Off Piste

I’ve been trying to get to that insightful post about the Government’s response to the Family Justice Review. I’ve been slowly reading through the doc – ooh look, a bunny! A new TV drama! A blog post featuring entertaining troll rantiness threads. You know how it goes. There is a lot of stuff out there to distract me from the task in hand.

Yesterday’s distraction was (amongst other things, such as being mildly hung over, walking through some sparklingly crunchy icy fields in warm warm sunlight with my best friend and her lab, intervening between siblings to avoid rear seat mcdonalds balloon fight induced motorway catastrophe, and helping out my dad with his new “tech” (PEBCAK)) a blog post about pupillage. Not a topic I have dwelt on much on PT, but this irked me sufficiently to prompt a sort of response, which I am now about to type. *Inhale*

The title of the blog post induced a raised eyebrow and some mild snorting, which I think is generally the reaction aimed for on Legal Cheek: “Time for the bar to put their hands in their pockets”. In truth I probably should have sewn my fists into my jeans, because now they are loose I am careering towards a rant and my fingers are dancing on the keys.

I was a pupil once. But whilst I may have been a bit chippy about the added difficulties faced by non-oxbridge graduates without a trust fund to see them through I never once thought that the solution was to create more pupillages just so everyone could have a bash. I was lucky enough to get a pupillage, but I still almost ended up £20k in debt with no tenancy. There was a lot about the system that I thought was rather unfair, many odds stacked high against me, looming alarmingly and ready to topple on my head. I remember the awfulness of the wait for the pupillage offer, and later the tenancy, decision. I remember how utterly crap, nail biting and financially petrifying it was not to get a tenancy, and having to go through the whole process again with a third six. You see, I was unfortunate enough to do a pupillage at a set which, through circumstances unforeseen at the time of the offer of pupillage, had insufficient work to take me on at the end. 

In my experience the sense of entitlement to success that runs through the heart of the blogpost in question was something reserved to those who came from more privileged backgrounds than mine. And the ones with that attitude were generally the ones who came unstuck. There are a limited number of pupillages. I never assumed I was the best, but I made damn sure that I was the best I could be and that I understood the system and maximised my chances. Nobody owed me a pupillage. Nobody owed me a tenancy. And nobody owes either to @occupytheinns. However many pupillages are on offer, excellent candidates will fall the wrong side of the line, if not at pupillage stage at tenancy stage. More people want to become barristers than the bar can support.

So why should barristers who are facing their own very real financial difficulties in the current economic climate be expected to give anybody, let alone god’s gift to pupil supervisors @occupytheinns, a year long interview at their own expense? The pupillage system in my chambers is a finely tuned machine, involving a lot of care and hard work from a sizeable number of members of chambers, and a financial contribution from all of us. We do outreach, we offer mini-pupillages, and members of chambers read and filter hundreds and hundreds of applications, give up weekends to spend the day interviewing the best (twice), and more generally to  talk about life at the bar with mini-pupils and pupils alike, offering guidance and support. We pay our pupils reasonably well, and pupil supervisors and members of chambers generally give hours of their time to nurture pupils through to the point of tenancy. That is as it should be.

Whilst the bar is a supportive environment to new entrants, ultimately we are businesses and offer pupillages because we need to remain competitive as a chambers, and we need to ensure we have sufficient breadth of cover at all levels of expertise and cost. We need to build a strong and balanced team for the future. We invest time and money in our pupils because they are people we believe, having scrutinised their applications and probed them through interviews, that these people will excel, would be people we are likely to want as part of our team. When we offer pupillages it is because we think and hope we have picked out future tenants for our chambers. Sometimes we get this right, sometimes not. What we don’t do is spend our money training up people who don’t look good on paper, who don’t perform that well in interview but who some other set of chambers might fancy a punt on once we’ve trained them up. And @occupytheinns has not given any cogent reason why we should do so, other than because s/he is ace but we might not be able to tell that from the application form and interview process. There is a perfectly good argument that runs along these lines, and with which I have a lot of sympathy: an properly run paper application and interview process is an effective way to select candidates who are objectively excellent, without inadvertently tending to favour those with the “right” background who can “fit in” with peers who are like them. Candidates need to focus on making good on paper and in interview, not on how unfair or imperfect the process is.

@occupytheinns needs I think to take a step back and look at the economics of the bar and how pupillage fits into that. Pupillage is a way for the bar to recruit. It isn’t a flipping gap year for the benefit of bright kids who want a platform. And sadly the fact that an individual has been accepted on the BTPC, or that they have passed with a “very competent” or even an “outstanding” is not necessarily a reliable marker of that individual’s suitability for a career at the bar or that they are sufficiently outstanding to fall in the top tranche of BTPC graduates that the market will be able to sustain in practice each year.

Creating more pupillages is – obviously I would have thought – just squeezing the balloon. It doesn’t make more work available for the junior bar. It doesn’t make more tenancies available. We don’t recruit pupils year in year out. We recruit where we have a gap in our cover and where we think the work is going to be there to sustain both current and future members. If there is no tenancy available at the end of the day we would neither waste our own time and money, nor that of the prospective pupil.

This all sounds terribly unsympathetic. I’m not unsympathetic – I lived through it. It was one of the most stressful times in my life and I have not forgotten it. It’s not so very long ago that I managed to pay it off. But it makes me very angry that course providers still insist on offering more places than the bar can support at pupillage or tenancy level. As noted in the comments on @occupytheinns blogpost this remains a problem, and there is a real mismatch between the standards for entry on courses as compared to entry to the profession. It perpetuates expectation, disappointment, debt and disillusionment. But that is not something that barristers like me can fix by throwing money at pupillage. Life is not like X Factor – there is no inalienable human right to an audition. And it’s a “No” from me.

Advertising Bar

I noticed the full page advert on the front inside cover of last month’s counsel magazine and raised an eyebrow. It was a ‘desperately seeking pupillage’ advert from an individual. Determined, I thought. Creative. And pretty cringeworthy. But the boundless entertainment that Counsel provides no doubt drew me onwards and I passed over it without much more thought.


But it seems it has caused the raising of more important eyebrows than mine because a whole page is devoted to this little whoopsy in this month’s Counsel. The Bar Standards Board has issued a statement about why such adverts are ‘out of line’ with the BSB’s pupillage advertising requirements’ on equal opportunities grounds. I take their point which is made also in a lengthy letter from a disgruntled pupillage seeker (who has rather ironically managed by dint of this letter’s publication to demonstrate his own articulacy and dogged determination and hence obtain a free advert for his own suitability for an offer of pupillage) – all pupillages must be advertised and all applications must go through the advertised route.


But what I really want to know is how on earth this one slipped through the net? In fact I know how this slipped through the net, although the Editorial Board of Counsel is made up of members of the Bar, no doubt advertising and the revenue generated from it are very much the domain of Lexis, the commercial enterprise who are contracted to publish this magazine and to make it viable and presumably profitable. No doubt questions of the regulation of pupillages were not at the forefront of the advertising bods at Lexis.


So what I really really want to know is – for the facilitating the public destruction of this young man’s self-respect by the publication of the advert in the first place, and no doubt for further reducing his prospects of securing a pupillage via the publication of the BSB statement and associated letter (which at least insinuates that he has improperly attempted to gain an advantage over his fellow pupillage seekers) – how much did Counsel magazine charge?


It may have been naive or unjustifiably optimistic to think such an advert would miraculously produce results (okay it was definitely naive and over-optimistic), but he should never have been allowed to put himself in this position by the Bar’s own magazine. I hope Counsel magazine has apologised to the poor bloke and refunded his money.