PUPILLAGE: ‘A REASONABLE EXPECTATION’


OccupyTheInns hits back at the criticism last week’s post received, and puts forward some ideas to reform the pupillage system

In the summer of 2000 I was fortunate enough to visit New York with my family. One of the best moments of that trip was looking down at the city from one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Just over a year later those towers had been destroyed. At first I was shocked and angry with the senseless terrorists who had committed this atrocity. But as the US invaded Afghanistan in retaliation, then Iraq, and opened up the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba to hold detainees from those wars, my views began to change.

Why were the detainees being held without trial? Why were they not entitled to any of the protections of the Geneva Convention? Amongst all the lawlessness shown by the Bush administration I learnt for the first time about the rule of law, and how necessary it was to civilised society.

I already knew I possessed a passion for argument and public speaking, having reached the final of a prestigious debating competition while at school, so it was a career choice that seemed to fit. With high predicted grades, I considered the idea of studying law at university. Yet despite knowing it was law I wanted to pursue as a career, something held me back. I wanted a broader knowledge of the world. So I elected to study a non-law subject at one of the highest ranked Russell Group universities.

First however a gap year beckoned. Seeing Asia, where I assisted on various sustainable development projects, reinforced my commitment to becoming a lawyer. I maintained this commitment to helping others at university, working part-time as a fundraiser for charities during my holidays.

By the time I began the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) a more nuanced plan was taking shape. Two areas interested me most: the City and the Bar. I pursued these interests further by undertaking a vacation scheme at a leading City law firm and a mini-pupillage at a barristers’ chambers. I quickly realised the dilemma I faced was very simple. Sit around in an office all day or go to court to fight a legally and culturally fascinating case each day? It was the Bar for me. Yet despite getting a commendation on the GDL and a ‘Very Competent’ on the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), I remain without pupillage.

If somebody like me, who has carried a torch for the law since being a teenager, and has in addition obtained consistently high grades, cannot get a pupillage, what hope is there for anybody else? Last week, some of the comments posted on my article seemed to suggest I felt I was entitled to a pupillage. To those people I ask the following question: where does the line between entitlement and reasonable expectation fall? In my opinion the facts of my case fall within the bounds of reasonable expectation.

Other people who commented on my article, including the excellent blogger and barrister Adam Wagner, had more sympathy with my situation. However Adam not unreasonably asked me for my ideas with regard to changing the system. This is obviously a highly complex area, but I put forward three key proposals.

More pupillages and tenancies (funded by a freeze on all cuts to legal aid);

A more standardised interview system that takes into account candidates’ advocacy skills to a greater level;

Greater awarding of pupillages on the merits rather than through nepotism.

I await readers’ comments on my ideas with interest. In addition, my commitment to a peaceful occupation of the Inns remains. To those of you who disagree with me, I respectfully hope to persuade you that you are wrong. To those of you who have sent messages of support, I offer thanks. Finally, to those of you reading this in my position, please get in touch, by Twitter (@OccupyTheInns), by email ([email protected] ) or by commenting beneath this article.

OccupyTheInns graduated from the BPTC this summer, and was called to the Bar in July.

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17 Responses to “PUPILLAGE: ‘A REASONABLE EXPECTATION’”

  1. Zoe Saunders

    Where is the work going to come from to support these additional tenancies? If chambers are not recruiting it is because they do not think there is enough work to sustain more tenants. I have every sympathy with anyone who has fought long and hard to become a barrister and is stuck looking for pupillage, but the statistics have always been a warning and law students are no worse off than any other young graduate looking for work in their chosen career – the Inns of Court do their utmost to support their students members, but more pupillages and tenancies are not within their gift.

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  2. Davis

    I’ve pondered it for a good while now, even drawn a diagram, but I still can’t work out how your plans find these extra pupilages.

    Do mean to say that the money is taken from the legal aid budget? Or is otherwised subsidised by government? Seriously – government subsidised pupilages??

    I don’t think I’ve seen you mention WHY you think you haven’t managed to secure a pupilage? But you allude to nepotism a fair amount. What other possible reason could it be?

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  3. mech

    where does the line between entitlement and reasonable expectation fall? somewhere between entitlement and reasonable expectation I imagine..

    If one approaches the bar ‘expecting’ this and that, one could only ‘expect’ your predictable predicament. Fair proposals, however.

    In a final flourish of smuggery, I ask the following; given up on the whole ‘OccupyTheInns’ thing then, eh?…

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  4. Legalemu

    As someone who has a good degree from Oxbridge, two years working for UN agencies and NGOs, a distinction on the GDL, a major Inn scholarship, numerous mooting awards and prizes, and no pupillage, I hope I can add something to the debate.

    I don’t have a reasonable expectation of pupillage. I hope I can get pupillage, and figure I have a chance, but that is as far as it goes. At the moment, given the sheer ratio of BPTC graduates to pupillages, it is a numbers game, aided by a heavy dose of sheer luck and chance.

    I don’t agree with your proposals. At present I don’t see how the bar can afford to fund extra pupillages given the cuts to the legal budget. More pupillages would solve the problem, but they would have to be unpaid as used to be the case and this would open up a whole other can of worms. With regard to interviews, yes they do vary accross Chambers, but all the interviews I have attended have focused on advocacy, so I am not sure what your proposal to change interview procedure so they can focus on advocacy more would actually entail. Finally – the nepotism point, what evidence do you have that pupillages are awarded based on nepotism? Yes, having contacts at the bar helps with getting exeperience, but the majority of chambers (and I work in one and know people at others) have rigorous points based marking schemes, and have little interest in taking a hopeless pupil who they know over someone with a double first and a lot of experience.

    The fact is that there are huge numbers of talented people going for a small number of places. Yes, the disparity between students and pupillages is a problem, but I think there are other ways of tackling it. For example I think that the law schools should limit the number on the courses, and hold entrance interviews.

    Finally, I don’t think occupying the inns will help at all. The inns themselves provide masses of funding for students and training, and any time spent occupying the inns might be better spent putting your head down, getting more legal experience and KBO.

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  5. Rachael Waring

    Hello, I commented last week firstly I would say if you have liked law since your teenage years why didn’t you do the LLB because whilst another degree
    + the GDL are liked by a lot of employers/chambers, there are also a lot who want you to have done straight law.

    Secondly the reasonable expectation/entitlement question is a reasonable one, I can see where your’e coming from but on the other hand you can’t expect these things to fall into your lap. Lifes not fair (unfortunately) & having been there I know it’s so annoying but you only graduated this Summer! Well done for putting forward some suggestions although obviously not all chambers are criminal ones so I don’t quite know how that would work & surely that would mean legal aid money was even thinner on the ground? Anyhow as much I think your suggestions are flawed & a tad niave at least you have some. One last top tip for you though. As a budding Barrister I’m sure you are aware how they get the majority of their work? Through Solicitors yes? Therefore saying that we ‘sit around in an office all day…’ is not the way to get instructed! Worth bearing in mind when you’ve got tenancy fees etc to pay!

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  6. DanHLawReporter

    The simple, unattractive truth is that where the Bar is concerned you should expect nothing and open up to the idea that there are in fact alternatives to a career as a practising barrister.

    It is common knowledge that once upon a time pupillage was unpaid. This meant, at least in theory, chambers could afford to offer more pupillages. I however, do not think we should return to the old system, for reasons I set down in a blog post a few months ago:

    http://carrefax.wordpress.com/2011/06/12/would-it-be-better-if-pupillage-was-unpaid

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  7. Morus

    Is there a point at which a candidate is so well-qualified that they should reasonably expect to get pupillage. I actually agree there is.

    Of candidates who can boast:
    – firsts or starred firsts in their BAs/LLBs (from Oxbridge/Russell Group/1994 Group/Ivy League or equivalent)
    – an MA/MSc/MPhil in non-law subjects
    – the BCL/MJur or a well-regarded LLM
    – a PhD or 5+ years of post-graduate academic study
    – one or more major scholarships from the Inns of Court
    – 5-10 years in relevant work experience
    – a Distinction in the GDL and/or an Outstanding on the BVC/BPTC.

    If you have two or three of the above (many of the people I was in waiting rooms with this year had 4/5/6 of the above), I think you’d be entitled to feel a little hard done by if you didn’t secure pupillage, although we all know those people exist. If you don’t have any of the above (or maybe only one of these) then I don’t think you have that right. You could easily fill all 400 pupillages restricting it just to applicants who had one or two of the above. I suspect you’ve just underestimated how competitive getting pupillage can be.

    Of your proposals, the first can’t work because the number of pupillages is governed by the number of tenancies, which is governed by the amount of work. Even if Legal Aid was sustained at it’s highest levels, there will not be sufficient work for more than around 500 new pupils a year (this year closer to 370, I think). I can think of better ways for the government to spend money than subsidising unnecessary work for barristers because people decided that life in the City wasn’t interesting enough for them.

    Re the second: “a more standardised system that places greater emphasis on advocacy”? What advocacy – civil or criminal? Would this apply to commercial or IP or tax chambers, who perhaps don’t care about advocacy as much as ability in other areas? Why should there be a greater focus on advocacy? It’s already factored into the mooting, public speaking, lecturing and competitive debating experience that people have on their CVs. I’m not against a standardised system per se, but variation at the moment seems to be reasonable based on differences in work undertaken, and that surely makes sense.

    Re the third: “greater awarding of pupillages on the merits rather than through nepotism”. This may happen with regard to mini-pupillages, but if you have a single case of it happening with pupillage, you should report it. My experience was that chambers are too picky about the limited number of pupils they can take on to accept someone, however well-connected, who isn’t also the best candidate.

    I can understand your disappointment (thus far anyway – just remember plenty of people get it after a couple of years of applying), but I suspect that as good as your CV is, there are things you can (and perhaps need) to do to bolster it before you can ‘reasonably expect’ to get a pupillage. I’m sorry if you feel misled – I think most people realise exactly how high the standard is set before they apply, but inevitably some like yourself are initially taken by surprise.

    The road to the Bar is littered with people for whom not getting pupillage is their first ever taste of failure – the ones who get pupillage at the 2nd/3rd/4th/5th attempt are those that channel that initial failure most successfully. Good luck with your applications.

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  8. Snowman

    Chum, you might think you’ve achieved “consistently high grades” but, by the standards required for the Bar, you really haven’t. A 2:1 from a Russell Group uni is nothing special. A Commendation on the GDL is nothing special. A Very Competent on the BPTC is nothing special.

    Now if you had a first, a top post-grad degree (say, the BCL), a Distinction and an Outstanding, I might be more ready to blame poor applications, or sub-par interview technique for your failure to get pupillage. As it is, you’re just not impressive enough academically to stand out from the herd (nor was I, and my credentials are a lot better than yours). So it’s time to stop bleating about unfairness, and to accept that you’re not even a second division candidate. You’re blue square premier.

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  9. Garrulous Law

    I’d echo what Snowman just said. 2:1 plus Competent plus VC does not place you in the “reasonable expectation” bracket.

    “What hope is there for anyone else?” Get a first, a Distinction or an Outstanding. Get an MA/LLM. Do some legal work elsewhere. Become a solicitor-advocate and transfer elsewhere.

    And don’t ask a question where the answer could damage your case.

    You did the BPTC this year. You got a letter telling you the odds. You saw your colleagues. You knew the risk. Yet you persist in claiming a “reasonable expectation”. There is none. There is no distinction in a job as competitive as this between “reasonable expectation” and “sense of entitlement” – they reduce to the same thing: the belief that someone should give you a job, and if you don’t get one, it’s not through any fault of your own.

    This is all particularly galling considering that you can only have applied for pupillage a maximum of twice so far. It’s by no means abnormal for people to have to apply three or four times before they get in. And in doing that they took a very long, hard look at themselves, worked out what they were doing wrong, and took steps to do better next time. Instead you’re saying that it’s all Someone Else’s fault (the comments on nepotism are telling in that regard)

    Nor does such a bracket exist. Nobody should “expect” to get pupillage. If anything, that may be part of your problem.

    If I sound angry with you, that’s because I am. I was in the same year as you. I worked eighteen hour days on the GDL; took part in mooting and debating whenever I could; wrote a legal blog; abandoned my social life for the better part of two years; spent my spare time reading up on whatever legal books I could get my hands on; kept abreast of the legal press; started my Qualifying Sessions a year early (and did far more than the minimum required); went to law-related events wherever possible; did pro bono work; read heavily around the subjects; ensured I never missed a lecture or tutorial; read every single text I could find on the pupillage selection process; and generally did everything I possibly could to ensure that I would stand a chance during the selection process. I worked myself into ill-health doing what I felt was necessary to beef up my CV. When I got the rejection letters, I sat and dissected every bit of the selection process I’d been through for that chambers to identify my weak points, and work on them. Throughout that time I was aware of the odds. I knew that I had absolutely no right to expect pupillage, not even with my undergrad grades (which are better than yours). Indeed that’s the very reason I worked as hard as I did. Yet you seem to think that sheer bloody effort isn’t a requirement, just a set of average grades and a sense of “reasonable expectation”. No expectation is reasonable. It infuriates me to read someone who thinks that they could just expect pupillage to be handed to them, and doesn’t think there’s anything he could have done to improve his chances.

    Turning then to your proposals:

    1. More pupillages and tenancies (funded by a freeze on all cuts to legal aid);

    – If legal aid isn’t cut it isn’t going to increase the number of tenancies, at most it will stabilise them
    – Unless, of course, you think it should be ploughed into funding pupillage. That’s madness.
    – Tenancies are determined by market demand and chambers capacity. You can’t just magic them into existence.
    – Pupillages are offered according to, again, chambers tenancy capacity and financial resources. You can’t just wish them into existence.
    – If a whole load of pupillages were created with no tenancies, you’d be proposing to occupy something else.

    A more standardised interview system that takes into account candidates’ advocacy skills to a greater level;

    – You can’t standardise interviews because different chambers are looking for different things. A Chancery set will look for a different sort of advocate to a criminal one. Jury advocacy, paper advocacy and judge advocacy are different skills. Some sets will need a more technical style of advocacy (e.g. IP) to others (e.g. again, criminal)
    – Advocacy ability is no substitute for legal, analytical and academic ability. You can’t just succeed through being a smooth talker.
    – The Bar is an idiosyncratic profession; different advocates have different strengths. You can’t specify in a standardised test what the requisite “advocacy skill” is because it would favour one view over another.
    – Advocacy is a subjective matter – it’s about the ability to persuade another human being, not ticking boxes on a form.
    – You haven’t explained why this would be preferable to the current interview system

    Greater awarding of pupillages on the merits rather than through nepotism.
    – This is entirely unevidenced and appears to reflect your own personal bias that “the system” is out to get you
    – As others said, if a pupillage has been offered on a nepotistic basis, report it
    – The structure of and commercial pressures facing chambers make nepotistic awards very unlikely
    – The Bar is not really much of a family business. Barristers’ children tend not to become barristers themselves.
    – At any rate this proposal is so uncontroversial that it’s vacuous

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  10. Kay aydin

    Agree with snowman and latest commenter.

    All I have to add to that is, my friend who is now on the BPTC whose father is a top chancery barrister is far less optimistic with his chance of getting puppilage than you, having done a masters in top university etc.

    Goodluck, just don’t give up.

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  11. Amanda Jones

    I’m afraid I agree with many of the other comments, here. A 2.i from a Russell Group university is just the standard for all applicants. A very comp from the BVC is just normal. Many candidates have done very well at mooting, debating, etc. Your application wouldn’t stand out among the multitude, with that lot.

    My partner had the same as you – 2.i from UCL, VC from BVC, and took 3 years to get pupillage. He worked in a law centre for 2 years, built up his experience and CV, and then got a good pupillage and tenancy after that.

    And this wasn’t in the last year or so. We both did the BVC in 2000.

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  12. kris

    Nobody has a reasonable expectation to a job. Nobody owes me a living.

    There are too many lawyers – and way to many students. Who isn’t offering law degrees these days?

    Couple that with a recession and you’ve got a situation where employers and chambers are spoilt for choice.

    You *only* have a 2.1 from the LSE? I can find someone whose got a first and who volunteered on the defence team of a genocidial maniac at the Hague, has a LLM from Harvard and reads to the kids in Hackney. Top that. Difficult, if you’re self-funding or have kids and a mortgage. So let’s not even talk about the age bias.

    Look, the majority of legal work isn’t brain surgery. You’ve just hit the perfect storm of law grad saturation and no jobs.

    You can try to sit it out – but I wouldn’t be holding my breath for the market to change. Contrary to Dan’s view above, I do think the funded pupillage requirement has made the Bar more inaccessable than ever. Think about it. The bread and butter chambers aren’t going to be able to fund people. Matrix et al only have a limited number of places.

    If you think it’s bad, read Tom the Temp’s blog. He’s in New York – where admitted attorneys are a dime a dozen. Unless you’ve been to Harvard and worked on Dr Murray’s defence team, you are relegated to document review hell.

    There will come a point when people work out that law isn’t the LA Law dream and look for perhaps more useful ways to contribute to society.

    I hear so many students go on about the wig. FFS. Get over the wig. It’s not about swanning around the Temple with your pliot case and starbucks.

    People need to get real.

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  13. Tom Cawley

    I have sympathy for you but I am not clear what you want to change.

    You talk about being motivated by injustice, by the rule of law, gap year work in developing countries but I am not clear why you think that being a barrister is going to achieve any goals towards tackling these inequalities.

    I too recall being an idealistic young law student who was interested in the rule of law, human rights, and justice. I followed this dream into criminal law and am now practicing in that area. Guess what? I do not spend every day dealing with “culturally and legally fascinating cases”. There is no area of law that fulfils that criteria, largely because the vast majority of law is mundane.

    Also whilst I enjoy my job and appreciate the importance of what I do (keeping the police in check, upholding presumption of innocence etc), I am under constant threat of annihilation by a hostile government and legal aid cuts. And perhaps jealous of some of my friends from my degree who went into commercial law and are probably earning double my salary.

    It seems to me you need to focus more clearly on what area of law you want to go into and why. You may also wish to consider qualifying as a solicitor. I too had dreams of the bar but after 18 months of paralegalling cancelled my BVC deposit and did the LPC part time. Best decision I ever made, given the state of the criminal bar at present.

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  14. Richard Borrett

    This is an interesting idea, and I certainly understand the sentiment – with a non-Oxbridge degree it took me almost 3 years and some 60+ applications to finally obtain my pupillage. I would say first of all that nepotism is nowhere near as relevant as it once was. There are advantages to being connected – knowing how to conduct ones-self, knowing how the profession works, etc, but the simplest and most direct nepotism of ‘favours’ for family friends simply does not exist any more. The Bar is a competitive industry and most sets realise that that would do them a disservice – work no longer comes on a gravy train and all chambers need the best candidates, not those with the right surnames.

    Unfortunately, there is of course no ‘magic formula’ – not even an Oxbridge first – if that were the case there would be no-one at the bar with anything but an Oxbridge first; the reality is, when you look away from the top-flight specialist sets (Matrix, Brick Court et al) there are a good number of (mainly young) practitioners with ‘alternative’ backgrounds and degrees.

    Many of my fellow young barristers are the first in their families to go to university, many did not go to Oxbridge, or even Russell group universities, and many of those who did still struggle to find pupillage.

    So I suppose what I am saying is that the system is unfair to those wishing to join it, but not for the reasons many think. I genuinely believe that most sets are no longer elitist about universities or background. Even having the best degree you could wish for won’t necessarily seal the deal. At the bar a major part of ‘making it’ is having qualities that simply aren’t demonstrated through academic success; qualities many will not know whether they do or do not have until it is too late.

    Whilst I stand by what I said about non-oxbridge students, a good set of A Levels and a reasonably good degree is, of course a must. It is, sadly, the other elements which cannot be taught.

    There is of course a great deal of luck involved – most sets receive hundreds of applications and even after removing those without specified qualifications or experience, there are usually still far too many to interview. Robing-room gossip tells of applications being tossed down stairwells, and those landing face-up being offered interview: hopefully untrue, but a sad indicator of the sheer numbers of people who , on paper at least, could make it.

    The solution? The difficulty is that some of the blame must lie with the course providers. Though they are a mix of academic institutions, charities and commercial outfits, all of them take on far too many students who have no real prospect of ever making it to the bar. Of course this is wholly unfair on those students, spending tens of thousands on courses, living expenses, dining and the rest, whilst racking up huge debt without the LEA support many of our older colleagues received.

    Even so, there are likely to still be far too many students with the right boxes ticked ‘on paper’ and dealing with this is much more difficult. For a start better education is needed about what it takes to be a barrister – it is no longer a school tie and the right surname. i also sometimes wonder if there are legs to the argument that pupillage should be obtained prior to study – but that would require a wholesale change in attitude and approach- and change is something with which the bar struggles.

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  15. Sean

    If somebody like me, who has carried a torch for the law since being a teenager, and has in addition obtained consistently high grades, cannot get a pupillage, what hope is there for anybody else?

    I’m not sure I follow this point. There is obviously “hope” for the 400 people who get pupillages. Do you have some reason to believe that they are less devoted to law or that their grades have been consistently less good than your own?

    I recognise that the position you find yourself in is a miserable one. It is a function of scarcity. There are few places and many applicants. It is a buyer’s market and that allows sets to be very very choosy – perhaps unreasonably so.

    Where demand outstrips supply you can either increase supply or reduce demand. I just don’t think it is feasible to increase supply. In fact, given what is happening to Legal Aid and the consequent exodus of practitioners from the Bar, the supply is only likely to get worse. The most recent cuts are simply the latest in a consistent pattern that has being going on for decades. Even in clement economic weather no Government is going to want to go back to how things were. Where money is short “more money for barristers” is a very difficult sell.

    Holding present levels of funding would certinaly not provide a basis for an expansion of the Bar – present levels are shrinking it. Bear in mind too that there is a long chain between legal aid payment and putting money in the pockets of pupils. A barrister does the work. The LSC can take years to pay. Tax is paid on billings not receipts, so that the immediate consequence of Legal Aid work is tha you owe the Government money. When they do pay, it’s usually a pittance. My wife had a case last week where for a day’s prep, a con, travel to court and the hearing of the application she got paid £60. She has an Oxbridge degree, a post-grad and 20 years experience. The barrister has to deal with the necessities first: paying Chambers its cut, paying for travel and the the tools of the trade (law reports etc). Then it is on to the luxuries: mortgage, feeding children. If there is any left they may want to put aside money for pensions. Money for pupillages also has to come directly from their pocket.

    Pupillage funding is an odd proposition when stripped to its essentials. We are all self-employed. If you do pupillage in my Chambers and have a stellar year, I get no direct benefit. At best I can hope that my overall contribution to chambers expenses will drop or that you may attract more work into Chambers than you can do yourself, but even those on the point of retirement chip in. It is not like a firm of solicitors where I will make money off you during the training contract period and beyond. The proposition is that I should pay you money so that I can train you so as to enable you to make money.

    There are some sets who have decided that the answer to this is become more like a solicitors firm. They will set up ProcureCos and essentially employ junior barristers, sharing in the fruits of the labour. If that is widely adopted you will see more pupillages. Suddenly, it is worth paying to train you because you will be helping to pay my mortgage. Getting tenancy will be like getting partnership – a later life event that may never happen for some. If all you care about is getting your advocate’s freak on, this may appeal. I think it will kill off the most valuable aspect of life at the Bar.

    I have long been convinced that there should be fewer people training for the Bar. What is the point of training the number we presently do when the overwhelming majority will not even make it to the next stage of training still less establish themselves in practice. It is lucrative for the trainers, of course.

    If you have the advocacy bug and cannot get a pupillage, you could consider joining a firm and becoming a solicitor advocate. Unless you absolutely must have a horsehair hat, there are many ways of living the dream.

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