Training contracts tumbled yesterday, now it’s the turn of wannabe barristers to face bad news …
The annual number of pupillage places at barristers’ chambers has fallen below 400 for the first time in living memory, according to figures released by the regulator late yesterday afternoon.
There were 397 first-six places offered in 2013-14, down nearly 23% from a spike the previous year.
Updated figures from the Bar Standards Board show the most recent number has fallen nearly 8% over the longer term. In 2009-10 there were 431 first-six pupillages available.
The declining trend suggests that the last government’s slashing of legal aid rates and eligibility is having a serious impact on the bar.
Over the last couple of years, chambers such as Dyers in London’s Bedford Row, Charter Chambers in John Street in the capital, Bristol’s Guildhall Chambers and the now defunct Tooks Chambers in London all jettisoned pupillage places.
The BSB pointed out that the 2012-13 spike was caused by a Bar Council administrative change to the pupillage recruitment timetable, and was not indicative of a recovery in place numbers.
In contrast to the solicitors’ profession — where a significant majority of trainee solicitors is female — most wannabe barristers remain men. Last year, nearly 55%, or 217, of the first-six places awarded went to men, with 177 going to women.
But women are narrowing the gap slightly; in 2010-11, nearly 57% of first-six pupils were men.
About 14.5% of pupillage places last year went to wannabe barristers from ethnic minorities. That figure was about 0.5% up on the number for 2009-10.
Where the BSB had data, it showed that the vast majority of those taking pupillage last year were aged between 25-34, although a set took on one plucky character in the 55-64-year-old bracket.
The BSB used the publication of last year’s figures to update some previously inaccurate numbers.
For example, the most recent Bar Barometer report — published jointly by the regulator and the Bar Council — listed the number of first-six pupillages for 2011-12 as being 438. Yesterday, the BSB corrected that figure to 422.
Responding to the news, a Bar Council spokesman told Legal Cheek that it “no surprise” that there are fewer pupillages as “it would seem chambers are seeing that there is less work to hand out and are acting accordingly”. He went on:
“Where there is less work available, especially as we are seeing in the publicly funded bar, there is greater competition for that work. The Bar Council has always said that pupillages should only be created where there is enough work to sustain the pupil as tenant. Creating more pupillages than there are potential tenancies prolongs the period of insecurity and potential exposure to mounting levels of debt for prospective barristers.”
The spokesman added that the decline will hit poor students harder than the rich, commenting:
“Sadly, the shrinking pupillage pool impacts disproportionately on those from less advantaged backgrounds, who cannot afford the risk, so may impact on the diversity of the future of the bar.”