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A pupil barrister did a PhD about social mobility at the bar — and it makes for uncomfortable reading

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Elite reputation puts off potential future stars — especially those who live outside the South East

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Aspiring barristers from non-traditional backgrounds are still struggling to get their foot in the door, research has revealed.

A new report claims that — despite various pro-social mobility initiatives — wannabe lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds still face “serious challenges” trying to access the profession.

The study — a PhD project jointly funded by the Inner Temple and Keele University — draws on the experience of student participants in the Pegasus Access and Support Scheme (PASS). This social mobility programme is designed to help students from non-traditional backgrounds access the profession by helping them find mini-pupillages.

According to the research, the challenges facing non-traditional aspiring barristers are many and varied: gaps in aspiring barristers’ understanding of the profession, financial constraints which make it hard for students to get involved with work placements, substandard career advice, to name but a few.

The report even states that many students surveyed had been discouraged from considering the bar by staff at their unis “who felt they were unlikely to succeed, even where they had very strong academic records, suggesting that some institutions still consider the bar as only being ‘open’ to those from traditional backgrounds”.

Unfortunately, it’s understandable why some universities feel that way — the bar has a real social mobility problem. Reassuringly, there is acknowledgement in the report from practitioners that diversity at the bar is a benefit not only to aspiring entrants but chambers too. One chambers’ representative, commenting on the PASS scheme, said:

I don’t think we get any immediate benefit but in the long term hopefully we can benefit from a more diverse pool of applicants.

From a business point of view, therefore, diversity seems to work. With that said, a solution to this entrenched social mobility problem is key. According to the report’s author, 5 Paper Buildings pupil barrister Elaine Freer:

It is clear we need more mutual understanding between potential students, higher education, and the bar to ensure that gifted students from non-traditional backgrounds do not slip through the net.

So what’s the solution? Freer — who studied law at Cambridge before embarking on her social mobility PhD in 2012 — makes a number of recommendations.

To help financially challenges students, chambers should offer to pay for mini pupils’ travel expenses. About half (49%) of those surveyed for the report described paid-for travel as a crucial factor in their decision to undertake their mini pupillage. One of the 49 respondents also commented that — by doing so — the bar is acknowledging that not everyone has a stash of money to spare, and looks to be making a “genuine effort” to assist disadvantaged students.

Freer also suggested that it is important that the bar interacts with universities, and makes it clear that recruitment into the profession isn’t based on students’ background and university prestige, but on merit.

You can read the full report here:

40 Comments

Just Anonymous

There’s a temptation, whenever you see ANOTHER social justice article by KK to roll your eyes and think, “here we go again.”

Here however, I wholeheartedly agree with the report’s recommendations.

Firstly, mini expenses should be re-imbursed. Not doing so plainly unfairly advantages the rich and privileged.

Secondly, the Bar is open to anyone with the necessary talent and ability, regardless of their background and what uni they went to, and that message needs to be sent out loud and clear to our universities.

Obviously, as I’ve said before on LC, it should be no surprise that those with the requisite talent tend in general to come from our elite universities. (If you don’t understand how this point doesn’t contradict the point I made in the previous paragraph, then the Bar probably isn’t for you.)

(30)(10)

Bumblebee

I don’t really see why you felt the need to prefix this with a jibe towards KK.

I also don’t agree that non-financed mini-pupillages unfairly advantage the rich and privileged. Rather, they disadvantage those from low income households who live outside of London. Whilst this may indirectly advantage the rich and privileged, it will also indirectly advantage all manner of candidates – e.g. those from poor backgrounds already living in London. There’s no need therefore to focus in on “the rich and privileged”.

With regards to your second and third points, I’m upset that the Bar probably isn’t for me. Are you suggesting that chambers have devised selection procedures which can fully discern a candidate’s academic ability without looking at indicators such as the university they attended? If so, I think you’re wrong. Whatever ‘academic’ tests chambers give to candidates are only ever administered after those candidates have proceeded beyond the paper sift.

I fully appreciate that in a minority of cases there may be exceptionally talented candidates who, for whatever reason, did not attend university or attended a second- or third-rate university. However, as unfortunate as it is, these candidates will really, really struggle to ever find pupillage.

Moreover, the fact is that the vast majority of people who attend second- or third-rate universities do not have the requisite talent. Sending out your message “loud and clear” to the wrong universities might, exceptionally, attract the odd ‘diamond in the rough’. However, it will also attract hoards of unsuitable candidates – candidates who mistakenly believe that they are that uncut diamond.

(11)(9)

Just Anonymous

“I don’t really see why you felt the need to prefix this with a jibe towards KK.”

To emphasise that this time, she’s made strong, valid points that are worth listening to.

Your second paragraph is wholly unnecessary nit-picking which ignores the fact that we substantively agree: mini expenses should be paid, as doing otherwise is plainly unfair and discriminatory. I see no need to get into further argument with you about that.

Also, I’d never claim that anything can be done ‘fully’ but I’d say that strong indicators of a candidate’s academic ability pre-interview are:

(a) their marks/grades to date;
(b) the degree itself (ie, is it a respectable academic subject like Law, History, English, etc); and
(c) The quality of their written English on the application form

All that, to me, sounds far superior to drawing inferences based merely on their university.

Your argument appears to be that we should draw such inferences. I cannot agree. And if the Bar generally draws such inferences (which I do not accept) then that is wrong and needs to change. I’m all for telling people their prospects are hopeless if their skills are deficient (if their grades or public speaking skills are poor for example) but if I ever sit on a pupillage committee, I will never judge anyone based on their university alone.

(13)(4)

Boh Dear

I strongly agree that those who did not attend university will struggle… really struggle.

(4)(0)

Bumblebee

My second paragraph WAS wholly unnecessary nitpicking. I’m sorry. I was a just bit upset at being told the Bar wasn’t for me.

With regards to the rest of your comment, I know of at least two sets of chambers which award points for university attended. However, like you, I haven’t ever sat on a pupillage committee and so perhaps there’s little value in discussing what inferences the Bar draws from candidates’ almae matres.

As to what inferences the Bar should draw however, clearly I wouldn’t advocate drawing inferences based “merely” on whatever university a candidate attended. However, I most certainly would advocate drawing strong inferences.

I have covered this before in the comments of LC, but to save you the effort of having to search for the argument, I have reproduced it in full below. At the time, I was making a comment concerning A-level results. The other point I don’t mention below is that, aside from obvious things such as the GDL, university attended is one of the closest indicators chambers have to a level playing field. It is far easier and fairer to distinguish two candidates who each got three As and went to Bristol and Oxford than it is two candidates who got a 2.1 in History and a first in English (ignoring where those degrees were taken). Moreover, there are many 2.1s from Oxbridge for example who would have got firsts had they gone to Kings, and this is before we even begin to consider poor universities well below Kings in the rankings.

Moving to the other indicators you cite, whilst subject studied may say something, it says very little. Just because you studied History, that doesn’t mean you’re better at formulating arguments than someone who studied Mathematics. Furthermore, in my view somebody who studied a hard subject at a poor university is almost certainly, all other things being equal, less qualified than somebody who studied a soft subject at a good university. Again, this is because it is necessary to take into account what it takes to get into a good university.

Likewise, whilst one’s written English needs to be good, it is more a binary criterion which just has to be satisfied than a useful indicator from which inferences can be drawn. Just because somebody can write well, that says very little with regards to whether they they have the requisite analytical skills.

“One of the problems of looking at A-level results is that the grade boundaries are so very wide. Back when I was at school, there were no A* grades and the grade boundary for an A was 80% of the total available ‘UMS points’.

I can’t quite recall exactly how UMS points were calculated, but essentially they took into account the difficulty of the paper, and so a perfect score of 100% didn’t mean that a student literally scored a perfect score on the paper. Rather it meant that, of the thousands of students taking the paper, that student scored in the very highest percentile.

An AS level was out of 300 UMS points, and an A level was out of 600 UMS points.

Therefore, whilst on paper two candidates with 3 As at A-level and 1 A at AS-level may look equal, there could in fact be huge differences in their aptitude. The first candidate may have achieved the maximum available of 2100 UMS points, indicating that they were top in the country for each and every exam they took. The second candidate meanwhile may have scraped the same grades with just 1680 UMS points.

At risk of going off on a tangent, this is why people need to understand the significance of university attended and why it is that many employers attach weight to Oxbridge attendance. When giving offers, Oxbridge don’t look at a student’s predicted grades, rather they look at the actual UMS points obtained during that student’s AS-levels. It is for exactly that reason that these universities were up in arms when the government proposed scrapping AS-levels.

We live in a world were all ‘good’ universities give similar if not identical university offers. And yet, if one looks at the average UCAS tariff scores of university entrants, the average score of Cambridge entrants is 601, whereas the average score of Manchester entrants, for example, is just 433.”

(8)(6)

Anonymous

Bumblebee is right.

John Curran

This newspaper report about a recent Bar of Ireland survey might also be of interest to some readers: – http://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/two-in-three-women-barristers-face-discrimination-study-finds-1.2618019

(0)(1)

David H

This social mobility naziism is getting boring.

It’s not the responsibility of self-employed barristers to cure unfairnesses in the education system.

And if well-qualified applicants don’t have the gumption to read about the profession online and then apply for mini-pupillages, then the bar’s not for them.

You might as well demand that self-employed film producers or Op Ed columnists pay for interns’ travel expenses.

It’s time for the independent bar to stop apologising for its existence.

(15)(38)

Anonymous

No, but it is the responsibility of the bar council. Every few years an ex-bar council shares laments the lack of social mobility whilst not acknowledging that they did sod all about it whilst in office.

Nobody is asking the bar to apologise for its existence. They are just asking for the very justified request to at least fund pupil’s travel and lunch expenses when they spend a week working.

Interns absolutely should be paid for their travel expenses. Otherwise, if you don’t have any money, and don’t live in the said place of the mini-pupillage, you can’t do one. If you can’t do any mini-pupillages, you are unlikely to get pupillage. This bars talented people from pursuing a career at the bar because they don’t have the financial means to get it off the ground. I am struggling to understand how you think that the above scenario is fair.

(5)(4)

Anonymous

Meant chair* not shares, sorry

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Anonymous

Who cares about poor white working class boys and girls from the provinces. Lucky devils. We should really be focusing on the plight of privately educated white women from London and the South East who have NO CHANCE of getting pupillage. It is just so unfair it brings me to tears

(19)(5)

Anonymous

Why the emphasis on white?

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Anonymous

Statistically non-whites are better represented at the bar.

(4)(4)

Anonymous

There won’t be a bar in 50 years time, chill out everyone.

(7)(5)

Anonymous

Too true

(2)(0)

feasel

Meh. Without getting all “4 Yorkshiremen”, I managed to overcome a flat-capped background and incompetent careers service by ignoring them and finding out for myself. Netscape wasn’t released until my final year at school, and nobody in the UK knew what the Internet was anyway, so I had to do it by libraries and mail order.

Before people chip in with “it was all a lot easier in those days”, I made the conscious decision to defer CPEs and Bar School until I could pay the fees, because my parents could not afford it even then. I entered the profession during its cutthroat years

I’m am sick to my lips of hearing people bleat on about social mobility at the Bar. If, in the days of instant and unlimited information, you can’t get off your backside, then you haven’t got what it takes.

Sorry kids.

(4)(5)

Yorkshireman

Libraries? Mail order? You don’t know you’re born. In my day, after 18 hour shift down the pit I had to hike 32 miles through dales and up a hill to read smoke signals from the next town with careers information. And it were all wrong.

(23)(0)

Wakefield

Work? Legs to walk with? Smoke signals? Luxury!

Me any my family spent 4 years being hounded across the moors by Thatcherite hunting parties, eventually getting our legs chopped off, eyes gouged out and our tongues cut off. I had to fashion my law books out of old tea leaves.

But we were happy then.

(14)(0)

Steel City

You were lucky.

We used to have 26 of us living in a rolled-out judge’s wig. We’d get up at half past ten at night in the morning half an hour before I went to sleep, pick all of the nits out of the wig, work 28 hours a day in t’court office, and pay the court for t’privilege of letting us work there, and when we got home our dad would batter us to sleep with the White Book. If we were lucky.

(5)(0)

Anonymous

What a load of rubbish. As someone who has done at least 5 minis not to mention months of interning, I’ve probably spent at least 1K in either travel costs and/or lunches etc. These things DO cost money, even if you’re a student in london already. And it goes without saying, but, if you don’t get these minis and intern and do other stuff, you won’t make it to the bar. The internships that pay often are obtained after you’ve done all the other, smaller things first, creating a huge barrier for those who can’t afford it.

Whilst I’m all in favour of social mobility, I get very annoyed at this idea that these issues only apply to a small group of students – they do not. Everyone who is not upper class or who has a barrister in the family (i.e. most people) tends to find the world of the bar incomprehensible. This isn’t resolved by reading a book or looking online. It is only when a student finds a good careers advisor (those are rare) or a sympathetic barrister who has the time and inclination, THEN they are told what it really takes to get to the bar and what to do. The Inns do a good job, but there’s a lot more that they could do. Chambers are definitely the culprits too – for a start, they should make clear what they care about specifically in terms of candidates and publish it online – saving them 1000s of hours reading applications from good candidates who won’t fit or from rubbish candidates who won’t get in. And so on. Bottom line: many of these issues apply to all students.

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feasel

People desperate to be barrister who can’t afford mini-pupillages, CPE, BVC etc, then they can always, you know, get a job. This is a tried and tested strategy for people who want things but can’t afford them.

As for the rest of your post, it smacks of the kind of whiny, self-pitying rubbish that pretty much guarantees failure in a world of competitive self-employment. Sorry. You don’t agree? I don’t care.

This one sentence stands out:
“Everyone who is not upper class or who has a barrister in the family (i.e. most people) tends to find the world of the bar incomprehensible.”

Utter nonsense. How you managed combine patronising and smug with depressing self-criticism in a single sentence is beyond me. But if you genuinely want to be a barrister, perhaps now is the time to learn that sweeping generalistion with no basis in evidence and hyperbole are enemies of persuasion.

(4)(5)

Anonymous

You know what’s funny? Your ability to selectively read what I wrote, then make assumptions about me that are false (which you’d know if you’d read what I wrote properly), and then to put your own personal feelings about this situation. tut tut.

Nevertheless, here we go:
1) I wasn’t complaining regarding my personal circumstances. I’ve not had trouble finding out what it takes to get to the bar. I was simply articulating how almost every student I’ve met or studied with, has felt (at least, if only at the start, some much later on) Some are from poor backgrounds, others are more fortunate.

This matters for two reasons: firstly, because it means people lose time not doing things correctly or not knowing what to do. Secondly, because it means plenty of students with poor grades have stars in their eyes, get to a year post-BPTC and wonder what they did wrong, with no one telling them why they haven’t achieved. If we start making clear what’s truly required and the personal and financial costs, everyone would be better off.

2) “they can always get a job” – funny, that’s not the profile of most barristers, at least not in the way you imply it. Furthermore, most of those people who have to work full time are at a disadvantage. Why? Because they don’t have the ability to take time off to do a lot of minis, to intern, to do other things. Yes, you can work full time and study part time, but there’s a limited amount of hours in the day. Considering just how competitive the bar is, and the fact that many barristers think you should then paralegal or go abroad for a year post BPTC, well, you need time and money to do that. Many who work full time don’t have that luxury. All of this is common sense.

4) If you really think that I was wrong that many people find the bar to be a mystery (maybe mystery would have been better than incomprehensible) please provide evidence for your statement. My evidence was in the form of my personal experience, of students I’ve spoken to and of interactions with barristers in several areas of law. Most importantly, the point I’ve made is EXACTLY what is written in said social mobility reports. So tell me again why I’m wrong?!

By evidence against, I don’t mean a website that says “do minis, be smart, do internships” – all of that is basic advice. I mean proper information as to what the bar is really like, what it takes to get there. In my experience, you only get that by doing plenty of minis and going to networking events to speak to barristers etc.

5) You took my comment about upper class as patronizing – it was meant to be the opposite. Furthermore, it’s a comment frequently made on this blog, by many people, and is understood to mean (as is also frequently made on discussions about social mobility) that if you don’t have contacts or resources, finding out about an industry can be really hard for young people. I was simply highlighting a problem that is NOT just faced by certain students, it’s faced by many. And it goes much deeper than is sometimes discussed.

To be frank, it sounds like I either hit a sore spot or you’re having a bad day and are immature enough to try and take it out on a stranger online.

For the record: I’m neither upper class, nor do I have any lawyers in my family, nor did I go to Oxbridge. I did, as I stated above, have enough money to cover minis and interning. And again, I wasn’t complaining about my personal situation. So you tell me who is whining, because it certainly isn’t me!

(5)(1)

Quo Vadis

The total cost of the GDL/BPTC will be in the region of £50k. Explain to me how a would-be barrister is supposed to save up that amount of cash, without parental assistance? As an example, I worked for two years in a decent graduate job, prior to my conversion course, but even with extremely assiduous saving could only save £15k.

(5)(0)

Anonymous

Do a Law undergrad. Get a major scholarship from Inn. Get a (small) loan or early drawdown of some of pupillage award.

TA-DAH!

Anonymous

Get a proper job for a decade or more (long enough for pupillage committees to ignore your crap A-level results), accumulate some non-law commercial experience and maybe just a few grey hairs. Do a part time PGDL. Then remortgage the house and send spouse out to get a job. No mini pupillages or Inn scholarships required.

Works every time. (Well, it worked once and that was enough)

Alistair Mitchell

Inner Temple and Keele Uni fund a Cambridge graduate to investigate social mobility on the PASS scheme, yet no-one researches or publishes figures showing the percentage of Oxbridge graduates obtaining pupillages and tenancies.

(1)(5)

Struan Campbell

The research was to understand the impact of a new programme on the profession. We do publish figures on Oxbridge graduates obtaining pupillage. See page 15. http://goo.gl/1iH8Yt Happy reading.

Struan Campbell
Outreach Manager, Inner Temple

(12)(4)

Anonymous

I funded my minis by working long hours in a call centre living with my parents and then stayed in a dorm in a hostel in central London. I wasn’t bothered about paying for the accommodation or travel or taking unpaid time off work. I was bothered by the number of times I was sidelined and not given the same opportunities because the Chambers had another mini pupil that week who was the child of an instructing solicitor. Particularly as they were clearly not going to make it.
Anyway I’m now a tenant in a top chambers. (Really top, not LC top. …) Wouldn’t mind knowing what the others are now up to…..

(7)(1)

Quo Vadis

About 80% of the people in my lectures at Bar School had a shiny new MacBook Pro – recommended retail price £1600. That should give you a perfect understanding of ‘social mobility’ at the Bar.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

Apart from the last few comments this seems to have degenerated into a moany bitch-fest. I wholeheartedly support paid travel expenses and accommodation for this largely London-centric profession, but since the Bar is largely self employed that means it comes out of tenants’ back pockets. The Bar Council needs to think of a levy (and if it has no powers, to lobby for them) to support this. This need not cost much per barrister, particularly given the horrendous rise in the practising certificate fee of late, or it could be an optional charge like the BRF or the pro bono donation. You can make it as a working or lower middle lad or lass from the provinces with a few lucky chances and by just being yourself. Without free minis etc. it might just take longer, but you can get there and command respect in your profession.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Agree with the comment above, this has turned into a ridiculous whinge.

Expenses being paid for minis is probably a good idea, though I imagine chambers would offer fewer if that were the case.

However, it’s noteworthy that the great majority of the issues identified in this article have nothing to do with the Bar itself and everything to do with society/poor careers advice/things that happen before people get anywhere near the Bar. Naturally this doesn’t fit with LC’s aggressive editorial line.

I had no parental assistance and made it through by working, a small amount of borrowing and a scholarship. It never occurred to me that this was a big deal. Stuff needs to be paid for. Some people have rich and generous parents. Most don’t. Obviously life is a little easier for rich people. It’s a waste of time to wallow in begrudgery and “It’s not fair!”. Just get on with it, and before you know it people will be begrudging your kids their parent-bestowed advantages.

(6)(0)

Anonymous

The concept does rather miss the fundamental point to my mind, that many talented individuals can not afford to attend Uni, nor risk the fees for Bar School. They are, in short, stopped before they start.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

I struggle to make my mind up on this topic.

Clearly, the bar is not as diverse as some professions. It has got better in recent years, but not much.

But I take the good point, that someone made above, that there is only so much that chambers etc could, and should, do.

I am but one insignificant example, but I am the first person in my family to go to university, I did my LLB at a good, but not outstanding university, and I managed subsequently to bag a pupillage. I worked bloody hard, and got the scholarships and prizes needed to make it financially viable.

If people who are good enough to make it are being put off, then that’s a real shame, and obviously should be looked at. But the fact that the bar school providers are still taking £18.5k (in London) from, say, scholarship-less applicants with 2:2s, who are highly unlikely to get a pupillage, is as much of a problem, surely?

(0)(0)

Lord Lyle of Top Leading Solicitor Advocate

O I feel sorry for barristers now. I’m glad I became a higher court solicitor advocate and can instruct myself and don’t need any poncing whinging barrister.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I was one of the PASS applicants interviewed for this study. Ethnic minority, first in my family to attend university. I’ve since obtained a first at a plate-glass uni, worked in retail for a year to pay for a Masters at a Russell (Oxbridge was out of my price range), and have now undertaken the BPTC with an exhibition scholarship.

It’s clear the Bar has become far more conscious of social mobility in recent years, but there’s still a strong whiff of upper class about the place – I think it’s more of an image problem it suffers from, these days. Even as an undergrad at my uni, I remember listening to fellow law students talking about not bothering with the Bar, because in their view, it was just a toff-fest. And that’s a real shame.

More needs to be done to change the Bar. Minis need to be funded, and the Inns and chambers alike need to hold functions that don’t scream “privileged”. I’d go as far as removing the need for qualifying dinners (if they weren’t as important to Inn cohesion as they are) and replace them with Bar skills training sessions.

That will only treat the issue, rather than cure it. As someone above has mentioned, so much more is beyond the remit of the Bar. And some of the problems are so ingrained in society that they may never be eradicated. For instance, aspiring barristers who have had mum and dad pay for internships and experiences (whether here or abroad) will immediately be more appealing. Students who didn’t need to work part-time to fund their studies (and therefore could devote more time to learning) will also fare better, statistically. Hell, students who grew up in a household where English is the first/main language will have an advantage. And sadly, that’s where I realise that some people were born in a position where a career at the Bar is less likely for them.

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Diotallevi

What a narrow minded view about the qualifying sessions. I don’t know what exactly you find “privileged” about them ? Is it eating with a knife and fork? I am qualifying this year with Inner Temple and I although I found the dinners and drinks daunting at first, after a while I relaxed into it. You can meet some very interesting people, especially more senior members of the inn, who tend to be much more approachable than the students. I’ve certainly got my money’s worth in terms of networking and professional opportunities. Yes, some people are filtering by how you look and where you went to college, but so what? Avoid talking to those people. They are not the dominant majority.

It is also worth noting that many of the QS’s on offer are Bar skills training sessions and not dinners anyway.

(0)(0)

shadowy figure

I did a mini pupillage one time, there was another mini pupil there – I was at Oxford and he was a spotty 15 year old who’d just done GCSEs but was related to a friend of someone in chambers. Just goes to show.

I did fall asleep in court though…

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Anonymous

I applied and got a mini pupillage one time, there was another mini pupil there. I was at Oxford and he was a spotty 15 year old who’d just done GCSEs but was related to a friend of someone in chambers. Just goes to show.

I did fall asleep in court though…

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Incognito

I largely supported the consensus view on social mobility, until last year when I listened to this podcast: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b052hvhn. Unfortunately it doesn’t come with a transcript – I know that it’s a pain to listen to podcasts, unless you can work them in to your daily routine. It concluded though that, after the post-WWII expansion of the economy, there are no further expansions in ‘middle class jobs’, and so social mobility is now dead because the middle classes will not countenance their children being displaced from that limited number of middle class jobs. Effectively, it concluded, social mobility is only a soundbite used by politicians. I thought it was unarguable – if people do get chance to listen to it, I’d be interested in your views.

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Diotallevi

A pupil barrister did a PhD? I can only wonder how he managed to do that PhD in 12 months’ worth of evenings and weekends.

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