‘How can I demonstrate I’m a first class student trapped with a second class degree?’

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A bar hopeful seeks readers’ advice

In the latest instalment in our Career Conundrums series, a “first class” student is concerned her 2:1 undergraduate result will prevent her from pursuing a career as a barrister in London.

“Prior to starting university, my academics were flawless (all A*s at GCSE and A-Level). However, as an undergraduate I experienced bouts of depression, which stifled my intellect and concentration. I graduated with a mid-2:1 in the humanities, after which I gained a high commendation on the GDL.

Since then, my mental health is much improved and I have completed a number of vacation schemes at City firms and minis at regional chambers. All were highly complementary of my advocacy and research skills, and there seemed to be a general consensus that I would be suited to the bar.

As my primary interests lie in company law, I would prefer to commence pupillage in London. I have made mini-pupillage applications to Tier 3-5 sets, as I had considered them to be more ‘realistic’ options.

However, I am struggling to secure minis at even T4 sets. This is likely due to the 2:1, but I did broadly allude to the presence of mitigating circumstances. I am disappointed that so few sets were sympathetic.

I’d appreciate some advice. How can I demonstrate that I’m a first class student trapped with a second class degree? If this is impossible, then should I shift my focus to the regional bar?”

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Legal Genius

You can’t buddeh. The bar sucks.



I thoroughly messed up uni and ended up with a very low 1st (71%). Will this affect my chances of getting pupillage?


Oxford grad

Depends on the uni. At Oxford you’d be top, or nearly top, of the year with an overall average of 71.



The Bar is a funny place. While there are ‘top sets’ which try to guard their turf doggedly, ultimately if you can get your feet under a Chambers table and get some cases, and start winning them against the odds, then your star will rise.

Despite what they would have you think, Chambers (and firms) rise and Chambers (and firms) fall.

Years ago I worked in Liverpool and instructed a young jobbing barrister called Brian Leveson on a case involving a chemical spill at the docks. I wonder what happened to him?



In broad support of the above comment, but on a slightly different point, there has been a bit more movement of barristers between sets in recent years than there was perhaps 10-20 years ago.

There is a case to be made that the bigger leading sets are getting bigger still, and that is resulting in some degree of lateral recruitment of the rising stars in other sets. Cast your (informed) eye around Lincoln’s Inn for the best examples.


Pupillage Committee member

FWIW, I think it is perfectly possible to be a 1st class student with a 2nd class degree. The more relevant question is whether you are a 1st class barrister (in the making) with a 2nd class degree. Again, at a conceptual level, that is also quite possible.

I have been a pupillage committee member for over 10 years, I interview candidates every year, and am a silk at a top tier commercial/commercial chancery set.

Yes of course cerebral horsepower is important. But you need to have enough (which is admittedly a lot), not be the very best.

Being a good barrister requires a skill set that is a long way away from what is required to do well in exams. I am not entirely neutral – I demonstrated a consistent skill in under-performing in exams. However the requirements for practice at the commercial/chancery bar work for me.

When I am interviewing, I often see surprisingly little correlation between the prima facie power of the CV I have read a few minutes beforehand, and the cerebral dexterity required to canter around a fiendishly difficult legal problem (and which the members of the interview panel themselves cannot agree on the answer to). I have seen “top first” candidates flounder and drown in it, and “high 2:1” candidates flourish and devour it. Exam results only tell you so much.

The simple reality is that there is quite a lot of luck involved. Yes, your chances are plainly better with a high first, but once you get that first round interview, you have an opportunity (if you are actually any good) – the 2nd class degree starts to lose its influence to some extent at that point. In some respects, the tougher the interview, the better your prospects (again, assuming that you are a 1st class barrister in the making).

As for getting the interview, a masters somewhere good could be very useful. Your CV is likely to be read very swiftly, and you will want to distinguish yourself from other 2:1 candidates. We have called candidates to interview before who have a 2:1 and an excellent result in a second degree.

Best of luck.



Would you like to indicate what percentage of barristers in your set are of BAME origin?

Luck and a good degree seem to only take people so far these days.


Sour grapes

Indeed. Most of the people I was Called with who already had or subsequently obtained pupillage were white and of upper middle/upper class ilk. A few of them were the high flyers, Oxbridge/mooting starlets and the like, but plenty were, on paper and in person, thoroughly unremarkable, and I can only presume ingroup bias got them through.


Former Bazza

@ JT, which sets in London are offering 80,90K please?


Former Bazza

Lol at the construction Bar not being picky and having no law to decipher. It is very picky, just not obsessed by Oxbridge or out. Again most will have 1sts ,albeit from a wider range of Uni’s, but probably not beyond KCL,Imperial, Bristol, UCL, Durham.


Former Bazza

@ oxford grad a first at a final average id far from a top first, it is a scrape first, more try like 75% plus, with no 2.1s


Archibald Pomp O'City

I’m sorry you had depression. Sadly, that isn’t a free pass to leapfrog your academic betters.



In my experience (as a fellow bar student), once you get your first mini pupillage it opens up the doors to the rest. So maybe try for a mini with a regional set, and you might find you can then build on that and get minis at london chambers.

Mini pupillages aren’t the be all and end all of legal experience. You can try marshalling too, apply to your local court. If there are any mentoring schemes that you have access to, building connections is important. Also I would recommend taking a year out before you start the bar course and work as a paralegal, which will further help with building contacts.

Some commercial sets will only be interested in oxbridge degrees. But there are others out there which are less academically focused. Don’t give up yet! But maybe take a year out to evaluate your options.


Jaded and despondent

I agree that they should not give up yet, but take a moment to consider just how long you are willing to chase it, and set yourself a definitive deadline. Do not waste your time breaking in to a profession via a process which often turns on luck. Pupillage purgatory and the paralegalling that is so often associated with it can be hell.


Previous Conundrum

It’s funny how the responses on this post are a lot less harsh than on my post a couple of weeks ago.



I genuinely dont mean this disrespectfully but, Maybe you’re not actually a first class student?

A*’s at gcse/a-level sound very impressive but they’re actually easier to achieve than ever, its largely a case of rote learning nowadays. Your real level is what you got in the degree and GDL, As these are the more difficult tests.

The sets you are aiming for would put you in the top 1-2% of all law graduates.



But you are probably only in the top 30% of all graduates


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