£65K FOR A PUPILLAGE?!


Adam Fellows considers the discrepancies between pupil earnings, and asks whether the Bar should bring back unfunded pupillages

At Legal Cheek, the matter of pupillages has been getting a lot of attention recently. Two posts by jobless Bar graduate OccupyTheInns – one about ways of showing dissatisfaction with the lack of pupillages and training contracts, and a subsequent piece about how this could be rectified – have both received some fairly damning comments.

I do not agree with the posts myself. However, I am enormously sympathetic with the thrust of them, and it is easy to see that Bar students, and those still awaiting pupillage, feel that the Bar Council and Bar Standards Board (BSB) have given up on resolving the issue of oversupply of graduates and undersupply of pupillages. But it is a complex matter.

Which is why when I saw the report about the increase in the Wilberforce Chambers pupillage award – from £48,000 to £65,000 – I knew exactly what I was going to write about this week. The reasoning behind it is that the set, quite rightly, wants to attract the best brains to supplement its current members. Yet the amount stuck firmly in my mind.

£65,000 is a lot of money – particularly as there are so many chambers that offer the minimum pupillage award, now set at £12,000. That latter sum is very little when you consider how immense the debts of Bar school can be. Wilberforce’s pupillage award could pay for five minimum awards at sets specialising in publicly funded work, with some change left over for the chambers tea fund.

The top chambers are all in competition for the best and brightest, but should they be using money to do this rather than focus on other attributes, like their reputation, the training their pupils will receive, and the calibre of work they could undertake? It could be argued that these are the attributes that prospective pupils look at more than cash.

Given the large numbers of Bar school graduates without pupillage, and the resources of chambers like Wilberforce, perhaps the Bar Council and BSB should now call for a central pot of pupillage money, out of which first six pupils would be paid at a standard rate. That would be one way to increase the number of pupillages available.

But I know this wouldn’t work. There is more to pupillage than the cash issue. Who would train all these extra pupils? What about the amount of work on offer for pupils? What about the number of tenancies afterwards? There are problems all across the Bar at the moment, and it is incredibly unfortunate that those of us trying to start out got in at the wrong time.

Different ideas are being floated, including bringing back the unfunded pupillage – an increasingly popular proposal among students, despite their massive debts. But those at the top remain silent. Perhaps it is because they are thinking very hard about it and don’t want to raise hope; perhaps it is because they have no idea what to do. I am not sitting around waiting to find out, though. A career at the Bar isn’t handed to you on a plate; it is earned, and I am going to earn it.

Adam Fellows is a non-practising barrister, called by the Inner Temple in July 2011, who wants to specialise in public and media law. He currently works as a legal researcher.

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3 Responses to “£65K FOR A PUPILLAGE?!”

  1. D_T_T

    £65,000 is being paid to attract and retain the best candidate. It is about what an NQ earns as a solicitor in bigger city firm, and it reflects the quality of barrister that the Chambers is looking for. They do not want to pay a greater number of more mediocre candidates a smaller sum, and there is no reason why they should. The fact that too many people want to be, and are training to be, barristers, is an issue that the Bar Council should resolve and not something individual chambers can do anything about. Fundamentally there are too many people who want to be lawyers and the oversupply is particularly acute at the bar. No amount of handwringing will change that. BPTC places should probably be cut and getting onto the course should probably be made more competitive. All bar candidates should be very realistic that the legal world does not owe them a living, that jobs arise from economic demand (not individual desire to work in a certain area) and all of us have to adapt to the roles that are out there (in nature and number). The real sense of entitlement amongst many pupillage (and training contract) hopefuls that I see is part of the problem. We are not at school or university anymore and life is not fair and will not necessarily provide us all with the life path that we seek.

    You sound very sensible and pragmatic though and I note you don’t agree with the other somewhat naive posts hosted on this site recently. I wish you a lot of luck with your career choice! Best wishes to you.

  2. Morus

    OK – I’ll bite.

    Let’s knock on the head the idea that more pupillages is a viable prospect. There are roughly as many pupillages as provides for the right number of tenants, based on market demand for barristers. Without a change in that demand (and it might change by taking work from solicitors through new business structures), the number of pupillages – and thus the competition for them – is pretty much fixed. Moving the bottleneck wouldn’t actually help anybody. The problem isn’t lack of pupillages or tenancy, it’s excessive numbers of BPTC candidates.

    So this article poses a re-distribution question: should each set recruit/train and pay-for its own pupils (as at present), or should there be a centralised system to recruit/train and/or fund all 400-ish pupils in the hope of more equal outcomes.

    On recruitment/training – I don’t see how this could work, as you wouldn’t get the right balance of criminal/family/chancery/commercial/public etc across the entire bar by centrally planning. You’d have people painting a very different picture of their true legal interests to maximise their chances of getting into a general pool, rather than to tailor themselves to a certain area of practice. And given that chambers would still be doing the actual training, how would training places be allocated – could you not end up with someone from the bottom of the 400-strong cohort struggling at a top set, or a very talented pupil keen on area X wasting time at a third-rate set who focus on area Y?

    Having chambers run recruitment and training seems to work well – in terms of giving them what they need (potential tenants who have been carefully chosen) and means that pupils are mostly happy where they are.

    So there is one key question – should we pool all the pupillage awards, and split money (more) equally amongst pupils? Can there, and should there, be an equalising redistribution of pupillage awards?

    I think you’d see a race to the bottom – if a set doesn’t get the additional kudos for a large pupillage award, then why donate more than the minimum to the general pot? If that forced a raising of the minimum (ie all sets contribute £25,000 per pupil) it would reduce the number of pupillages at the poorer sets.

    I’m also not convinced that it would make much difference. You could pay a criminal pupillage at £25k, but first year of tenancy is still going to see you earn closer to £10k, so what real difference would an inflated pupillage award make? The problem in the funding model lies in the funding of the work (which will be made worse by Legal Aid cuts) – funding pupillage is a subsidiary problem. There are huge problems with only the truly-dedicated and the personally-wealthy being able to afford to take criminal pupillages – but that’s a problem of the absolute value of the criminal pupillage award, not the disparity between the criminal and commercial/chancery pupillage awards.

    The difference in awards is based on the earnings at chambers, and largely based in what type of work is done. Wilberforce is the very top of the profession for revenue per barrister at around £800,000/year so obviously is going to pay top dollar for its pupils.
    http://www.thelawyer.com/pictures/web/s/r/r/top30_chambers.jpg
    In some ways, it’s more surprising that the gap in pupillage awards isn’t greater than five-fold, given the disparity in earnings that grows from the early years of tenancy. Given that the top commercial sets are battling other industries (banking & finance, Magic Circle/Big 4 firms, medicine) for top candidates, I don’t think it’s wrong that they offer a competitive pupillage award.