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‘X-Factorish bollocks’: Bar Council slammed for endorsing junior barrister’s ‘Never give up!’ blog

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UCL legal academic and top QC lead criticism of regulator for sharing touching story

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A host of big names have torn into the Bar Council for its endorsement of a blog written by a junior barrister about obtaining pupillage which they think doesn’t paint a full picture about the difficulty of gaining entry to the bar.

UCL legal academic Richard Moorhead is leading the chorus of outrage against the post — written by Becket Chambers’ John Nee — and the Bar Council’s subsequent description of it as “very important”.

Nee’s post, which was published on Thursday on LinkedIn, movingly charts the difficulties he faced during childhood as a severe asthmatic and in young adulthood as the victim of a serious car crash. The former professional rugby player uses these experiences — which saw him narrowly avoid having his leg amputated — as an example of the sort of determination it takes to succeed at the bar.

However, Moorhead disagrees with Nee’s analysis, suggesting that the secret to becoming a barrister is attributable to other factors such as “good qualifications, contacts, luck and being the right sort”.

A host of influential legal tweeters agreed with Moorhead, although there was some dissent, with 5RB media barrister Greg Callus arguing that “Anyone can make the contacts nowadays” and “there is no one ‘right sort’ anymore”.

As the debate raged, solicitor-advocate Stefan Cross QC then upped the ante, as he retweeted Moorhead’s tweet and thundered: “And if you want to be at a top 50 set you need an Oxbridge degree (as 80% do).”

This sparked all manner of argument, as some, including Moorhead, backed Cross; while others, such as bar hotshot Dinah Rose QC, claimed that getting a top pupillage was about “being outstanding” rather than having an Oxbridge degree.

It’s worth noting that none of the criteria mentioned in Cross’ tweet is relevant to Nee, who is neither at a top 50 set — Becket Chambers has not a single QC on its roster — nor a graduate of Oxford of Cambridge. Indeed, the Kent University-educated barrister — who qualified as a solicitor-advocate after being called to the bar in 2008 and then two years ago did his pupillage — seemed rather bemused by the furore, writing in the comments section to his original post:

Good grief — This is all over the internet now since the Bar Council recommended it! If it gives one person a boost, I’ll be happy.

For the record, 79% of recently qualified tenants at the top 50 chambers are Oxbridge educated. However, overall at the bar of England & Wales just under 30% of barristers went to Oxford or Cambridge.

29 Comments

Po'born kids

Fly my pretties…FLY!!!

(6)(2)

Not Amused

Oh thank goodness! At the start of the article I was extremely concerned that I would have to agree with Morrhead. But thankfully I note that he scuppered his own (perfectly legitimate) point by saying incredibly stupid things about ‘contacts’ and ‘right sort’.

Phew. Danger averted.

Yes the Bar Council are facile and idiotic, they’re regulators, so no one should be surprised by this. This cult of ‘anyone can be a barrister’ is extremely silly and a product of wrong headed equality of outcome thinking. What we want is equality of opportunity for bright poor born kids.

(8)(3)

Mr Pineapples

Oh My Good Grief – “the right sort”? Where did this piece of ancient clap-trap rise from? What century is this barmy man living in?

(14)(2)

Scouser of Counsel

Never give up is right.

If I’d listened to all the lecturers, mini-pupillage naysayers and fellow students who said I’d have no chance of getting to the Bar without private education, an Oxbridge degree, money or contacts, then I wouldn’t be at the Bar now.

It does require grit and determination.

Contacts can be made along the way (remembering the names of people in Chambers who you did mini-pupillage with are a start) and it does require ‘a certain sort of person’- the sort of person who will work bloody hard and not be put off!

Just my 2d worth…

(7)(0)

Barrister

Hmm, re Blackstones Chambers, last time I looked there were maybe only 2 or 3 who hadn’t been to Oxbridge. They had, however, been to Harvard or a top University of London college.

(3)(1)

Barwoman

Outstanding candidates (which is what this chambers seeks) tend to get into decent unis.

(4)(2)

Oxbridge But Not The Right Sort

Qualifications can be earned, contacts can be made, and in my experience, one tends to get luckier the more effort one makes. Nothing wrong with the X Factor, we all need encouragement. As someone with a pretty good Oxbridge degree it took me some years to get pupillage, largely due to having no contacts, not being the right sort, and not understanding the game one had to play to get through the interview process. Others, without my origin or class of degree, quite rightly got there ahead of me. Those who don’t come from a upper middle class background need to know the social obstacles they need to work around, because they are there. But they can be overcome, and there are plenty of barristers – of both the right sort and not the right sort – who will be more than happy to assist the genuinely bright in doing so.

(7)(4)

Barwoman

As someone with a similar background, I completely disagree. I am the first generation to go to uni, have no contacts, have a strong regional accent and am about as posh as battered cod. I got pupillage without difficulty due to hard work translated into strong qualifications. People love to say they didn’t get pupillage because they’re not the right sort rather than accepting that there may have been better applicants. It’s arrogant, and unhelpful to bright but socially disadvantaged people considering the Bar.

(11)(0)

Not Amused

Agreed.

The modern argument around ‘contacts’ also upsets me. I didn’t have any, nor did I need any, nor does my Chambers require our applicants to have them. I do not see how they could help. Any organisation that operates fair and open meritocratic selection would not be swayed by ‘contacts’.

If there are chambers out their awarding pupillage to people because they met them at a drinks party then would they mind terribly letting the rest of us know? That way they can be publicly condemned.

I personally think it is a rubbish argument put out by the BPTC providers in order to persuade kids to pay their even more outrageous London fees. I don’t believe any set is swayed by ‘contacts’. I am disappointed whenever I see anyone normal parroting such nonsense.

(7)(1)

Anonymous

Phew! I thought we were going to have a thread without Not Amused blaming the BPTC providers for all the ills of this world.

If they told people they need contacts it would run counter to your repeated point that they stuff the course to the gills with anyone and everyone.

Never mind. It must be their fault because everything is.

The contacts point is nonsense.

Fitting in to the ‘Bar type’ seems more likely than not. Sure, some people who don’t get pupillage but most on the course with pupillage (and after) seem to be cut from the same cloth.

(1)(2)

Barwoman

Agreed. Most of the people I know who got pupillage were cut from the same cloth – i.e. clever, articulate, hard-working, motivated.

“Fitting into the “Bar type” seems more likely than not.” Why? Because you say so? So tedious.

(1)(1)

Anonymous

1. Personal experience can’t be extrapolated into being a general rule. Do you think it would have been easier if you’d had a posh Southern voice? I suspect so. You are plainly well qualified but some chambers who interviewed you will have been (wrongly) snobby. Sad but true. I’m pleased that you have done well but you did have a bigger mountain to climb.

2. I didn’t define ‘Bar type’ and perhaps I should have done. I agree with you.

3. People who don’t get pupillage but say it’s because they don’t fit in are talking nonsense. They are conflating ineptitude with bias against them. The bias is well founded. They aren’t good enough.

5. I was having a pop at Not Amusing who wants to blame the BPTC providers for everything.

(1)(0)

Barwoman

“Personal experience can’t be extrapolated into a general rule.” I fully agree, it was the fact that you were doing this that annoyed me. You are not giving any evidential basis for what you are saying. You are just saying something “seems” one way or you “suspect” this or that. You are just taking a prejudiced and unsubstantiated guess and presenting it as fact.

It’s not just my own personal experience but also my experience in recruiting people to my chambers. If someone has had it tougher I will tend to think more highly of them than someone who hasn’t with the same qualifications. I’m quite confident that I was not disadvantaged at interview and wouldn’t be surprised if the fact that I ticked diversity boxes worked in my favour.

I’m not saying the Bar is not, at the very senior level, very posh. It is. There are also some posh people at the junior end. That doesn’t mean they are there because they are posh. I have many colleagues from wealthy backgrounds and I would describe them as intellectually gifted. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t deserve to be here on merit.

I should add that once in pupillage I think there can be more difficulty in terms of knowing how to behave appropriately etc for those born without the proverbial silver spoon. But that’s a different issue.

(0)(0)

Not Amused

Once again I find myself agreeing with you. On this point in particular:

“I’m not saying the Bar is not, at the very senior level, very posh. It is. There are also some posh people at the junior end. That doesn’t mean they are there because they are posh”

I would also add that after 5, 10, 15 or even 20 years of earning multiples of the national wage, relative freedom, respect, invitations to polite society, exposure to the great and good, cultural exposure and 1 of 4 medieval Inns to frolic around … it would be curious indeed if we did not end up just a little bit ‘posh’.

Even though many of us may not have started out that way at the beginning.

I prefer to see it as a privilege. I explain to my mentees (and to anyone forced to listen to me) that privilege can arise in anyone. It is to be worked for. But once you have it it automatically gives rise to an equal and corresponding duty towards those who do not. Thus it is that one day, every mentee must become a mentor.

Oxbridge But Not The Right Sort

In my career I have been fortunate to meet numerous barristers across the social spectrum who are genuinely bright and interesting and committed. But I’ve also met a very large number of overconfident chaps whose self-belief appears to be in inverse proportion to their talent. I’ve watched them losing cases for their clients through the bellowing stream-of-consciousness meanderings that pass for their submissions. On many an occasion, I have taken smug advantage. But quite frankly, it’s self-serving nonsense to suggest that the bar is consistently meritocratic, the system for selection is just as it should be, and any who disagree are merely oiks and losers who can only aspire to the giddy heights of high table at a medieval dining hall. I think we need to do a lot more work before we can settle to that level of complacency.

(1)(1)

Not Amused

Just because you are angry, or upset, or even that you may carry a chip on your shoulder (who doesn’t), that does not mean that you can expect to type the sort of thing which will discourage innocent young people who may read it.

Many of them know no better than to trust you. If they do so the only outcome will be to dishearten young people from certain backgrounds – and the Bar would be poorer for it.

No one called you an oik or a loser. Two members of the Bar called your argument wrong. It was right that we did so, not for you, but for the innocent young people who read this online publication.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

A lot of people have focussed upon how to become a barrister.

Its nor hard, complete the BPTC.

The focus should instead be on how to remain as a barrister. This involves legal skills, relationships with clerks and solicitors, and more importantly giving solid advice and winning more cases at Court than you lose.

(2)(0)

Not Amused

I would agree with you that there is not enough openness about the fact that a great deal of the Bar is not making a normal living wage; and that packaging all the Bar up as ‘successful’ is highly misleading for young people.

(0)(0)

Pantman

The Oxbridge connection seems a little understated here. Taking those called since 2010 there is an Oxbridge connection to nearly 49% across England and Wales. In London this rises to 57%.

http://www.indx.co.uk/pupilbase/?mode=stats&rtype=oxbridge

As others have stated, there is also a some indication that if juniors don’t have Oxbridge connections then they have connections to other Elite institutions across the world, though this only seems to amount to around 2% in London and 1.5% across the whole of England and Wales:

http://www.indx.co.uk/pupilbase/?mode=stats&rtype=elite

(1)(0)

Gus the Snedger

Wot? No Proudman?

(0)(0)

Anonymous

It’s the ‘University of Kent’ not ‘Kent University’…

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Nice to see a barrister encouraging youngsters to a career at the bar. Everyone else seems to poo poo it.

You’d think a legal academic would know better than to call it x-factorish bollocks. He seems a class act. Bet his students find him inspiring…

(4)(0)

Realist

The people who pooh-pooh it are largely realists. It is very competitive to get in, and grit and determination alone are not enough. Some people will succeed through determination. Some will be very determined and won’t succeed. Everyone I met on the BPTC was determined – anyone who pays a fortune on the course would need to be! Personally I think it is unkind to encourage people to have an unrealistic level of confidence that they will succeed, not least where £17,000 is at issue. I would never bet that amount of money on such statistically improbable success.

I have a degree of sympathy with the “X-Factor” comment in that I have encountered a lot of people who believe that they are entitled to pupillage because it’s their “dream”. Some of these people are as likely to get pupillage as one of the tone-deaf contestants they rather cruelly put on at the start of X-Factor is to win it.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

and the “bollocks” bit of Moorhead’s comment? For a guy trying to be positive? Seems harsh.

(2)(0)

Ms Charlotte Proudperson

I pooh-pooh it!

(0)(0)

Anonymous

His class is rubbish.

(1)(1)

Advice

Don’t forget the “h”s in pooh-pooh. Never forget the “h”s.

(0)(0)

Sandman

I was reading through the recent BSB stats on pupillage and BPTC providers.

Making a few assumptions, as the stats don’t show everything, a few things jump out – if you have a First degree, you are about three times as likely to get a pupillage compared to if you have a 2:1. If you have a 2:1, you are about ten times as likely to get a pupillage than if you have a 2:2. Your odds of getting a pupillage with a 2:2 are pretty remote.

There are similar ratios for people who get Outstanding compared to VC or C.

There also seems to be a tendency for students who take the BPTC in London to have a better chance of pupillage. But it is difficult to draw too conclusions as to whether studying in London is a benefit, or whether the London providers tend to have a higher quality student intake.

(2)(0)

chancerypupil

I agree, X Factor nonsense. You always come up against some no-hoper BPTC students who think that they will be the “special snowflake” who will get pupillage despite the 100:1. The X Factor mentality should not be promoted among students given how damaging it can be to their finances.

These same people also tend to be the ones who take the “I will show you!!! I will prove to the world etc etc..” approach, and strengthen their resolve to go to the Bar in face of seeming insurmountable statistics and sensible advice to the contrary.

It might take “grit” and determination but I think there are general rules that apply to 99% of pupillages:

Basic Rules (everyone will disagree, but here is my 2d worth):

If you want to do Commercial/Chancery, pupillage at a good Civil Set you shouldn’t bother if:
-You don’t have a 1st
-That 1st isn’t from Oxbridge or a very good RG Uni

If you want to do Crime/Family:

-You don’t have a *good* 2:1
-That 2:1 isn’t from a Russell Group University

I don’t think that any amount of sheer determination can avoid this conclusion. Yes, there will always be the random one student with pupillage who has a 1st from Westminster University, or who has a 2:1 from Edge Hill. It doesn’t mean its a worthwhile risk.

There is also no reason at all (except severe mitigating circumstances- in which case ) why someone cannot get a good 2:1 (e.g. more than 65%). If you are not clever enough to be in the top 65% of students, then why should you be taken on as a pupil?

Why not go and do another job for a bit? Excel at that, and then maybe you will have something to bring to the table.

(6)(2)

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