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

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By Alex Aldridge on

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.”