Five Ways To Solve The Pupillage Crisis

By The Law Horse on

The chairman of the Bar Council was recently reported in the Evening Standard saying that there are not enough pupillages for those trying to enter the Bar. This is not new, but that is not to say that it should not be news, writes The Law Horse.

Every BPTC student gambles tens of thousands of pounds on their legal future, only for most to find that they are one of hundreds betting on diminishingly slim odds of securing a pupillage. It is disconcerting – the more so as the problem worsens – and Michael Todd QC is right to give light to the issue. To dismiss his concerns as “scaremongering” while your organisation profits from selling false hope is flatly dishonest.

If the issue is old, so are the touted solutions. Without of course wishing to pre-empt the self-indulgently expensive white elephant that is the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR), there are five broad solutions to consider.

1. Limit the number of LLB, BA Law and GDL degrees

The least palatable or practical option. Not only would this unnecessarily restrict the intake of bright, dedicated students before many have had the opportunity to decide whether or not law is for them, it rather misses the point that a law degree is beneficial for pursuing a career in many non-legal professions.

2. Limit the number of BPTC placements

No doubt what Sarah Hutchinson of the College of Law, who was quoted in the Standard piece, most fears. There are a number of ways this can be done.

Kaplan Law School have shown some ingenuity with their admissions test, an idea which could easily be rolled out nationally. Some law students will be familiar with the Law National Admissions Test, an undergraduate examination that is mandatory when applying to study a law degree at universities including Oxford, Nottingham, and Bristol, amongst others. The fact that only eight universities have signed up to the test – and that seven of those are partners in the parent company that runs it – goes some way to demonstrating what an utterly pointless exercise it is. The idea that it is possible to find out more about a candidate in one examination than you can from their entire academic record is nonsense.

Similarly, limiting entrants to those who have attained a 2:1, or who studied at a Russell Group university, is a little supercilious. After all, 2:2 graduates are already at a considerable disadvantage.

3. Secure pupillage before being allowed on the BPTC / Scrap the BPTC

The main objection to this solution is the negative effect it would have on diversity at the Bar. It might well be true that selecting pupils at an earlier stage would favour the privately educated trust fund applicant over the state school grafter. Connections, confidence, interview preparation and a predilection for Oxbridge are the hallmarks of a middle class candidate. But if this is the most equitable solution to the pupillage problem, then diversity must take a back seat.

If barristers are serious about increasing diversity, then as a profession we should begin with championing Sure Start centres and fighting for the reintroduction of the Education Maintenance Allowance. The Bar must always strive to select from the brightest and most gifted applicants; it is not for one profession alone to tackle the nation’s growing social immobility to the detriment of its members. When we are defending and prosecuting alleged criminals, fighting against government injustices, protecting homes and arguing to remove children from the custody of their parents, it is simply not acceptable that diversity is preferred to the selection of the very best candidate.

My objection to requiring pupillage to be secured before a place on the BPTC, or scrapping the BPTC altogether, is simple unpreparedness. I knew I wanted to be a barrister, but before I embarked on the BVC I couldn’t know that I would be any good at it. My fear of public speaking remains a cause for consternation (you won’t find me acting in a Christmas production at the Inn at any point in the near future) but my love of courtroom advocacy only began to shine through at the mock trials held at Bar school. Because I was unready, my final round chambers interviews before I had begun the BVC were not promising; I do not believe that I would have secured a pupillage under this system.

Similarly, many people begin Bar school with every intention of practicing at the Bar of England and Wales, only to find that it is not for them. How aggrieved would you feel if the person who had secured pupillage in front of you then dropped out after completing the BPTC?

4. Scrap pupillage

In the USA, if you attain a qualifying degree and pass the Bar exam, there is no impediment to your practising law. It is the land of unabashed free market enterprise, where anyone can open a corner shop clinic and 90% of self-styled lawyers give the rest a bad name.

There is no substitute for practical experience. However realistic Bar schools try to make their course, a period of time spent in the shadow of a senior member of chambers is invaluable. Only the LETR seems to be taking the option of scrapping pupillage seriously. Few who have been through the process do.

5. Increase the number of pupillages

The ever declining number of available pupillages has little to do with the price of a cup of coffee. Plummeting pupillages are a symptom of a wider malaise at the Bar, not an illness to be cured by the bloodletting of experienced barristers’ bank accounts. The Bar is a market economy as any other and less work means fewer workers. As barristers become more comfortable with direct access, and solicitors’ firms expand their in-house departments, pupillages will increase again, but not to the levels we once knew. This would require an end to solicitor and Crown advocates and a return to the Bar as the sole holder of higher rights of audience: as long as short-termist politicians measure progress quantitatively by the yardstick of consumer choice, not qualitatively, that will never happen.

My favoured solution

I would favour a system whereby BPTC places are limited nationally to a fixed percentage of the mean number of pupillages available over the past five years, with an inbuilt safety valve – monitored by the BSB, as our regulatory body – to allow for unexpected peaks and troughs in demand. No mandatory assessments, no minimum academic standards. The onus would be on the various BPTC providers to offer a quality service in order to fill their spaces, and on applicants to prove their holistic worth.

I would never tell anyone not to take the gamble on the BPTC. If a life at the Bar is what your heart is set on, far be it for me to advise against it, so long as the risk of failure is fully acknowledged. The problem is that many providers will simply deny the extent of the risk that you are taking on. I did not embark on the BVC ever thinking that I would be one of those who did not secure a pupillage; a belief borne partly of youthful arrogance – still young, still arrogant – and partly because every guest lecture arranged on the subject by my university and Bar school provider had the overt theme, If you want it enough, you will get it.

It is a lie. I know how fortunate I am that my gamble paid off. Many of my contemporaries have lost it all.

The Law Horse is an anonymous barrister at the criminal Bar of England and Wales, who tweets at @thelawhorse.