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Got a 2:2? Want To Be a Barrister? Well, You’ve Got a Chance

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While researching my article about sitting the Kaplan BPTC aptitude test for the Guardian this week, I was surprised to find that 10% of pupil barristers have a 2:2 or a third.

Lord Justice Andrew McFarlane QC is the only member of the Court of Appeal with a third class degree

In the most recent year for which figures are available (2010), that translates to 39 pupils with a 2:2, and two pupils with a third, out of a total of 392 pupils who provided data on their UK degree undergraduate qualifications. Looking back over previous years, that 10% ratio is roughly constant – jarring somewhat with what we’re constantly told about only the best being admitted to practise at the Bar.

Did these 2:2/third students do amazingly on their BPTCs? Were they victims of horrendous mitigating circumstances that undermined their ability to perform well during their degrees? Were some especially well-connected?

Unfortunately, the Bar statistics, while pretty detailed, don’t give us this sort of information. So I asked three leading up-and-coming barristers for their views on what it takes to bag a pupillage with a 2:2 or a third…

Adam Wagner, barrister at 1 Crown Office Row and editor of the UK Human Rights Blog

“I wouldn’t say it is impossible to get a pupillage with a 2:2, but as you’d expect, given the extreme level of competition from people who have 2:1s or firsts, it is much harder.

Speaking from my perspective as an interviewer at my chambers, candidates are considered “in the round” and there are plenty of other aspects we look at other than educational achievement. That said, given the nature of the work at the Bar, educational achievement is a pretty useful indicator as to how you will do as a barrister. There is such a large emphasis (particularly at the civil Bar) on written work, it would be difficult to imagine a candidate who had consistently poor grades making it through to pupillage. But if they shine at that interview, nothing is impossible!

Someone who had achieved a 2:2 might have extenuating circumstances – perhaps they were unwell or had personal issues at university. Or they may have made up for it with a distinction at Bar school or a very good masters degree/PHD. If their educational/life opportunities had been lower than average, then that might explain it too, but that explanation can only go so far once you get to university education (i.e. it might reasonably explain poor A-Level results, and a switched on candidate would probably explain this on their application form, but once you get to university you would hope that any bright candidate – whatever their background – could achieve a 2:1).”

The Law Horse, an anonymous barrister at the criminal Bar of England and Wales who writes for Legal Cheek

“A university degree is not a measure of aptitude for the Bar. At best, it demonstrates how well you can apply yourself to areas of law that bore you rigid; at worst, it tests your ability to regurgitate other people’s work.

What a first class degree will get you is an interview. But at interview, academics become…academic. What matters most to chambers/prospective employers is aptitude and personability, and after that it comes down to a massive slice of luck.

Aptitude is best demonstrated by practical experience. Mini-pupillages and marshalling are the bare minimum. Write a blog. If you want to be a criminal barrister, work for a criminal solicitors’ firm. Volunteer for a victims or prison charity. If you can afford the time and expense, work on pro-bono death penalty cases. Do whatever you can to bring yourself into daily contact with clients and fellow professionals: there is no substitute for first-hand knowledge.

An awful lot of Bar school graduates will have ticked all those boxes, and will still be searching for pupillage. It is not enough to have done all those things, you have to make the most of them. Interviews are sales exercises, and you are the product.

In the end, sometimes there simply is nothing else you can do.

My successful interview was the result of me showing something of my personality. I have a good degree from a good university, but that was frankly irrelevant. When I had been through the interview mill enough times, churning out the “right” answers and getting nowhere, I decided to be myself and give honest answers. If I was going to fail, I rationalised, at least I would fail for being me, not for being someone I thought they wanted me to be. I took a risk and was fortunate enough to make a connection with my interviewers. I realise how trite that reads, and yet it is advice that few seem to grasp.

A final thought. Those Bar Council statistics were interesting. What I would like to know, that isn’t covered, is how many of those pupils with a 2:2 degree graduated from Russell Group universities. My guess would be significantly higher than the 46% (Russell Group, including Oxbridge) statistic for pupillage as a whole. 2:2 from a polytechnic? The Bar doesn’t want you.

It is the Bar’s loss.”

Adam Kramer, barrister at 3 Verulam Buildings and author of Bewigged and Bewildered

“You’ll appreciate that in 2009/10 around 23% of BPTC students had a 2:2 or 3rd, whereas 10% of pupils did (as you say). Barristers with a first were twice as likely (pdf, para 5.1.2) as those with a 2:2 or 3rd to say they have good opportunities to progress their career and that they are satisfied with what they earn.

In answer to your question, I am a tenant in a strong commercial set. Commercial sets, with a lot of law and complex analysis of large amounts of paper for long trials, put a premium on intellectual and academic abilities as compared with some other sets where cases are usually smaller and advocacy is the prime skill sought. We have no bar on applications from those with a 2:2 or 3rd but it would be rare for such a candidate to be invited to a first round interview, and very rare for them to be the most impressive candidates at interview and so offered pupillage. Thus you will find far fewer than 10% of commercial pupils have a 2:2 or 3rd.

If a candidate was to make up for it the candidate would have to prove why the degree class does not indicate a lack of ability or application, which would usually require both a good explanation and demonstrated excellence at a later stage (e.g. a high quality master’s with a distinction).

These views are my own rather than official 3VB policy.”

14 Comments

Francesca Anderson

So is the point of this to get a good degree but have a personality at the same time? Be able to apply your knowledge (even 2:2/3rd standard) to a problem, but also hold a conversation?

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Milly

I got pupillage with a 2:2 from a terrifically poor uni (former poly). I did however, have AAB at A level and 72% at BVC to go with it, plus 2 awards from my Inn, and I spent the year before the BVC briefing counsel and getting to know the family bar in my local city, which is how I got my pupillage. Frankly chambers weren’t interested in my grades, more that I was personable, demonstrably bright, and, probably most important, likely to come with a ready made practice (which turned out to be the reality).

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Cheryl Jones

I agree, as so often, with Milly. The key is demonstrably bright. I do not agree with The Law Horse about mini-pupillages, marshalling, etc. That does not demonstrate any aptitude at all. It just demonstrates that you probably have connections at the Bar, that you don’t have to work for a living and that you have no imagination. The Law Horse got interviews in the first place because he had a good degree from a good university – so it was by no means irrelevant in persuading other people to give him a chance. I know a few people who got pupillage and tenancy with 2:2s. Without exception they had put in some real extra work to show that they had ability. In one case an LLM in Construction Law, in another a post-grad in accounting and law. Above all, they did not sit around whinging about how hard done by they were and how unfair it all was. When there is as much pressure on entry to a profession as there is to the Bar, then broad brush decisions have to be made and academic success is a fairer and more objective starting point than any other.

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I say it with love

Whilst it’s always interesting to hear what pupillage recruitment was like 20 years ago, it’s probably of little relevance to students making applications now.

Adam must be correct: one would have to be very special indeed to overcome a 2.2 on the initial paper sift.

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Milly

Ah, the dismissiveness of youth. Whatevs.

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Alice

I think it’s a little harsh to suggest that those who have managed to get minis and marshalling are lacking in imagination and have had them handed to them. I didn’t have any contacts in the law, and I had to work incredibly hard to get experience like that on my CV. Once I did though, I was invited back and was introduced to other advocates and judges – why would they bother doing this if they didn’t see some aptitude? For some of us, that’s the stepping stone to getting other more ‘imaginative’ experience, which I think actually requires more time and money (e.g. Death Row cases – 3 months, Interning at the ITCY/ICC – 6 months, even volunteering for a charity is very difficult to fit around studies). I think that also needs to be considered by pupillage committees, not just grades!

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Scott Baldwin

As I recall Rumpole got a third and he did OK.

The way different chambers view academic prowess will vary massively from set to set. It will doubtless be on the whole tougher with a 2:2 or a 3rd to get beyond the initial sift but it is by no means impossible, you will however have to shine to stand any chance.

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Abbey

I think that the Bar is conservative to be honest – you need Oxbridge and a first and work expereince.
Trust me – I got a first, came top of my university, did tons of marshalling and work experience, but got turned down.

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Tentative so be gentle!

Sorry Abbey, but that last post is complete nonsense. It is certainly easier to get an interview with an Oxbridge 1st but then it is all down to you and luck. In my limited experience, demonstrating sound judgment and responding well under pressure are both key. These skills are either innate or developed through practical experience (usually commercial but decent volunteering as well). Going to Oxbridge and getting a 1st is not a decent barometer of either. You didn’t get the luck or you didn’t gel with your interviewers. Maybe they sniffed your defeatist mentality and didn’t think you would be a resilient pupil, just moaning when things got tough.

Pupillage is like any other interview for any other job. If they like the cut of your jib, you get a slice of luck with some of the questions – you have a good chance. I think that a key factor that is rarely mentioned is commercial acumen. By that, I don’t mean you beefed up by reading the FT for the last month. Rather you will thrive in the cut and thrust of running your own business at the Bar. The Bar is anything but conservative. It is an incredibly dynamic place. Barristers/clerks don’t want a “taker” of work but rather a potential tenant that is going to be a rainmaker. My success was in no small part down to the fact that I set up two businesses while I was studying for the GDL and BPTC, while still in my early twenties. I got into a commercial set with a 2:1.

Having said that, if I had got a 2:2 – I would not have bothered applying. The Bar is elitist. You have to be the best – that is the reason why it is revered the world over. Part of being the best is having great (or at least not below average grades). If you have a 2:2 and are not a mature student, then do something else. The Bar is not everything. Life is sometimes unfair, get over the sense of entitlement.

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Tentative so be gentle!

Having re-read my post, perhaps I was a little harsh with you Abbey. I didn’t means to kick you when down. I imagine you knew the odds when you embarked on the course, but that doesn’t make it easier. Would it not be more beneficial to look at your own skills gap or lack of luck rather than putting it down to an Oxbridge conspiracy?

Peace and Love 😉

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anusha boodhoo

i think everyone should be given a second chance to prove themselves

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Andrew Roberts

Do we know why McFarlane LJ got a third? Was he distracted by girls or what?

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Andrew Roberts

I’ve answered my own question, from this interesting interview http://flba.co.uk/news/interview-with-sir-andrew-macfarlane

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Need a second chance

@Milly you have given me such hope in having the courage to apply with a 2:2. I believe the degree obtained shouldn’t be use to limit ones substance. As the saying goes…”never judge a book by it’s cover…” I just hope I will obtain that bit of luck that someone/chamber will take the time to open my book and read.

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