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.
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.

Humour · Oxbridge · Routes to the Bar

Integrity – The Man Speaks

Mr Myerson,

The following comments refer to the blog ‘Integrity and a Suitable Place for It’ posted on your website on March 31st, 2009.

The blog is both highly deceptive and defamatory and we demand its immediate removal, the deletion of associated comments and that you print a retraction making very clear the deceptive nature of the comments printed there hitherto.

More or less every person in England, except apparently Vader 101 and yourself, is aware that the street numbers given to premises in the UK refer usually to entire buildings and where they have them to their several floors – and not merely to the ground floor. Thus even the most casual observer of 91 Charlotte Street, by merely tilting up his eyes by a few degrees would notice in fact that The Oxbridge Research Group (parent to OTC) is based on the four floors of 91 Charlotte Street that lie above Italia Uno – as well as having additional premises at 97 Charlotte Street. The usual way that people observe our occupation is by looking at the large silver plaque (clearly visible in your photo) which has the name of the company on it – or by looking at the two metre tall blue flag hanging from the side of the building, also above Italia Uno.

It appears that your journalistic ‘integrity’ – to use your fondest word – does not extend so far as to check such basic facts as would be undertaken by a prep school student writing for his school magazine. Sadly, this sloppiness and superficiality is all too clear in your writings on our enterprise: had these been even a little more substantial and objective, we would have happily replied to your comments – it is clear though that no such ‘fair hearing’ was impossible: an observation compounded by this most recent blog.

No doubt, as a man of integrity, you will keep the pledge you made in your initial blog ( ”. . . Meanwhile, if Mr Foster would like to get in touch I promise to publish – unedited (within the bounds of legality and taste) – anything he sends me.”) and print the contents of this email.  Let us see if you have such courage or whether you manufacture a pretext for its omission.

We will also be posting details of this deception to Charon QC and on other such legal blogs so that interested readers might see another side to the journalistic integrity so are so fond of espousing but, hypocritically, so loathe to apply to your own activity.

The aforementioned actions to remove this content should be completed no later than 12.00 Noon this Monday.

Yours Sincerely,

John Foster

Head of Sales

The Oxbridge Research Group

I don’t think that Mr Foster really wants me to delete the whole blog, but have taken his comment to refer to the post.

His letter – fully set out above as promised – essentially repeats the comments in the post. It seems to me therefore that, as he wants the letter published, there is no point in deleting the original post, and the answer to that request is ‘no’. Moreover, I don’t think I actually implied that OTC didn’t operate from this address.

The rest of his comment about integrity you may judge for yourselves. My own view – forgive me for repeating it – is that if you write things for other people, do not cooperate with anti-plagiarism software, do not police whether people pass off your work as their own and ask members of the Bar to charge applicants for things they should do for free then you are helping people cheat.

Mr Foster could, of course, have addressed any or all of these issues. As I say, I have published what he has said in full. I also don’t assume (thanks Andy) he meant to say that no such fair hearing was impossible. That’s the trouble with double negatives. I think he meant to say no fair hearing was possible and just didn’t check his work (only a 3rd then). But what he has actually written is correct. Although his excuse is that he wouldn’t get a fair hearing I am afraid I don’t believe him. In my opinion he has not answered because he has nothing he can say.

I certainly agree I invited people to giggle. There is nothing defamatory in that. If there is humour in the situation then we should all enjoy it. If Mr Foster doesn’t find it funny – he doesn’t have to laugh.

I ought to add that I have posted his letter within 20 minutes of finding it in my in-box, having been in con all day.

PS. In the penultimate paragraph it’s “loath”, not “loathe”. “Loath” means reluctant. “Loathe” describes my feelings towards OTC. However, don’t worry – Mr Foster is only ‘Head of Sales’: he won’t be writing your essay for you.

Humour · Oxbridge

Integrity and a Suitable Place For It

Big hat tip to Vader 101 who sent me the photo of OTC’s ‘Headquarters’. It is here:

otcAccording to Google this is 91 Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia (important sounding address) London W1.

I think the man in the bottom right is completing someone’s OLPAS application form. He will be given a sandwich for free. The good news, for him, is that Jehona says:

If you are a fan of italian football or fancy a hearty italian welcome with a sandwich to match – Italia Uno will not dissapoint. This small and friendly cafe has had the same owner since I have known about it (about 8 years now). Althought the cafe does not do any warm meals to order, it does some of the best breakfast and sandwiches in town. There is not much else to it really – just simple, excellent italian nosh.

And you will have somewhere to sit when you pop in to see them as well.

It is satisfying that a business which attempts to make people appear as they are not seems to be run from a sandwich joint.

Interviews · Oxbridge · Qualities Required · Routes to the Bar

Integrity – The Paid Directors Speak Out

aniseed-humbug1Charon QC has interviewed a Mr John Foster from Oxbridge Training Contracts. Feel free to listen.

Mr Foster stoutly defends his business. He agrees that he makes money from selling applicants information to assist them in applying to Chambers. He agrees that he pays young barristers and pupils to provide that information. He did not contact the Bar Council before he began advertising those services.

He suggests that those barristers making money from this are (his word) altruistic. It is a strange altruism where a member of the Bar makes money from providing information to aspirant barristers.

He suggests that it would have been better if the Bar had contacted him for a more profound (his phrase) understanding of what he is doing. I was unaware that there was a difficulty in understanding the way in which he makes his money.

He suggests that applicants who have a family member who is a barrister get this sort of service in any event. My own experience is that this is nonsense. The essence of application forms and interviews is that you give answers that sound like you – not your mother.

He does not say that he encourages applicants to disclose that they have used his services. In my view, every Chambers should now ask this question and applicants who tell lies in interview should not be offered pupillage. If pupillage is obtained via an interview in which a lie is told then the pupillage or tenancy should be terminated as soon as that lie is discovered. This, really, is the acid test. If this activity is consistent with integrity, no applicant should fear the truthful answer.

He does not say that he has drawn any professional conduct issues to the attention of his paid agents, or to his clients.

However there are a couple of things to come out of the interview which are important. Firstly, it is about time that all members of my profession offered their services to aspirant barristers in a genuinely altruistic way – that is in a way which does not mean they make money from it. The Bar runs speakers for schools – a system by which barristers go into schools and explain the job to people. Inevitably some of those people want to come to Chambers and want advice as to University choices. We should be giving that advice – all of us. We should be getting involved in educational events in the Inns. Chambers ought to be offering some assistance to mini-pupils in terms of CVs and covering letters and should be publishing what sort of thing they are looking for. Every professional appointment now requires the candidate to speak to competencies. There is no reason why Chambers should not make their requirements public. Pupils and junior tenants should be going back to their BVCs and running ‘This is What Worked For Me’ clinics – and Chambers should be ensuring that they get there. No barrister ought to refuse to take mini-pupils – which means that Chambers can maximise the numbers they can take.

Many barristers do much of this, but clearly a greater effort is required. I regard the proposition that Oxbridge Training Contracts are operating altruistically to fill in the gaps left by those who do not have contacts within the profession as humbug – but it is in the Bar’s interests and it is right that no one should be able to even suggest such a thing.

Secondly, that there is a world of difference between ‘model answers’ (which of course the people who have paid for them are not allowed to use) and true help. I don’t help anyone by giving them a model answer – even if they do tinker with it before they submit it. Help means that a close look has been taken at the individual, their attainments and interests, their potential and their expectations; all of which has culminated in advice. It is one thing to suggest a tweek to an already written CV, or an answer which takes the information the individual had already assembled and suggests a way of ordering and emphasising it. It is another to write the CV or the answer whether the individual has done any work or not. One thing encourages the individual to work and think. The other does not. One thing is altruistic and focussed on learning. The other is commercial and focussed on money.

I am not suggesting that regulation is required to define the one and/or differentiate it from the other. We are talking about integrity here – if you can’t recognise it when you see it, or its absence when you don’t, then you shouldn’t come to the Bar. And if you are altruistically suplemmenting your earnings by doing this then stop it. Remit your earnings to the Barristers’ Benevolent Association – anonymously if need be; tell your Chambers you would like to run a free termly clinic for all mini-pupils; give out your email and say ‘contact me if you want any help’; speak to schools; and tell OTC to go away. You’ll be a credit to your profession.

Meanwhile, if Mr Foster would like to get in touch I promise to publish – unedited (within the bounds of legality and taste) – anything he sends me. Although I will also provide a response. This, if he believes in his case, will not worry him.

Interviews · Life at the Bar · Oxbridge · Qualities Required · Routes to the Bar

Integrity – A Bad Example

integrityRemember the need for integrity? Well, according to Oxbridge Training Contracts you can pay someone to write your application, fill in your form and answer your interview questions for you. This will cost you anything up to £2,000.

Never mind the people prepared to shell out the money. Anyone who believes that you can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear is simply stupid. BVC students who believe that someone else’s answers will get them an interview, still less a pupillage, still less a tenancy are not looking for a purse so much as a set of matching luggage.

The more important issue seems to me to be that this is cheating. I am not talking about a bit of help to present yourself properly – this site, your BVC course, your University Careers Office, numerous barristers, your friends and your Inn will all help with that for free. But that is a bit different from a ‘personalised’ service for which you pay big money but which promises nothing save to make you a lot poorer. These people are lawyers and – according to the site – they are pupils and junior tenants in band 1 and 2 sets as per the Legal 500.

So what is the position of a pupil or a barrister who charges a potential barrister for a service like this? Well, personally speaking I would regard it as conduct likely to prejudice public confidence in the Bar. After all, if you are exploiting your own position to charge the potential competition that hardly looks good. And I doubt your Chambers would be terribly pleased to interview someone whose answers had been written by someone else in the same Chambers (an option in the pull down menus this site offers).

Integrity, as I have said before, is vital to the Bar. There is no integrity in allowing other people to write your essays, construct your CV, tell you the answers or plan your interview. If you can afford it, you are also getting the jump on those who can’t. If you are using this service you ought to be ashamed. You ought also to be careful because the draft application letter for pupillage is written by someone who – according to the site – has a current pupillage at ‘a leading Chambers’  and a Distinction in the BCL – but who cannot write proper English to save their life. The letter opines that “I know from conversations that awards are taken with a degree of salt at Chambers”. If the writer really is a pupil they ought to be looking elsewhere come June. Salt may be taken in degrees in other jurisdictions but in England it is usually taken in pinches. One may be “at” Chambers in other jurisdictions but in England one is “in” Chambers. The writer may be a real pupil but I doubt it.

Of course, if the owners of this money mill would like to contact me I will happily allow them a fair say. The site says nothing about these people. No names. No qualifications. No personal details. No integrity.

If you are one of the people helping others to cheat then you are an embarrasment to your profession and you ought to stop. Now.

Finally, I am not linking to the site. If you want to give them the traffic then find them yourselves. The Bar can do without these people and – if you are any good and have the slightest desire to uphold the values of the profession you want to join – so can you.