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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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