Incoming bar chief expresses concern over lack of young barristers as Pupillage Gateway reopens

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By Thomas Connelly on

‘We will not have a sustainable, separate profession’ Andrew Walker QC warns

The incoming Bar Council chair has expressed his deep concern over the dwindling numbers of junior barristers, going as far as suggesting that it could spell the end of a “sustainable, separate profession”. The bleak warning comes as the Pupillage Gateway quietly reopened for a fresh round of applications.

Andrew Walker QC, a commercial chancery barrister at London’s Maitland Chambers, said that while numbers at the senior end of the bar had “rocketed” over the years, the picture was “less rosy” among rookie ranks. He said:

“To put it bluntly, we are recruiting and retaining ever fewer new tenants, and have been for over a decade, and the bar is steadily growing older.”

Delivering a keynote speech at the annual conference of the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks earlier this month, Walker reinforced his warning with some depressing stats.

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He revealed that since 2005 the number of barristers between six and 10 years’ call had decreased by nearly a quarter (24%), while barrister numbers with 5 years’ call and under had fallen by more than a third (36%).

Walker — who takes over from outgoing Bar Council chair Andrew Langdon QC on 1 January — continued:

“Perhaps most worrying of all, the number of barristers of up to 5 years’ call was actually higher in 1990 than it is now. The number has dropped by more than 10% compared with 1990 : 27 years ago.”

So what appears to be the source of the problem? Well, according to Walker anyway, senior barristers are undertaking work that “a decade or so ago, would have filtered down to the more junior ranks,” while other junior-level matters are now being taken on by “solicitors and by litigants themselves.”

Walker argued that this depletion in junior talent could have serious ramifications for the bar. He said:

“We will not have a sustainable, separate profession of barristers in the medium term, never mind the long term, if we are not recruiting and retaining a cohort who can learn their craft of advocacy and specialist advisory work from the outset, and then move on to become the top advocates and silks of the future.”

The soon-to-be bar chief’s damning assessment comes as the Pupillage Gateway officially reopened this week. Wannabe barristers are now able to browse pupillage vacancies but will have to wait until 8 January before submitting applications.

But it’s worth noting that there are some minor tweaks to this year’s application process. “Changes this year include the replacement of the five compulsory candidate questions with two optional questions, which are intended to produce more useful answers, and speed up marking time for chambers,” according to the Bar Council.

Bar Standards Board figures show that pupillage numbers decreased in 2016 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), dropping from 437 to 424.

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