‘Poor A-Levels and a non-Russell Group background — will I make it as a barrister?’

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All advice welcome

In the latest instalment in our Career Conundrums series, one aspiring barrister wants readers’ thoughts on his proposed route to the bar.

“I am currently a second year law student at one of the best modern universities and ended up there through poor A-Levels. At the time of my A-Levels I didn’t want to study law so didn’t care too much about my grades. I switched to law when coming to university and now have a passion for it (sad, I know). I’m currently seeking to go to the bar but I know it’s mainly Oxbridge-educated. My plan, currently, is a placement year with a law firm, and finishing my degree before going to do an LLM with my university since it will be cheaper than elsewhere, due to alumni discount, before doing the bar course here as well. I’m asking if I should change that plan or any other advice your readers can give.”

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I wouldn’t bother if I were you. If you’re up to scratch then you would have got good grades regardless how much you cared. Smart people get good marks without trying.


Undercover Barrister

Quite a ludicrous comment don’t you think?



Not really?

Exams are easy. Coursework is easy. There is no excuse for bad grades.



Larry is right. The best sail through A Levels even if they did nothing. Sounds harsh, but is true.



Not true. No matter how clever you are, you are not born with the knowledge of your course work, you will still need to learn and revise. The difference is the higher one’s IQ one may find that he/she understand topics quicker and revision may take less time but you still need to work to achieve good grades. Anyone (thats you Larry) who thinks otherwise is very likely not particularly bright.
I say this from experience, with a tested exceptionally high IQ and as a member of Mensa (Genius club as it’s colloquially known), I am what many consider as very intelligent and yes I find it perhaps easier than most to understand my coursework and to retain information but that does not mean I can turn up at an exam having done no revision and magically achieve top grades. Without any prep, just by listening in lectures/class I may get by and pass my exams but certainly not get great grades. For that one needs to work.


This arrogant nonsense is why so many students who are or could be excellent leave school thinking they’re not excellent or can’t be, and the world suffers because of this loss of talent, all created from a ‘i or he did well not trying so if you didn’t there’s something wrong with you’ and this is just madness. Those who do well without trying just learnt what the others didn’t, that’s down to teachers, luck, things going on at home or the different development rates we all go through and more, anyone can be excellent and learn to be excellent, I’ve made a career of turning E grade students to A* in a matter of months because I reject this nonsense and find everyone’s route to excellence. It’s your loss at the end of the day to think like this and it’s so sad…


Of course the less talented can do well with work. But that was not the point. The best can sail through school exams without effort. So they would not end up with poor A level results. Poor A level results are a sign of not having what it takes.


Firstly,most of a levels is independent learning so if you don’t put on effort it doesn’t matter how smart you are you simply won’t no the facts to get good grades.
Futhemore, the reason coursework is easy is because it’s more about effort than being smart thus if you don’t put in effort but you have the brain of Einstein you grade will still low regardless of grades.
You can get away with just being smart at gcse but at a levels it’s not good enough to be smart because the level of content requires you to continuously be studying. It is humanely impossible to be questioned on every aspect of an a level and get them correct just because you’re naturally smart.

To conclude, smart people are smart because they study and put in effort this if he is currently being more diligent in studies at university than in sixth form than has the potential to achieve what he wants.

10 Ant

You get one B. I’ll let that go. But any more, in the bin you go.


How tho, how do they manage to sail through with no studying ?


Life comes in to play. Don’t be to harsh on individuals. Some barristers at leading chambers didn’t have Good grades either and they tell you. Nevertheless, some of them are in leading sets in London. Work hard and smash your degree and Bptc. You will do it along with how you deliver in interviews .



That’s absolutely true of barristers as a whole, but not of recent pupils and tenants. Rightly or not, there has been an undeniable shift in the last decade or so.

Larry's MUM

If you think you can excel in any profession without study and practice youre a moron


Oscar Nominated

But, Larry’s Mum, that was not the point being made was it? If you can’t cruise A levels, work or no work, you are not going to be good enough. Because when the good enough do decide to work they will leave you for dead. So poor A levels means almost certainly not up to it.


Larry speaking as an a level examiner, you do NOT know what you are talking about, want to do a mock exam you haven’t studied/tried for and we can see how you do? Open to anyone else here who thinks like Larry…



A levels are a piece of cake to the point that straight As mean nothing when selecting for the best candidates. A levels are there to sort out children the lower administrative roles upwards.

Mr Pineapples

Yes but you are talking about woodwork- which is the only exam you passed



Jesus Christ Larry it depends on the A Levels he took and whether he’d done them before. Even you’d fail English or History of you did no work for them at all because they’re completely different at GCSE.



“Done them before”? If someone does them more than once the second batch does not count. The best get it right first time, all the time.

Larysa bitofatwat

Give it a rest larry, I wouldn’t consider myself smart because I dont think that’s at my discretion but I’m currently studying my A levels and got 3 A* in Chemistry, Biology and History in my last set of mocks so make of that what you will, I’m from a working class background and was bullied through primary school to the point of considering suicide, I had paid little attention to my studies and I was a no-hoper by the end, I was never going to be a high flyer. But then I got to high school and something clicked, I worked for 5 years to catch up and get on top of my classes and I poured my blood sweat and tears into my education and managed to come ou with 2 grade 9s a grade 8 and the rest grade 7 with 2 grade 6s and 11 GCSEs overall, effort took me from nothing to that point, effort and only effort, not natural ability nor some pre destined path laid down by God. Now I’m applying to university medicine courses to try and become a doctor. OP if you’re reading this I know sod all about the legal profession but you can do it, if you put your time and effort in, set small manageable goals and work your fingers to the bone you can do it, it wont be easy but I promise you can do it, leave doubters like Larry in your dust, race towards your future and grasp it with both hands. You can do anything if you put your mind to it 🙂



Still, WTF is a potential medical student doing on this site?


Nope. Larry is bang right.


Gwynne Parry

It would be difficult…but with fire in your Belly…a great Barrister can be made. Anyway , after Bar School… I went into Insurance and we pay the wages of Barristers. Also did a bit of politics and one mate became a Government Minister of a numberof Depts and was Chairman of the current party in power without a degree. An Oxbridge law degree is one hell of a weapon however …to be fair… but not every kid at 18 is grade hunting believe it or not to those who only live in that world.



Insurers’ rates does not pay the mortgage on a decent place in Chelsea.


Oh mum, I can’t take my exams all stuffed up like this !
Course you can, Malcolm, er, Larry ! Don’t be a lazy wuss. And give me back my nasal spray !



A-Levels aren’t everything, My A-Levels were pretty poor (3 Ds in History, Classics, & Politics). During my final A-Level exams my Grandmother died, and I was involved in a car accident. I sat my exams with some nasty internal injuries, for one of these exams I had been in A&E the night prior and still made it to my 9am exam. I managed to get into my first choice Uni (not a Russell but an old established Uni). I ended up with a 2:1 LLB Law with History, I’m now a law Postgrad with scholarships etc. I know people who flew through their A-Levels and ended up with Lower Seconds in Law. A-Levels do not prove who is best, or brightest. YOUR DEGREE DOES. Go for placements and all that, the “damage” of your A-Levels can be mitigated.


Bob the lawyer




Not true. No matter how clever you are, you are not born with the knowledge of your course work, you will still need to learn and revise. The difference is the higher one’s IQ one may find that he/she understand topics quicker and revision may take less time but you still need to work to achieve good grades. Anyone (thats you Larry) who thinks otherwise is very likely not particularly bright.
I say this from experience, with a tested exceptionally high IQ and as a member of Mensa (Genius club as it’s colloquially known), I am what many consider as very intelligent and yes I find it perhaps easier than most to understand my coursework and to retain information but that does not mean I can turn up at an exam having done no revision and magically achieve top grades. Without any prep, just by listening in lectures/class I may get by and pass my exams but certainly not get great grades. For that one needs to work.



“Anyone (that’s you Larry who thinks otherwise is very likely not particularly bright”




I am bright. I got all As at A-level (A* was not a thing back then). I am not exceptional. I am also not a barrister. I am a solicitor. The bar is lower. I am bright enough to do my job well. I didn’t go to a fancy school. I didn’t try at school. I am happy as Larry. I am Larry.



How did u get those grades without trying, did u just pay attention in class or was it natural, i know a girl who got ABB in a level with only 1 week of studying, how do u ppl do it, whats the secret?



“I say this from experience, with a tested exceptionally high IQ and as a member of Mensa (Genius club as it’s colloquially known), I am what many consider as very intelligent […]”

Colloquially to members of Mensa, perhaps. I am also what many consider as very intelligent and have found that a surefire way of recognizing people who aren’t is whether they are members of Mensa!

Intellectual humility and an ability to think critically about the objective value of IQ tests are much more desirable imo.



Exam passers. Do they make good lawyers though?



Larry is clearly a troll. Ignore his comment and those posting similar troll-shite. I’d love to see their CVs. Rule no 1 in success; don’t EVER listen to the nay-sayers.

I’m a medical doctor (Haemato-Oncology) and guess what.. l definitely had to ‘try’ along the way to securing the 12 letters I have after my name.

Get in touch with some actual barristers local to you for some advice (and a foot in the door); actual professionals (vs online trolls) are almost universally keen to help an enthusiastic junior succeed, ESPECIALLY when their journey hasn’t been vanilla.


Reality Bites

Thanks for calling on all your experience of the pupillage application process. Which appears to be close to fuck all. I’d assume medicine probably has a flatter wider entry system, which would make your comment worthless tosh. But then I have no experience of it directly, so it would just be an assumption which I why I do not comment on medical professional themed newssites. I do know about legal applications and the alleged student asking for help is well and truly screwed.



Why a placement year in a law firm? And, in terms of the City, do these even exist?



Change your plan. Go the solicitor route



I’m in a similar situation, will the solicitor route be any easier?



You might be real, unlike the fictional character making the initial request. Being real helps your chances.


Archibald Pomp O'City

“Being real helps your chances.”

Being real does more than help your chances; it’s the single biggest success factor you can bring to the table. Without it, chances aren’t even possible.



Yes, I agree. I’m a successful barrister, admittedly with straight As at A level (local comp) and an Oxbridge Scholarship behind me. I was the oldest in a large family with 2 desperately sick parents and then had to take a career break for 10 years whilst I looked after the grandma who had raised me, and the wilder excesses of both parents’ behaviours.

At Oxbridge I had begun to learn that, although contacts are Important, there is never any substitute for self-belief, passion and (ridiculously) hard work. If you can’t provide all 3, you are unlikely to succeed at the desperately difficult profession which, despite apparent glamour, is the reality of the bar.

Privileged people often have hard work thrust upon them by expensive schooling. If you are not privileged, you need to work extra hard. Ironically, btw, I found that Oxbridge was far more meritocratic and fair-minded than institutions further down the food chain who often recruited from the expensively educated with no talent but snob credentials (beagling, anyone ?).

Good ‘A’ levels are a sign of either genius and or hard work. The advantages of the latter can be provided to those without genius by a rigorous (generally expensive) education. Hard work is, however, open to anyone. Monied or otherwise, moreover, some children have such difficult families that they do not work hard at the crucial time.

My advice ? Do work experience at both solicitors’ firms and barristers’ chambers so that you have a realistic flavour of each. Then, if you are still passionate about law and becoming a barrister (and not just chippy or desperate to prove yourself) start working ridiculously hard and apply for the solicitor route. Get a first. Get the top mark in your LPC or Bar School finals.

If you really are barrister material you won’t need me to supply the arguments about how being a ‘late bloomer’ puts you ahead of the field.

If you decide to follow the solicitor route first (financially less perilous) and still want to be a barrister later, you may well find that chambers will mistakenly think that you will bring extra work with you … oops, was that ‘contacts’ again ?

And, p.s., if you want to be rich and famous, try banking.


Dr F

LOVE this response, couldn’t agree more.



I also agree with Anon. I would add that soft skills are also important especially when it comes down to securing business in a competitive environment. You can be a genius but you still need the soft skills.

PS Banking and finance are not so bad.



Many barristers attended Oxbridge, but most didn’t (at least when looking at undergrad studies) – stats are available on this.

However, some areas are dominated by Oxbridge grads (check out profiles of junior tenants), so your chance of success might depend on the particular area you want to work in.

Staying at the same university for an LLM and then the Bar Course might in some eyes look a bit like you don’t like change, don’t like risks etc. so perhaps not someone well suited to a self employed career.
If your heart is set on spending the money to take a Masters (any particular reason why?), why not try to get in to an LLM at a better regarded university? An LLM at the same uni doesn’t add much to a CV at all. It might be cheaper to stay, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better value.



This 👆🏼



If possible, the poster should look at a masters for Oxbridge. This could help fulfil the ‘intellectual ability’ criteria on a Pupillage application. Above all else, Barristers are human, show why you’re the best candidate and keep going even if you get rejected in the first round.



Commenting here as comments are closed on the actual article.



Undercover Barrister

Obviously it will be a hard ride to become a Barrister, but that’s even whilst being Oxbridge educated. Having poor A-levels is going to limit what chambers you can apply for but having a First in your degree will give you a strong case for ‘intellectual ability’.

There are some chambers which disregard A-levels and university attended as part of their recruitment process such as Red Lion Chambers and 3PB and a lot of chambers will anonymise applications to only show grades when sifting the applications.

Get yourself a First, a good masters (would be better if it was an Oxbridge one), a lot of work experience and you can make it



Agreed. Know a who barrister got bad A level grades followed by a first but no masters. Now well respected and doing well at Bar. A late developer but very bright. The Bar is a still Broad church at least in many quarters!


Oscar Nominated

One swallow does not a summer make. In the current market, the imaginary student in question would almost certainly have next to no chance.



The Bar is exceptionally tough even within the competitive world of law. If you want to do crime or family possibly outside London you might have a slim chance with a first class law degree and outstanding on the BVC but then you won’t make any money so will need to change your specialism if you want to live. If you want to go into any area of law where you can make money if you haven’t got a first from Oxbridge, Ivy League or a postgraduate degree from an institution of that nature do not waste your time. Be a Solicitor then get higher rights if advocacy is your passion.



Whilst it’s true that competition is fierce, even for those with Oxbridge degrees, there is a chance to make it in more lucrative practice areas. Chamber recruitment policy is slowly changing.



If anything policies are getting more conservative given that the lesser universities are handing out firsts like confetti so they mean nothing.


Silent Barrister

I’ve seen a change in recruitment policies, looking at university grades with the institution made anonymous is slowly becoming the norm, and it should. Less binary recruiting allows for a more diverse Bar.



Just bollocks. Now that lesser unis give out firsts like sweets, you cannot compare uni results on a blind basis.

Divorce Queen

Don’t forget, however, that financial divorce work is generally privately paid and reasonably profitable. This applies out of London too. Many family practitioners won’t do ‘money’ work, perceiving it to be ‘difficult’. This arguably leaves the field clear for the braver souls who don’t fear the risk of the disgruntled lay client’s negligence suit (and the higher insurance premiums that risk attracts).

If you are confident with figures and the arguments the arithmetic provides, and prepared to work fiendishly hard, it can however be intensely satisfying. The problem-solving involved with balancing the genuine agonies of the lay client with the objectivity of the solution never stales.



Forget it. Coronavirus will kill us all by Christmas anyway.


Anonymous sicko

Although if you’re still alive by Christmas, you could try specialising in growth areas … airline disputes … wrongful deaths ? Ouch. I know. Apologies.


Oscar Nominated

Contested wills and inheritance tax issues are set to boom when all those Boomers die of covid.


Colm Nugent

It’s not mostly Oxbridge, but like almost all professions, Oxbridge is over-represented. More so in the more ratified areas of legal practice. There are a lot more Oxbridge barristers in chancery work than there are in immigration, for example.
Success is a relative term – what do you define as sucess? Earning lots of money? Fulfilment in your professional career? Becoming a QC or Judge?
When people apply to our chambers, we are not really that interested in their A-levels or(to some extent) their University. But that depends when you apply. If you apply at 22, you haven’t much else to talk to. If you apply at 29 and have worked in advocacy/legal role elsewhere or have shown leadership and initiative, that’s what we want to talk about with you. If you don’t think your academics are all that hot, make sure they are but a mere detail when you eventually come to apply, by having demonstrated the skills and aptitude in other fields.


Undercover Barrister

Exactly! Academics are not always a stellar indication of someone’s legal skills. As long as they can satisfy the ‘intellectual ability’ requirement to an extent it comes down to who has the skills to be a successful Barrister.



How nice. In the real world, a glance at the profiles of those who became tenants suggests there is a peculiar correlation between the two!



I think the Oxbridginess of the Bar is over-estimated…outside London, that is. That said, individual circuits can be quite clannish so it might be best to start making connections now with the circuit you want to join.



Wants to be a barrister, but will fail miserably? Sounds like you should be LC’s next journo mate.



Just proves the point that all of these “career conundrums” are written by the LC staff. This one is obviously based on one of LC authors’ personal experience.



Don’t be discouraged. I had average a-levels and a 2:2 LLB degree from a non oxbridge or Russell university. I also did a masters at the same university, obtained a full BPTC scholarship from my inn despite my grades, secured pupillage and now I’m a tenant in a reputable chambers with a great practice. It is possible. It won’t be easy. But it IS POSSIBLE! If you really want it. Work hard to get it.



Tunde is that you?



And the comment of the day goes to ‘OBE’!



Can I ask how you managed this? I am in a similar situation academically



You remember that guy from the Fyre festival documentary, who needed to help them get Evian water through customs? I took a lot of inspiration from that.



Generally, the Inns are always willing to give opportunities to students who’s parents are not university educated, and/or who come from BAME backgrounds.



How about disabled people?


Archibald Pomp O'City

Too much hard work I guess, installing new staircases or facilitating Braille.


I actually think this might be real given the familiar delusion: these plate glass undergrads think that they actually have options re entering the legal profession. This person doesn’t realise that at best they’re going to be a regional conveyancing or family law paralegal for 2-3 years before even being considered for a TC. The Bar isn’t going to happen, even if they have a family connection.

From what I remember of the last round of stats, something like 80% of the London circuit has an Oxbridge qualification. I know that in the Chambers my firm regularly uses nearly 90% of all tenants have the famous BCL (Oxon). Legal Cheek even did an article a number of years ago (2016 maybe?) that well over half of all rookie barristers did an Oxbridge undergrad.

Given the choices you’ve made to date, you simply won’t make it. BPP/ULaw/*insert other private institute here* will all happily take your money for the BPTC, but you’ll never get a pupillage. If my firm heard this background we wouldn’t even consider you for a paralegal role.

If money is a concern, you should not be doing the LLM anyways. Try to work in a commercial law/law-related role for a couple years THEN consider spending money on the next qualification. I know plenty of people that did LLB, LLM, BPTC/LPC all in a row that inevitably hated working in the law and now work in unrelated sectors after spending around £85k on legal education.



Realistic and fair advice.



Apply for a scholarship. If you don’t get it, don’t bother.



Don’t cause yourself the heartache, headache, walletache and life ache by doing it. Just pick another career and leave the Bar, it’s honestly not worth the ache.



With that sort of track record, you might just scrape into the Criminal Bar and end up earning less than the minimum wage. Have you thought about becoming a plumber or an electrician?



Try to come top in your year. That’ll repair some of the existing CV damage. Then rethink the LLM – if it isn’t a BCL or a Cambridge or Ivy league LLM then it probably adds nothing to the CV. Hope that helps.


Legal Man

I got below average A Levels, and a Desmond from a non-Russel Group uni, and I can confirm that I am not in anyway a barrister.

I mean, I didn’t ever want to be one, but that’s besides the point – I did, however, get a decent job which turned into a better job and now life ain’t that bad.

Having looked at some of the figures for what some Juniors are actually making once all expenses have been deducted, I’m fairly confident that my Assistant makes more per hour anyway.



“Modern University”

Had polytechnic written all over this comment



Our phenomenally successful Head of Chambers, a Criminal Silk, went to a ‘Modern University’.



And he nearly earns as much as a 2nd year commercial tenant.


Bitter common lawyer

2nd year commercial tenants don’t generally earn anything.



About £250k plus is nothing?

Envious 2nd year commercial tenant

He owns a private island and flies to France for lunch.





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