing until Sunday. Enjoy your holiday.