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.

Further Degrees

MA Update (Hat-Tip Publawyer)

Publawyer has done some research on the vexed question of further degrees about which I posted at the beginning of July. The fact that research has been done is a huge step forward – I have not been able to find any equivalent exercise. The results can be viewed here.

Once one removes the BCL, the doctorates (a quite different level in my view and one that qualifies the holder as a genuine academic) and those MA’s which represent a qualification from Harvard or the Sorbonne etc, it seems to me that about 90 of 350 barristers surveyed had a ‘standard’ MA – about 25%. I would dearly like to know what those courses represented and who provided them.

As you will see, about half the pupils from sets offering large pupillage awards had an MA. But I suspect that the BCL, Harvard et al are included within that figure (a quick search of top tier London Chambers’ websites confirms this view). That would mean that of about 180 people surveyed from Chambers with a pupillage award of greater than £30,000, perhaps 40 had a ‘standard’ MA – about 20%. Again, I would very much like to know who the provider was and what the actual course was. All help gratefully received.

For the time being I remain of the view that a ‘standard’ MA offers no assistance to getting a pupillage unless directed squarely at the area of law in which Chambers specialises. On the other hand, it clearly doesn’t hurt either. And the BCL, Harvard etc are plainly of huge assistance.

Publawyer’s take is below: my comments are in purple (I have simply posted his/her last comment below because I have no email address to ask for permission. If I am asked to remove this bit then, of course, I will. In the meantime – many thanks).

“If people think it would be helpful then I’m happy to try and expand on this a bit and separate out the various courses and institutions. One potential problem, from my random sample anyway, is simply that some qualifications are not accurately described. It’s tempting to conclude that any such qualification simply isn’t relevant – I can understand why some non-relevant qualifications might be included to bolster an online CV (which is effectively what these profiles are), but I can’t see any reason why anyone would downplay a BCL or a Harvard qualification, etc.

You’re also quite right to point out that figures for the various levels of pupillage awards include all postgraduate qualifications lumped in together. From a quick look at my raw data there are 26 ‘regular’ MAs from the 181 highest paying chambers. That is about 15% rather than the 20% I postulate above. The breakdown is:
24 BCLs
26 LLMs
26 MAs (may include some LLMs simply labelled as “Masters”)
8 MPhils
9 PhDs

Things that surprised me included:
1. Almost half those who took on an advanced research course finished with an MPhil and did not progress to a PhD. I am not so surprised. A legal MPhil is only relatively rarely a waystation on the way to a PhD.
2. Some people feel happy to describe their university education as “x College, Oxford” without the merest clue as to the course or class of degree. Probably not Law and almost certainly an indifferent classification…

I suspect all of this isn’t going to offer much solace to some of the people who originally asked these questions. If they wanted an extra qualification to boost an unexceptional first degree then a BCL is going to be closed off to them. I would also have thought, but may be way off the mark here, that an extra qualification on it’s own is only useful (if it has any merit) in getting past a sift and through to interviews. Once the decision has been made to interview then the eventual decision is surely based more on interview performance. Not my personal view, but certainly tenable.

This is perhaps where an MA might be useful – if you can take enough from the course that you are a better speaker and more accomplished interviewee then it will be of benefit. If you register on a course simply to inflate your CV and fill a gap on the OLPAS form then it isn’t going to improve a poor interview performance. This might also explain the high quantites of BCL graduates – the course simply makes better lawyers than a standard MA so they consequently interview better.” In my opinion the BCL demands a particularly high intellectual standard and the people who have done it also have the reassurance that such attainment provides.

Further Degrees

M.A.s and Other Further Academic Degrees

This seems to be a big issue out there in the real world. I claim no real expertise – Cambridge gives you a free MA if you can stay alive for 3 years after you graduate. Maybe they feel that surviving the college food qualifies you for something. I went back with a group of my friends in gorgeous June weather (an ironic thought as my garden is currently 6 inches underwater and the dog’s rubber duck is floating serenely under my study window). It was so nice by the river, drinking beer that there was a serious discussion as to whether the ceremony was worth going to.

However, in those far-off days the Bar was expanding. Nowadays people are looking for an edge and there is much debate about whether an MA provides it.

I have done some research on this and there are some clear conclusions. Unfortunately, they are the ones you could probably guess for yourself. Firstly, if you can do something like the BCL, or go to Harvard or the Sorbonne it helps. I suspect that is more because of what such qualifications say about your intellect than about what you learn on the degree course itself. If you want to go to one of the top commercial sets then you will either need such a degree or you need to have the top first in your year.

However, from there on down, there are no indications that having an MA is of material assistance. At middle ranking commercial sets, top criminal sets and top family sets the only MAs in sight are Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, The Sorbonne etc. And, even then, they are few and far between. The picture is the same at top provincial sets – if you get the chance to do the BCL etc then do it. Otherwise, given the number of people who do not have one, an MA does not seem to be an issue.

If one looks at poor sets (no names – it’s more than my life is worth) then an MA is equally absent as a distinguishing mark.

Those findings match my own views and those of other people at the Bar to whom I have spoken. An MA, unless it speaks for you own intellectual prowess or (just possibly) it is bang on the money in terms of the area of law in which you wish to practice, is not going to get you a pupillage.

That isn’t to say don’t do it. The acquisition of knowledge for its own sake is one of humanity’s noblest endeavours. If it helps you, interests you or answers a long felt need then by all means go ahead. Just don’t expect it to give you an edge when you apply for pupillage.

I ought also to say that an MA – or any post-graduate degree – doesn’t make you a better advocate either. Part of the problem today is that barristers are specialising too early. That means that those doing non-criminal and non-family work are not being trained in how to really get at a witness (unlike their Heads of Chambers, who almost invariably started off with a mixed practice). The net result is that whilst a lot of legal points are taken and Skeleton Arguments groan under the citation of authority for basic propositions, the actual business of extracting the facts and challenging the evidence is generally done better at the Criminal and Family bars than elsewhere. That, I am confident, will be a deeply unpopular view. Nevertheless, I hold it. Another post, another time…

As to what does give you an edge. It’s still the usual (see below). A good degree; a good University; an interesting CV. In no particular order I list below some of the things that candidates did which made them stand out when I, or the people who I have consulted for this piece, interviewed them. These were things done after University, either because the people involved wanted a break or because they couldn’t get a pupillage:

  • Worked for the guys in the USA who try and save death row prisoners
  • Qualified as a foreign lawyer
  • Spent a year working with earthquake victims in Armenia
  • Ran a Student Union
  • Lectured in law