Research: 77% of rookie tenants at top 30 chambers went to Oxbridge

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Top end of the junior bar is dominated by Oxford and Cambridge — to a far greater extent than leading law firms


Oxbridge graduates are dominating the recent intake of the leading barristers’ chambers in a way that hardly gives a look in to outstanding candidates from other universities.

Legal Cheek research has found that a whopping 77% of the newest tenants of top 30 chambers attended either Oxford or Cambridge at undergraduate or masters level. And for 13 of those sets — including “magic circle” quartet of Brick Court, Blackstone, Fountain Court and One Essex Court — the figure is 100%.

Our study — which comes as the new Legal Cheek chambers Most List is launched — considered the educational background of the five newest tenants at the 30 English chambers with the highest overall revenue. It illustrates just how different the entry requirements are for the top end of the bar to that of leading City law firms.

Last year a study found that just 21% of trainees at 24 big London corporate law firms were Oxbridge-educated. Even the firms that had significantly more Oxford and Cambridge alumni than average — the highest proportions were found at Hogan Lovells (44%), Herbert Smith Freehills (39%), Withers (38%), Ashurst (35%) and Allen & Overy (33%) — recruited far more widely than the leading chambers.

There were some exceptions to the rule in bar top 30. 7 Bedford Row and Matrix Chambers only had one Oxbridge graduate each among their five newest tenants. At the former, the remaining four slots have been taken by graduates of SOAS, Kent, Sussex and Bristol. While Matrix awarded the tenancies to graduates of Bristol, UCL, Durham and — in what Legal Cheek believes to be a first for a leading barristers’ chambers — ex-poly Lincoln University.

Least Oxbridge — by educational background of the five newest tenants


Other top 30 chambers to buck the trend and recruit relatively widely included Exchange Chambers, No5 Chambers, 3 Paper Buildings and Serle Court, where only two out of five of the newest tenants had attended Oxbridge. Hardwicke, Kings Chambers and Landmark also had more open-minded hiring practices than most, with three of the five newest tenants at each having gone to Oxford or Cambridge. Students considering having a punt at these sets should bear in mind that the vast majority of these tenants, whether or Oxbridge or not, got first class degrees.

Overall, according to Bar Council figures, 32% of barristers are Oxbridge-educated. This wider figure gives an indication of how differently smaller-billing common law and criminal chambers recruit. But it is these sets, of course, which are suffering most from cuts to legal aid.

The moral of this story? If you haven’t been to Oxbridge and don’t have a first, perhaps become a solicitor …

Which chambers are most-Oxbridge dominated, are most diverse and pay the most money? The Legal Cheek top 30 chambers Most List has all the answers.


Concerned Tutor

The danger is that this will become a self perpetuating cycle. Otherwise excellent candidates ,who didn’t attend Oxbridge, will see these stats and be put off from applying. Hence, even more ex-Oxbridge candidates end up these firms.

It’s not easy to decide what to do though. I would say CV blind with a far more extensive recruitment process, but do chambers really have the time and resources for that?



Actually, in my survey of 115 chambers and 650 juniors (called since 2010), 65% have Oxbridge first degrees or postgraduate awards. Rank yourself here:


Juicy Lucy

Oh Legal Cheek – again with the meaningless statistics?

Put bluntly it seems to me that it is likely to be just plain inaccurate to say that the conclusions drawn are based on “the 30 English chambers with the highest overall revenue”.

I don’t believe (but would be happy to be corrected) that it is a requirement that chambers publish their RPB figures. Indeed, I would be very surprised if it was. I find it hard to accept, for example, that the tax and IP chambers (conspicuous by their absence from your list) have an RPB figure lower than £127,000 and so fall outside your “top 30” on that criteria. I’d expect these to be much more similar to the commercial sets that have made your lists, or possibly even higher.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the conclusions pertain to “the 30 English chambers with the highest published overall revenue”. In which case the insight offered by the statistic “a whopping 77% of newest tenant… attended either Oxford or Cambridge” is all but nil.



I’m surprised its only 77%… In all honesty the reality at the vast majority of commercial and otherwise non-criminal chambers is that virtually all the barristers called in the last 5 years went to Oxbridge. A few didn’t go to Oxbridge for their undergraduate degree but did do the BCL there and some even taught there, did doctorates etc… etc…

And of course people will be put off applying, why would I or anyone else waste an application? If a chambers has only hired from Oxbridge for the last 5 years what’s the likelihood of them hiring someone not from Oxbridge? Slim to none…



Only 77% – yet another sign that England has gone to the dogs but at least the “magic circle” is holding firm to the established traditions of the Englsh Bar.


Not Amused

The news on firsts is not as distressing as people might otherwise think. Please read this story

Please note “Some 79,440 of graduates gained a first in 2014 – nearly 10,000 more than in 2013.

The number of firsts has more than doubled in the decade since 2004, when about one in 10 graduates achieved the top classification.

It is also 70% more than five years ago, when 48,825 graduates got a first”

So really, it’s just sets responding to grade inflation in degrees. Grade inflation is a product of universities each lowering their own grade boundaries. They lower their boundaries deliberately in order to be able to give more firsts and 2:1s. They do this because they think that makes students apply to them. For good or ill there *is* a market in students going to university.

This is also something for those with 2:2s to consider. 2:2s are consequently getting rarer. As they do so they start to represent even worse academic performance and the employment market will respond in kind.

Until we have nationalised standards of degree grade it is incredibly difficult for any employer to really know if a 2:1 from X equals a 2:1 from Y or worse whether a 1st from Z equals a 2:2 from W. The Bar is always operating at the top end IF that means firsts (and it looks like it does) and if the value of a first is now determined by the uni you go to (and it certainly must be) then it is utterly inevitable that the Bar (or the academically important areas of the Bar) will focus on the better universities.



And how many of those are from reputable universities? A first from an ex-poly is not equivalent to say a Russell group first. Anyway I think the article is more about Oxbridge than firsts.


NC Trainee

But how could a nationwide degree classification work? Universities teach subjects differently, they teach different modules, different courses. Even the Oxford and Cambridge law exams differ significantly.

Despite the leaning towards Oxbridge at the very top, I do believe that they can suffer because of their alma mater when applying for other jobs. AAn Oxbridge 2:1 in a decent subject is equivalent to most firsts from most other unis. This in fact makes it harder for Oxbridge students to get onto their own masters courses, because they must compete with students from unis where 1st are much easier.



I agree. I have two first class degrees & a VC on BPTC & in three years I have not progressed as far as I thought I should.



But what’s your banter like?



Aside from the other objections, this research is wrong. Eg it says that in Kings Chambers 3 out of the last 5 are Oxbridge, but I’ve just gone on their website and of the last five recruited as tenants it is 4 out of 5, and if you exclude the one person who had previously been a solicitor, then it’s actually 5 out of 5.

Anyway, last 5 recruited is silly – some Chambers have more pupils than that a year, some just 1. Surely comparing the backgrounds of everyone under, say, 5 years call, would provide a better means of comparison?



Checking everyone under 5 years call would not help the statistics, if anything, it would probably make them worse.



Including postgraduate students is misleading. The BCL at Oxford is widely considered to be the best course as a preparation for becoming a barrister at a top chancery or commercial set. It attracts the best students who are interested in those areas of law, offers excellent options and takes students with strong degree results from many universities. Why shouldn’t chambers look more favourably on applications from students who have shown both the aptitude and commitment to get onto and do well at that very challenging course?

Undergraduate statistics are worth citing but the success of BCL students is certainly not something to criticise. And no, I didn’t do it myself though am slightly envious of my peers who did!



@ Lucas
How would it make “them worse”? Surely it would make them more reliable? In some Chambers the last five is simply the last years pupils recruits; in others it is every recruit over 5 years.



What I mean is that it wouldn’t change the underlying problem shown by this survey, namely that Oxbridge dominates the profession.


Not Amused

Could you please explain why it is a “problem”?



Because, contrary to some peoples opinion, not all or even the most intelligent people go to Oxbridge, there are other people just as good as Oxbridge candidates who go elsewhere and because I seriously doubt that Oxbridge candidates are so much better than others to justify the disproportionate numbers of them. Of course from chambers point of view its not a problem, neither is it a problem for those who go to Oxbridge, for anyone who hasn’t gone to Oxbridge however it is a problem. For those people, i.e. the overwhelming majority, they are unworthy to enter a large number of chambers no matter how intelligent or good as orators they might be, except perhaps as instructing solicitors. What I find even more ludicrous is that people who went to Oxbridge and studied something completely unrelated to law and then do the GDL are still far better off than someone who does a 3 or 4 year law degree at say KCL, UCL or Durham. And if someone is unfortunate enough to go to a university outside that elite they might as well have spent their time studying plumbing for all the good it will do them at said chambers. I don’t propose going as far as some people in insisting the applications process be ‘CV Blind’ because evidently some universities are better than others but at the moment we have the opposite problem.


NC Trainee

If you don’t go to a top university then I think you need to be realistic. Your chances of succeeding in the legal world will be significantly reduced. Of course, rough diamonds do slip through the net. But employers don’t care. They need top students, it doesn’t matter if they miss a few now and then as long as they get top quality. Casting your oxbridge net means that you will get good students, especially if you consider how many have 1sts from Oxbridge. Only 10% get firsts on average at Oxbridge. Being in the top 10% of Oxbridge is a very difficult achievement. Although many slip through the net before uni, Oxbridge really does develop you and the work you have to do is a lot harder than elsewhere.



Why is intelligent people dominating a profession a problem? If anything it’s reassuring that whilst standards have gone to the dogs in most places, the bar has held firm.



The GLS recruitment process ignores University attended scoring wise and is blind to those who interview you should you get to that round. In my year and the previous 4 there was 16 pupils from 11 different Universities recruited. How do you explain that?

The interview process chambers use to shortlist is nonsense. For a start, applications are not viewed by the same pool of staff. How does this ensure applicants are treated consistently and fairly? So there are 500 applicants, get over it. Put aside a group of staff (or employ someone to help) to shortlist.



Also, if you have scored an application, that should be made available to them? If you are confident about your scoring that is. This could be dealt with at a clerical level.


Concerned Tutor

It is a problem because, whilst Oxford and Cambridge students are good, there is nothing magical about them. Plenty of other universities can turn out equally well qualified candidates. Such candidates will see these stats and decide (and who could blame them) not to waste their time. Perhaps I have an unrealistic or naiive view of the world, but something about judging someone based upon where they learnt things, rather than what they know and can do, seems quite wrong to me and unworthy of a profession allegedly based on justice and integrity.



So the emphasis is where rather than what you have learnt.

Presumably that means an Oxbridge non-law graduate would generally be preferred to a non-Oxbridge law graduate.


W Deming

Not sure of the source of Legal Cheek’s statistics but at least one of the ratios is wrong. Randomly selecting Serle Court for analysis, I looked at the education of all 59 barristers on the Serle Court website. Based on public information and looking at whether the LLB and/or the Masters/BCL were Oxbridge, the real numbers are:

Total Number of Barristers: 59 Total Number of Oxbridge: 50 = 84.7%
Total Number of QC’s: 20 Number of Oxbridge QC’s: 17 = 85%
Number of Junior Counsel: 39 Number of Oxbridge: 33 = 84.6%

Last 5 Tenants: 5 (!) Number of Oxbridge: 4 = 80% (and the 1 that was not Oxbridge was Harvard)

Indeed, looking at the 30 tenants in Serle Court (with Call dates from 1989 to-date), only 2 were not from Oxbridge or Harvard. This makes Serle Court a 93% Oxbridge Chambers in contrast to the “2 out of 5” reported by Legal Cheek.

So what? Of course, the question (as per the debate above) is whether this matters. This must depend on the justification for the numbers.

If the Serle Court Pupillage committee were asked, I have a feeling they would argue that they have simply selected the “Best” (which, they are entitled to do).

Statistically, as per the last BSB report, only 12% of pupillage applicants are Oxbridge. Is it possible that they are 7x better? Possibly.

However, it is much more likely there is something analogous to a psychological “Fundamental Attribution Error” at work whereby the self-fulfilling internal definition of “best” includes whether the candidate has an LLB/BCL/LLM from Oxbridge.

Based on this, it would be difficult to implement but it could be argued that there is a compelling case for ensuring that applications are blind as to the university and discussions re which university the candidate went to are off limits.

In addition, in the same way as Chambers are required to log and publish their Equality statistics (not all do…) they could be required to post the university statistics on their Pupillage application sections.

(NB Just in case anyone draws the wrong conclusion, I have a PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge and am not anti-Oxbridge; I am simply in favour of true equality and ‘justice’ for those skilled, intelligent and capable would-be pupils/tenants who happen to be part of the 86% of applicants who did not go to Oxbridge.)


Not Amused

Universities in the UK are not equal.

To be equal they would all have to sign up to one objective academic standard for awarding degrees. They refuse to do so. To be equal they would all have to agree to put the same amount of effort in to teaching their undergraduates. They refuse to do so.

There is no shortage of people who refuse to acknowledge this basic truth. They come here and whine. But they never call for unified academic standards. They never suggest that all universities should adopt Oxbridge teaching methods. They just whine.

We are living through a period of collosal degree grade inflation. At the same time, various fools are pressuring employers to ignore the fact that each university in the UK is different. If the GLS ignores this obvious truth then the GLS is recruiting in a fundamentally idiotic way. I fear for the reputation of the GLS and I lament my wasted tax money.

Fortunately if there is one sector of our society which will ignore the illogical and harmful argument of the mob it is the Bar. By all means put more effort in to making Oxbridge more diverse. I do. But stop pretending that the brightest kids don’t go to our top universities. You’re not convincing anyone.



“Universities in the UK are not equal” And pray tell who has suggested this? No one. Consequently this is statement is just a strawman.

“To be equal….” Follows on from the strawman above.

“There is no shortage….” Ditto the above.

“They just whine” An ad hominem following on from the strawman and strawman in and of itself. No one here is whining, they are just pointing out a very obvious fact, viz, not all our best and brightest go to Oxbridge and those that come out of Oxbridge are not 12 times better than everyone else. For that matter the magic circle and other decent law firms are not, as far as I know, in the habit of hiring idiots and yet they are much less Oxbridge dominated than a lot of chambers. Are barristers in those chambers so much brighter than solicitors or trainees in those law firms? Doubtful.

“But stop pretending that the brightest kids don’t go to our top universities” This sentence would be more accurate if it read “But stop pretending that the brightest kids don’t go to our top (two) universities”. If you really believe that then there’s not much point in continuing the conversation, you think that monopolies in education are a good thing, I don’t and never the twain shall meet.



Why is ignoring University attended idiotic? You are assessment on performance in tests and interview. This is an even playing field i.e. all applicants complete round 1 and only keep going if they pass. If the Oxbridge candidates are better they will still get through. Silly me thinking this was fair!!



Assessment at interview can only take a snapshot of someone’s performance. Recruiters, in law or anywhere else, also think it is important to assess a candidate’s performance and commitment over a longer period of time. Academic history is a good indicator of this. Are you suggesting that people should recruit based solely on performance at interview? If so why bother grading (or indeed taking) exams at all?



Actually I think I was being a bit too reasonable there. My actual view is this. I went to a state school with very little history of sending people to Oxford or Cambridge. Some at my school encouraged me to apply, others gave me the pernicious “you’ll never get in ‘cos you don’t fit the mould” line. I knew I wanted to be a barrister. I knew that going to Oxford or Cambridge would be a massive advantage in getting me to where I wanted to be. I worked incredibly f’kin hard to get in, and then I worked hard when I was there to make sure I came out with the best degree I could get. You are suggesting that all that hard work should have been ignored when I was applying for pupillage. I don’t have much patience for that.


Not Amused

That does seem to me to hit the nail on the head.

Non-Oxbridge undergraduates seem to be asking for special treatment. There exists a hierarchy of universities in the country. That’s quite normal. No one has suggested otherwise. No one has argued with me that Oxbridge academics do less or equal teaching to less respected universities. No one has argued that Oxbridge undergraduates do less or equal work to less respected university. No one has seriously suggested that Oxbridge represents anything other than our academic best.

So they are asking for special treatment. But what reason do they posit for this? Are they all born poor and from backgrounds where applying to Oxbridge was discouraged? They are not. They ask us to create a world where the achievement of the poor born child, who goes to Oxbridge after a huge amount of hard work and adversity, is swept away. In its place a rich born child who failed to get in to Oxbridge, because he was less able, is now to stand equal with the child born poor.


They tell me they are upset because not enough poor born kids go to Oxbridge. But this upsets me too. It is though no reason to give special treatment to the less achieving rich born child.

They tell me Oxbridge is elitist. I ask them what exactly a hierarchy is and they get angry and flounce off.

Nobody seems to suggest that the Magic Circle is evil. That somehow it is unfair that 5 law firms occupy the dominant position nationally. No one is offering to increase my earnings to the level of those enjoyed at richer sets. But yet they fervently believe that Oxbridge, which is a free and open meritocratic competition is somehow (in some indefinable way it turns out) *wrong*.

So I say ******* and they have the temerity to be offended!


Not Amused

If you have a hierarchy (and we do) then it is inevitable that there is something at the top.



It’s an interesting comment. The CC trainee story has revealed he attended SOAS and lives in a rough part of East London. He earns £40 500 and could earn £67 500 upon qualification.
You always advocate for the bright but poor to attend Oxford (to perhaps join the Bar) and to apply for more lucrative posts. Magic Circles will not be attacked as they are so diverse. There are lots of people who are bright but poor earning the money you want them to earn and more at the Magic Circles.
Why is diversity good enough for the MCs but not the Bar? If we are just looking at earnings which is what it all comes down to.


Not Amused

I think it’s important we understand the nuance here: yes I want poor born kids and other diversity at the Bar, yes I want them at MC firms.

But I only want them because or if they are bright. And I don’t want any bias or discrimination against rich born children.

Oxbridge helps me achieve this. It is an open and meritocratic academic competition. It is not perfect. But it is doing well and is diverse. Indeed at the moment it is one of the only real tools for social mobility my country has.

In contrast asking for ‘diversity’ of universities attended makes no sense. At most it is cosmetic diversity. At worst it gives an artificial boost to the prospects of an under achieving child who was born rich.

If I want, and I do, a full meritocracy where the greatest success is achieved by those who work the hardest for it, then Oxbridge is nothing more than a useful tool in achieving that. It is the equivalent of high grades. No one ever says to me “but what about the kids with bad a’levels, they would be brilliant barristers but they are discriminated against” because while that might be true in extremely rare cases, it is beyond silly to suggest that that is common or even likely to be true in most cases.

A diverse meritocracy; equality of opportunity, is what I believe we all should want. There is nothing sinister in Oxbridge. It simply represents, or indicates part of that process. It is not universal. We have a long history of non-Oxbridge success at the Bar. That is what the remaining 23% represent in this somewhat dodgy statistic.

But I have not seen. nor having considered the matter at great length can I (an allegedly intelligent individual) conclude any reason why the achievement of going to Oxbridge should ever be discounted or taken away from a candidate – not in any honest and meritocratic society. If employers wish to recognise that success, that is their choice, and it is a rational choice for some employers.



I do not feel you have engaged with what I have said at all.
There IS diversity at the Bar, but there is FAR more diversity at the MCs. They can also afford to employ more people which is perhaps the greatest reason for diversity in the first place.
What you seem to be saying is that it’s Oxbridge or nothing.
The MCs employ, and recognise the success of the bright but poor
from SOAS to Oxbridge.


Not Amused

I feel you are asking for cosmetic diversity.

There is nothing stopping a very bright kid, born poor, who attends SOAS, from succeeding at the Bar. That probably does require a first (but I dealt with that issue above).

You can say ” the same kid would find it easier with an Oxbridge first” and I will say either 1) if the same kid wanted that, he should have gone to Oxbridge, where he would have found getting a first harder, and 2) by not going to Oxbridge he has missed out on 3 years of teaching to the point where he is not ‘the same’ kid.

Don’t get me wrong – if Oxbridge ever abandoned out reach. If it ever started functioning like a US university on admissions, then your fury at Oxbridge would be nothing compared to mine. But we live in a better world.

I will not support cosmetic diversity, because it usually masks unjustified special treatment (see DC’s eloquence above). I believe a fully meritocratic system inevitably results in diversity because I believe all humans have equal potential. I do not need, nor would I ever condone, any promotion of diversity which undermines meritocracy, because meritocracy, properly performed, will get me diversity.



Now listen to all the Oxbridge types try to justify that 77% of the best possible candidates went to Oxbridge, and this isn’t an example of horrendous bias.

Just admit it. The bar is a self preserving world where people look after their own.


Not Amused

“Admit my irrational prejudice or … or … or … I will carry on holding my irrational prejudice anyway”

Oxbridge is nothing more than the country’s two best universities. Not one, two. Not a monopoly, just the top of a competitive hierarchy. If 38.5% of the Bar come from the best university and 38.5% come from the next best university then that seems to me to represent a perfectly normal world.

Do you imagine that clients want barristers who went got bad grades from university number 40? Do you seriously want the Bar composed of such people?

Oxbridge is diverse. It is getting more diverse. It has some problems – not least of all those caused by 1) poor kids being scared off applying by bitter rejected candidates or weirdo lefties, and 2) the chronic failures of state school education generally.

But you can’t as a parent actually make your kid get in you know. I can’t say “I’m a barrister, so let my baby in”. There is totally free and highly competitive access to Oxbridge. As there should be. I have said it before, and will never stop saying it – you would do better to put your silly bitterness aside and put your efforts in to encouraging more bright state school kids to apply.

If Oxford and Cambridge are ever knocked off their perch it will be because the universities below them finally commit to undergraduate teaching. But when Oxbridge are the only two unis to interview all successful candidates. When Oxbridge academics have a higher teaching burden then any non-Oxbridge comparator. When Oxbridge undergraduates are expected to, and do, a disproportionately greater amount of work than their non-Oxbridge counterparts – then it seems deeply unlikely that anyone else is willing to compete.

Get angry at the other unis for letting their kids down and for not bothering to try harder. Anything else is disingenuous bitterness.



Oxbridge is treated as one entity by a lot of people for good reasons but if you want to be pedantic perhaps we should refer to the situation as “The Oxbridge duopoly”?

The rest of your response is the usual tripe which you’ve said about 4 times both here and elsewhere, namely that anyone complaining about the situation is bitter and childish. It seems that you can’t actually formulate a rational argument so you just fall back on repeating the same boring old insults and strawmen and hope no one notices. Please do us all a favour and don’t post anything until you can formulate an argument that actually addresses what people have said rather than the imaginary strawmen which you create in your frankly enviable amount of free time.


Not Amused

Your argument is just “it’s not fair” repeated in a variety of ways.

Would you prefer it if two different cities in the UK had the best and second best universities in them? Which would you pick? Because, as I stated, hierarchy is inevitable. And, as I stated, the current top two occupy their position by dint of a greater commitment to teaching, higher workload for academics and higher workloads for undergraduates.

That is surely what you must want in any world? So I assume your only real objection is the cities themselves.



“The moral of this story? If you haven’t been to Oxbridge and don’t have a first, perhaps become a solicitor …”

Probably the most condescending comment about my arm of the profession I’ve read in a while. Distinctly unfair and unreasonable – especially as LC has reported on how inaccessible “law” is generally to anyone without high ranking degrees from high end unis.



Alas, it seems Not Amused won’t take my advice. Ach well, safe to say I won’t be responding further.


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