Pupillage spots plummet amid COVID uncertainty

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475 to 354

The number of pupillage spots plummeted last year as chambers grappled with the uncertainty brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

New stats published as part of the Bar Standards Board’s (BSB) annual diversity report show that bar training spots tumbled from 475 to 354 in the 12 months to December 2020 — a reduction of 121 places. This is “substantially lower” than the five year average of 473 pupillage positions between 2015 and 2019, the regulator notes.

The data comes just months after the BSB warned there would likely be a drop in pupillage numbers over the next two years in response to the pandemic. It went on to predict the biggest drop would be in opportunities in areas of law most affected by COVID-enforced court closures, particularly criminal and family.

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A number of leading commercial sets have since stepped in to provide emergency funding for pupillages that have been postponed or cancelled.

The drop in numbers only adds to the intense competition to secure pupillage. Last year’s recruitment round saw a whopping 2,142 barrister hopefuls submit at least one application via the Pupillage Gateway.

Are you in the process of applying for pupillage? Be sure to check out Legal Cheek‘s 2021 Chambers Most List for the lowdown on everything from the size of pupillage awards to the most Oxbridge-educated new tenants.



One big reason for this has been the massive over supply at the junior end of the Bar. A cull was always the risk in a downturn. The criminal bar is the worst, having taken a Luddite approach over the last decade to social forces leading to huge reductions in work. Talented potential entrants will be the victims when the inevitable “ladder up” reaction happens, as these figures show.

The push for more and more funding of pupillage is another factor too. As cutting one pupillage is a bigger cost saving now for tenants than it used to be.



Are there junior criminal barristers sitting around without work? I doubt it. I suspect the issue is more with crushingly low rates for low-end magistrates’ / Crown Court work, irregular payment, expensive travel, and so on.


Shelf On The Elf

Nah, bro. Just gut common sense from you but utter crap. There has been a massive drop off in criminal hearings over the last 20 years, mainly because serious crime rates have dropped significantly but also for procedural reasons. And the response to cratering work? There have been more and more criminal barristers joining the profession year on year, with new entrants increasing by about 2% a year over the same period. Plummeting demand and increasing supply leads to terrible income. There needs to be a serious cull and hopefully that will be part of this bleeding’ “reset” treehuggers and third rate journalists keep rabbiting on about.


Property Barrister

The move to remote working in civil and family will have had an impact in two important respects.

First, junior tenants can now be in two cities in quick succession – a CCMC in central london at 10:30 and then an injunction at 2pm in Manchester is now entirely possible for one person to do, as long as one of the hearings is remote (which is very likely, and which will continue to be the case after COVID, now the technology is in place). Straight away, that’s one less case for a pupil to do.

Second, a lot of pupil-level work was traditionally stuff which would not be cost effective for the solicitor to do. There will be less of that kind of work now a solicitor can conduct their own hearing without having to incur fees for travel/waiting.

This may mean that, even if a set doesn’t see a general downturn in its work levels, it could see a downturn in the kind of work available for pupils.
(This might be something to tactfully raise when asked if you have any questions for the interview panel!)


Civil Barrister

This is a good point. Added to that is the significant reduction in work that the junior PI bar will experience when the small claims limit goes up to £5,000 (supposedly in April, though it remains to be seen whether the infrastructure will be in place in time).

Good sets will do their best to ensure that pupils are in court regularly, but if there are junior tenants kicking their heels, that’s a delicate balance to strike.


Commercial Junior

Is there then also going to be a hit on the Regional Bars? Why use a regional junior when you can get a London one?


Another Commercial Junior

Because regional counsel might (1) be cheaper (2) be suitable for the case (3) know the local judges (4) offer a good service (5) not be a proper London counsel type (6) know the solicitor and have a good relationship … probably many other reasons.


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