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.

8 thoughts on “Off Piste

  1. I really don’t think many students get the self-employed bit about working at the Bar and at a set of chambers.

    They think it’s all about swanning round the Temple with their BA pilot case, wig and latte.

    I’ve just come from a tenancy interview. They asked me to bring along a writing sample. They weren’t too bothered about things over which I have no control such as age, ethnicity etc. They thought my non Oxbridge academics were sound. They were more interested in the quality of my pleadings.

    And why do I want to be at the self employed Bar? Because I want to run my own business. I got the feeling they don’t hear that very often.

    I have no idea whether these guys think I fit. It doesn’t matter. I will build a business regardless.

    I was lucky in that I wad able to cross qual as a solicitor and go on to obtain higher rights. In football, it’s called taking your chances.

    The feeling I get from the kids is someone’s supposed to deliver chances. Now that the SRA’s put the kibosh on non practising barristers cross qualifying as solicitors, they’ll have to find a new way of shortening the odds of qualification.

    And they will never find it while focused on the resentment of barristers not ponying up so more students get pupillage.

  2. The problem is that it’s not about fairness – it’s about the operating of a market. You may be good enough to be a legal professional. You may have as much or more potential as people who are already in practice. However, can the market accommodate an inexhaustible supply of new entrants? Plainly not. So it follows inexorably that some of those who have the ability to enter the profession will fail to do so because to be quite frank, there’s no space.

    There are now 125,000 solicitors with practising certificates and that is simply too many. The country just doesn’t need us all. The legal professions are not going to expand and if we have any sense, they should probably contract. I know it’s bad news for decent young people who have worked hard and studied for years, accruing debt along the way, but you can’t make spare capacity for legal services by wishful thinking.

  3. well yes and no.

    it’d be all very well if it were a profession where you simply set up shop and get going without further ado. but it is a bunch of professionals operating a closed shop. if it were operated in any other – more blue collar – industry, the daily fail would be up in arms. why can’t as many newcomers enter the profession as wish to? they can then attempt to compete with the established operators. you’d think those already in practice would have a substantial advantage. and the market would work out.

    but of course, you can’t. can’t set up your own chambers without some years in practice; can’t get a start at all without a pupillage. can’t do public access without years in practice.

    and this protectionism by the existing workers is entirely selfish. it isn’t about quality assurance or providing a service at a fair price for clients. it doesn’t help the clients at all. quite the contrary as you’d think even more barristers would bring rates down.

    so you really have to see that those trying to get in, who would be perfectly able to offer a good professional service given the chance. have some grounds to be pissed off that they aren’t being allowed on the gravy train. though frankly they are very welcome to operate the entire criminal gravy contract for the south of england as far as i’m concerned. they might find that gravy somewhat runny and tasteless.

    the belief that the pupillage pixie (as i think somebody elsewhere referred to it) should come along and present everyone with a £25K pupillage on the grounds that barristers are really quite wealthy … now that’s a little different and has been very clearly dismantled by others. i need do no more than adopt their submissions on that one.

    • I take your point on the closed shop. But I’m not sure what you could do in practice to alter that. It is the same with any profession that requires a private individual or organisation to offer some form of apprenticeship, including solicitors.

  4. dismantle wholesale.

    now, how one does that is more problematic – real belling the cat territory. but i think events will do a part of that work for us. the profession in as little as five years will be truly unrecognisable. and many of the public will still assume we all have our noses in the trough.

  5. agreed – it will be very different.

    better? hmmm.

  6. I really don’t bevleie this is a problem limited to those with young families. It is basically a problem for anyone who cannot afford to self fund their existence indefinitely. So anyone who will need a regular income to meet their mortgage payments, well, unless you have savings/a rich partner good luck I guess?! I had read so many blogs like this before I decided to embark on a career at the bar, and was told not to do it by so many people, and blindly and stubbornly I thought that it must be achievable if others had broken into it so ignored them. I achieved excellent results at university, got all the usual work experience, voluntary work, scholarships, academic awards etc. however I did not have parental support (or at least, my single mothers enthusiastic but small contributions only went so far). But as I say, I did not think that my background should put me off and actually bevleied it was what would make me a good criminal barrister so I persevered thinking that I had spent my whole life being poor so what was another few years if it led to a career I loved? I therefore took out a loan to cover bar school, which in addition to my student loan, left me nearly a345k in debt. I was fortunate enough to get pupillage the first year that I applied at a good London set so thought everything would work out. However, the reality of my a311k pupillage award and just how little I was earning quickly dawned on me. Living in london on a311k a year, is just.not.possible. Especially combined with the expenses of being a barrister, wig/gown/travel expenses/blackstones etc. It is not that it is a bit grim, it is literally impossible. And this wasn’t because I was crap and not being instructed, I was working myself into the ground. I was working 7 days a week, doing a magistrates trial every day, if not two, I had solicitors asking specifically for my name and was building a good reputation. I could not have been working any harder, and yet was receiving less than a31000 per month in cheques (sometimes waiting three or four months from one cheque to the next), it just simply was not covering my travel expenses, let alone rent/bills/food etc. When my shoes wore thin or wheelie back gave in, I could not afford to replace them. It was bleak. I once could not afford a prescription at the chemist because I was so skint. Even if I had been prepared to live like that, in the vain hope that the situation would improve after tenancy (which appears not to be the case from what my friends who have stayed with it tell me), I had the ever looming loan repayments hanging over my head. So knowing that a year after my pupillage I was going to have to start paying back capital loan repayments of a3500 per month. I realised the stark reality. No matter how good I was, no matter how much I cared, I simply could not stay. People said, oh please don’t quit, wait for 5 years and it will improve’. Well great, but who was going to help me get through the next 5 months, let alone 5 years!? And to be honest, after working so hard to get there, the pure indignity of getting up at 5am and working until midnight for less than minimum wage soon sucked out any remnants of the passion that I originally had. The minute my 12 months were up, I took my qualification certificate and ran! People at my chambers told me I would have been in good stead to get tenancy, but by that stage my hand was forced. I simply could not see how I was going to afford to stay, and really had never had any interest in any other area but crime, so I left the bar entirely, took a job in a completely different role that was far better paid for far few hours work. And although I feel sad that I left, and often wonder if I could have done something different in order to have made it work, I can’t say that I have ever felt more happy or more pleased to have got out whilst I could .And if you think it is just crime that is unviable, think again. My partner is struggling to make a living at a top civil set. Yes he might bill good money, but how much of that does he see? Let me tell you, far less than I do now that I have left .

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