The regulator needs to update its approach
Long ago, the recruitment of pupils saw aspiring barristers ask directly for pupillage and, if lucky, offered one on the spot. Today it is all about regulation, regulation, regulation, much courtesy of the Bar Standards Board (BSB).
One key area of regulation is the remuneration of pupils. The BSB makes it very clear that all pupillages should be paid, unless a chambers has applied for a waiver from funding (which is rare). The BSB seem to suggest that these rules protect those who are economically disadvantaged, as those who are deemed privileged would gain an unfair advantage. However, this is a myth.
At a time where the hot topic is ‘social mobility’, where individuals from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds are encouraged to pursue a career at the bar, the disadvantaged may find that access is still not possible. Pupillage spots are highly competitive, postgraduate barrister education is extortionate and there are limited work experience placements out there. I think the regulator is, in fact, obstructing access by imposing a ban on unpaid pupillages, halting aspiring barristers from gaining a vital practising certificate which can open so many doors for them.
I have noticed of late a trend of individuals using their extra, sometimes unpaid, experience to fast track their career. One chambers a few years ago advertised for pupils who could complete a reduced pupillage. This would only be available to a select few, who could demonstrate they have the requisite experience. By way of further example, another barrister was called to the English bar but undertook further study and was called to the Irish bar and subsequently devilled in Ireland (devilling in Ireland is unpaid). After only a few years in Ireland, she recently returned and is now a tenant at a West Midlands set.
These examples demonstrate that having the economic means to fund the ‘right’ experience or pursue opportunities abroad can allow access to the bar via the back door. This is the authorised form of the unpaid pupillage for those who have the financial means and opportunities. Surely the BSB, by allowing such exemptions, flies in the face of protecting the economically disadvantaged.
So, if the BSB is allowing people to qualify in England and Wales on the back of unpaid experience sometimes gained abroad, why not introduce unpaid pupillages here?
The costs, clearly, would be far lower for chambers, and therefore encourage them to take on more pupils. Chambers do not have to offer me tenancy at the end of it, but having my practising certificate could open so many doors beyond just having fancy-sounding titles but with no professional qualifications.
The BSB finds it acceptable for individuals such as myself, who have ‘spent’ £48,000 on obtaining qualifications and who are capable of succeeding at the bar, to accumulate debt or spend this level of money to even be eligible for pupillage, but deem it unacceptable for me to have to pay a fraction more to support myself through an unpaid pupillage. It seems illogical to me. I hope the BSB will consider my points and can appreciate the positive arguments supporting unpaid pupillages, articulated by someone who ticks all of their ‘socially disadvantaged’ boxes.
I don’t believe, however, that funded pupillages should cease. Instead, I think they should still exist and to eradicate them would be unwise. Chambers could even offer paid pupillages as well as unpaid pupillages. There would be a bigger pool of candidates to choose from at the end of the pupillage, and if they decide to keep an unpaid pupil perhaps they could choose to pay them the level of pupillage award they would have been paid to reward their efforts.
Let me be clear. I was aware, even before embarking on the bar course, of the challenges and the odds associated with obtaining pupillage.
I began the LLB as a mature student and fall within the BSB’s label of ‘disadvantaged’, coming from a working class, first-generation immigrant Indian family, with no connection to the legal community and having been educated at inner city state schools. Yet, I have always been determined to make it as a barrister. I gained some fantastic experience and was able to network well, meeting some very kind barristers and judges who helped me along the way.
Just to get myself this far has involved considerable expense. A student loan of £20,000 to fund my law degree, a bank loan for the bar course of £20,000 including interest and £8,000 for my LLM, which was funded by part-time employment stacking shelves in a supermarket. I was fortunate to have secured a couple of scholarships along the way but nonetheless it has been an expensive journey. But I’d rather it be a slightly more expensive journey and have a practising certificate in hand.
Bar Hopeful has completed the Bar Professional Training Course and is currently working in a non-legal role.