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Pupil barrister numbers down nearly a third in 30 years

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757 in 1991 ⤵️ 542 in 2020

The number of pupils has shrunk by almost 30% over a period of 30 years, new research by the barristers’ regulatory body has shown.

There were 757 bar grads starting pupillage in 1991, which fell by 28% to 542 in 2020, according to a report published by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) which details trends seen in retention and recruitment at the bar across a 30-year period from 1990 to 2020.

Throughout the 1990s, particularly the first half of the decade, the data shows there was a far higher number of pupils in comparison to the numbers seen during the 2000s and 2010s.

From a peak of 882 pupils in 1993, the number decreased year on year until it plateaued at around 450 pupils each year from 2009 until 2015. It then showed an increase from this point during the latter half of the 2010s to a lesser peak of 605 in 2019.

The BSB said these patterns may be related to “changes in the regulation of pupillages”, as it was not a requirement that pupillages were paid until January 2003.

Overall, the number of those undertaking pupillage decreased every decade since the 1990s. In total, 8,078 individuals undertook pupillage from 1990-2000; compared to 5,541 from 2000-2010; and 4,840 from 2010-2020.

Secure your place: The October 2021 UK Virtual Pupillage Fair

The data further shows the proportion of pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds rose by five percentage points over the past 30 years to 18.8% on average.

However, the increase was driven by a rise in pupils from Asian backgrounds, from 6.3% to 9.5%, and mixed backgrounds, from 1.9% to 4.4%. The proportion of pupils from Black backgrounds remained the same at 3.8%.

Responding to the BSB’s report, chair of the Bar Council Derek Sweeting QC said: “This is an important report with findings that will help inform the Bar Council’s future support for the profession.”

The drop in numbers only adds to the intense competition to secure pupillage. This year’s recruitment round saw a whopping 3,301 bar hopefuls compete for 246 pupillages through the centralised Gateway.

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47 Comments

Just Anonymous

Not surprising at all.

Before pupillages became paid, chambers would regularly take on relatively large numbers of pupils and make them compete for tenancy.

Now, since pupillages are paid, the increasingly common practice (particularly at the civil Bar) is to take on fewer pupils, but with a view to offering all of them tenancy (assuming they are good enough).

(34)(0)

Peter P

The problem with this new model is that, as generations of barristers have shown, the qualities which make one a good pupil are not the same as those which make one a good barrister.

This is perfectly understandable. Pupil supervisors tend to prize pupils who look at a problem, spot the same issues as them and then come to same conclusions. Pupils who spot hidden issues and original arguments are positively discriminated against. It’s no coincidence that many of the very best barristers and judges were turned by several sets before finding a permanent home.

In the past, the fact that pupil supervisors make poor talent scouts was no issue, because there were plenty of opportunities for 12-month and 3rd Six pupillages. But the BSB’s tinkering has now put an end to this. And we’re in the ridiculous position where pupils in commercial/chancery sets are granted/denied tenancy without having ever even spoken in court.

In my opinion, we should go back to the old system.

(14)(22)

Really Now

“Pupils who spot hidden issues and original arguments are positively discriminated against.”

And what’s your evidence for this sweeping assertion? Makes it sound an awful lot like you felt you were under-appreciated (and to be fair maybe you were, and maybe you had a bad supervisor) but to suggest that there is a wide-ranging problem of pupil supervisors refusing to identify the geniuses in front of them, purely because those pupils have picked up points on which the supervisors have missed, is dubious. In several years of sitting on a pupillage committee, I only ever saw praise from supervisors whose pupils had detected innovative points.

(27)(5)

Peter P

I referred to the evidence in my original comment. Namely, the scores of distinguished judges and barristers under the ‘old system’ who had difficulty obtaining tenancy. If you want names, Lord Sumption and Lord Neuberger would be obvious examples. But there are literally dozens and dozens of examples.

The fact of the matter is, under the ‘old system’, the cream rose to the top regardless of the proven inadequacies of pupillage and tenancy committees. Under the ‘new system’, however, the modern day equivalent of Lord Sumption would be lucky to get even a second shot at tenancy, let alone a third. And that’s if he or she was even lucky enough to get pupillage in the first place.

(11)(10)

A

Peter, these people would get pupillage and tenancy now, no doubt. Citing examples from the 60s is hardly a relevant.

Really Now Again

I don’t doubt that many brilliant barristers are passed over for tenancy. 20 Essex does indeed regularly vocalise its regret at having passed over Sumption. I agree completely with your observations that (i) good people are often missed, and (ii) historically, the cream has floated to the top courtesy of third sixes and lateral recruitment.

The only point you made which I question, is the sweeping assertion that “[p]upils who spot hidden issues and original arguments are positively discriminated against”. That is an absolute non sequitur from the remainder of your points, and in and of itself doesn’t make good the argument you are trying to advance for the ‘old system’ (which, to be clear, I believe does have its merits).

Carefully reasoned

This is, with respect, tripe.

(15)(1)

Property Barrister

I’m a little surprised the numbers remained as high as they are.

Factors leading to decrease over the years:

– Barristers losing virtual monopoly on advocacy, meaning the court work available to the profession has shrunk;
– Requirement for pupils to be paid;
– Stagnation of fees in crime and family, meaning lower revenue for advocacy-heavy sets which would have traditionally taken on more pupils
– I think I’m right in saying there are a smaller number of sets now than in the 90s, due to mergers of smaller sets;
– Move in culture in many sets to a presumption that a pupil will be kept on – taking on three pupils per tenancy slot doesn’t happen in many places any more.

You could take that to mean that the Bar is in a withered state compared to the 90s, or that it is healthier as the fat has been trimmed.
Would be interested to know what others think is the cause of the reduction in numbers?

(42)(0)

An observer

I know of a pupil in the regions who always shares posts like this on social media. They caption it with sentences like, ‘absolute madness. Competition at the bar is getting ridiculous’. It makes me concerned for their intellect, for they don’t understand what an obvious humble brag it is.
They keep their wig on a purpose-built stand at the entrance to their flat. Their social media profile pictures always feature them in a gown and wig. Most of their posts feature a gavel emoji. They post incessantly about how to ‘break into the bar’, and ask people to contact them to tap into their wisdom.

I’ve seen others like them, and I’ve one question. What is wrong with these people?

(76)(3)

Armchair Psychologist

It sounds like narcissism and sadly building a complete identity on their job.
No respect to be gained from sport, hobbies or family, so plastering ‘Barrister!’ everywhere is how they get noticed.

I’m always a little weary of the “Pray, let all the little students come to me!” ones. Given the amount of newspaper reports coming out about inappropriate behaviour at the Bar, I’m not convinced every barrister desperately trying to meet attractive 20-something students is doing so because they really care about correcting their spelling mistakes.

(21)(0)

QCs Without 1sts LLP

I may have a 2.1 from the Russell Group, but want to make it absolutely crystal clear that if you do not have a degree from Harvard funded by your parents, an MBE and a breed of pedigree puppy that someone else on the pupillage committee also has, my chambers will not even consider inviting you to interview.

Incidentally, after much side-eying and guilt, chambers has recently founded a scholarship scheme to boost diversity. We asked each member to donate £100 to fund a pupillage for a candidate who got sadly got a ‘B’ at A Level, and who doesn’t otherwise meet our rigorous academic standards.

Aren’t we lovely. Please like my Twitter posts?

(78)(5)

Swert

The Harvard guys and gals are almost all on scholarships. You would know that if you were not posting from a bitter position of mediocrity. Nurse that chip on your shoulder.

(7)(8)

Anon

Since when did Harvard Law School give 100% scholarships for tuition, living costs and the occasional flight back to the UK from Boston???

You are dreaming if you believe attending an Ivy League university coming from the UK is something most people could afford. If it were, everyone would do it.

An Ivy League degree for international students remains almost exclusively the preserve of the wealthy.

It should not be viewed as a necessary marker of ‘intelligence’ for potential advocates.

(9)(0)

Well

The Harvard scholars at the Bar are largely Kennedys and the like who do special status studies. Sometimes the scholarships allow LLMs. The most prestigious UK scholarships to the Ivy League schools provide tuition, stipend, full living costs, flights and some extra cash to stay in the States for longer after the course is over. Almost everyone from the UK who gets even a partial scholarship like a Fullbright will get the rest funded by the institution one way or another.

I suspect your meh 2:1 meant researching these things was not good use of your time. Understandable.

(7)(4)

Anon

And I suppose you loved every second of your time at Harvard?

Why not do BigLaw in NYC with your Harvard LLM rather than post here????

Well

I’d did thanks. Bloody cold in Winter. But I find the idea of “MoneyLaw” utterly gauche.

Anon

Aren’t all ‘service professions’ gauche?

Lawyers are still asked to enter through the tradesman’s entrance.

Anon

My scholarship paid for all those things. I think it included flights back at Christmas too, but I might be wrong. The day flight from Boston is a great way to travel from the US.

(1)(0)

Bar looker

As another poster said, those at the bar with an Ivy League degree (Yale/Harvard/Columbia/Penn/Princeton) are there on a full scholarship. Kennedy, Cambridge-Harvard exchange, Fullbright, Procter, Thouron; these are pretty substantial and cover most if not all of the year. Stop being chippy. The guy with a 2.1 from SOAS who goes to Columbia to study for an MA in International Studies is not going to get pupillage because of that. It offers no meaningful advantage for a job at the bar or I would imagine a tc either.

(4)(2)

Pork Pie Hat

This dullard cuts and paste the same comment every few weeks and thinks he is hilarious.

(2)(4)

QCs Without 1sts LLP

“Please like my post?”

(2)(0)

Anonymous

The fundamental problem with training at the bar is the requirement to pay a voluntary grant to the pupil. I wish to make it clear I do not argue for non-payment, far from it. Everyone in life, no matter what profession deserves to be able to live and learn a trade. The fundamental issue with Barristers training is that nobody seems to understand that a Barrister is a self-employed trade. Every Barrister in every Chambers is self-employed. The complete misunderstanding that a chambers is a huge regulated pot of money is simply not true. The word chambers is just the word the Bar Council use to describe a collection of individuals who share expenses such as marketing and staff costs. If you consider that a self-employed person is asked to contribute towards the “grant” to be given to the trainee to allow that person to obtain hundreds of hours of Barristers, clerks and staff time to then, themselves become a self-employed person at the Bar of England & Wales, it just does not make any sense. Barristers, Chambers, and Clerks do it and have always done it because of the moral sense of helping others as they were once helped themselves. It’s a moral duty, not something that makes any commercial or financial sense. The fact there are so many pupillages now is down to the number of people who feel the need to give something back to the profession. All of our pupil supervisors work for free, in their own time, giving back to the profession they love. The current system simply cannot survive more regulation and more competition in the market. In my personal opinion. I certainly don’t know the answers but pupils have to be funded, recruited, and supported fairly with diversity and social mobility high on the agenda. But how do we do it? My suggestion is to stop the Inns paying scholarships and handing out millions and millions to pupils to pay bar course fees and use that money to fund pupillages in chambers or other AETO’s. If this happened, the estimated £6m paid this year in scholarships would fund 333 pupillage grants. My only conclusion is that for whatever reason, the profession has decided it does not want so many new Barristers as the solution is there if there was a willingness to change it. We are setting up a charity called the Pupillage Academy to train Barristers, provide funding, and lobby for change. My views are my personal views only but things must change.

(13)(18)

Quick Maths

28% is closer to a quarter than a third.

(16)(0)

15 years a hack

When I was interviewing for pupillage, I remember one crusty set asked me if I had the “wherewithal” to buy a share of the building if I was granted tenancy.

I didn’t, of course, and therefore no pupillage there.

Does that still happen?

(21)(0)

Pork Pie Hat

Didn’t happen. Not now. Not ever.

(6)(6)

15 years a hack

It bloody did happen. It was a regional set.

(9)(0)

Anon

I think everyone in Birmingham can guess which set this was…

(0)(0)

Polite Disagreement

In all fairness, this does happen, albeit not (in my experience) in the brusque way portrayed in OP’s post. Several chambers have a ‘buy-in’ which arises from their ownership of their own buildings; you buy a shareholding which you get back if you leave.

Any such chambers will have mechanisms to spread the costs (loans, staggered payments, etc), and whilst I don’t underestimate the impact that finding that sum can have on someone just starting out, it’s no different to any other investment in your career. Taking out a loan to secure a tenancy in a good set where you’ll make a good living seems like a reasonable decision to make to me.

(3)(0)

The Truth Seeker

Your stats are wrong. You said about 3000 students heading for 200 ish pupillages. Well, about 1,500 ish get into BPTC and they will be the ones applying for Pupillages not the applicants for the course .

There isn’t that much of a competition. The ration for the number of pupillages and the number of Bar Students in 1:4.

(1)(11)

A barrister

You are forgetting that students who have passed the bar course can apply for pupillage for several years after completion. One cannot just compare the number of bar school students in one year with the number of pupillages.

A more reliable figure is the number of applicants in the pupillage gateway. In 2021, there were 3,301 candidates for 246 pupillages. That is up on both counts from 2,142 applicants for 237 pupillages in 2020. That does not take account of applicants or pupillages applying outside the gateway.

So, in 2021, 8% of those who applied for pupillage (through the gateway) will be successful. I think that could fairly be described as competitive.

(11)(0)

Anonymous

Jesus – an 8% success rate.

Incredibile to think how many barristers wouldn’t have any hope of a chance of being interviewed now at their own sets.

(10)(0)

Chancery Barrister

If my children wanted to go to the Bar, I would urge them to get a TC first at a Top 20 firm, then apply to the Bar after a few years.

I’ve seen brilliant candidates turned down for pupillage. When there are only one or two places available at each set, you need some luck. Better to play the odds And have something to fall back on if it doesn’t
work out.

The job can be great, but it is not for anyone. There is a very high attrition rate of young barristers who, for whatever reason, can’t make a successful go at making a career in self employed practice. It is not worth rolling the dice so early on ur career/life.

(2)(0)

Still Seeking Pupillage

You’re forgetting that people apply over multiple years. It’s not just people from that year’s BPTC intake applying – hence the 3,300 figure for the number of applicants. These stats were taken from the gateway and published by the bar council so not much use in debating them.

What’s more important is clearly the why: why do we let so many students come on the bar course when there is clearly not enough pupillage on the other side? Why are there so few pupillages, compared to 1990? Why is the diversity at the bar so stagnant (with only 3.8% black barristers, showing no improvement overall)?

And more important still: how do we improve this? Should we have fewer BPTC entrants (probably), should we have more pupillages on offer (probably, if only legal aid were better funded and offered more opportunities for growth) and should we be doing more to increase diversity at the bar (ABSOLUTELY!).

(3)(5)

Anonymous

I gave up long ago trying to single-handed ‘change the world’ and ‘improve diversity’ at the Bar.

They couldn’t care less. If they really wanted more state-educated or BAME pupils, they’d pick them. End of.

Put yourself first. If that means starting a business or doing anything else that let’s you be self-employed/travel loads, do it. I guarantee you won’t regret it.

(8)(0)

Sick of this crap

This report shows the BSB at its narrow minded worst. It only looks at data about ethnicity and gender. No effort at all to see the issues based on socio-economic background. Not the right sort of PC tick box, I’m afraid. It is all about the easy tick box stuff.

You know why? Because the surveys they use allow the provision of socio-economic data to be optional and the BSB (and Bar Council) then say “Not enough data to look at this”. Here is a clue, the ones that do not tick the boxes are not first generation university graduates from working class backgrounds.

(1)(2)

Anonymous

If they really wanted to take on more working class, state-educated pupils, they’d pick them.

Do you honestly want to spend your life working with snobs?

(6)(17)

Anonymous

Have you read the report? The second paragraph of the executive summary says this. “The research has a focus on age, ethnicity, and gender. The original intention was to also analyse other characteristics, but this was not possible due to the limitations of historical data.” I don’t think that backs up your point.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Why not just do what we did which is Clerk for years until you have some experience ? Time makes a reasonable lawyer.

(0)(0)

Current Pupil

It shouldn’t be taken for granted that a decline in the number of pupils is a bad thing. What is the current retention rate in terms of pupils becoming tenants? If higher than before, I don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing that fewer are being put through 12 months of Pupillage only to have to find a third six elsewhere.

(1)(0)

Ad Astra Per Aspera

Correct. The problem is that the BPTC/BTC providers vastly oversupply prospective pupils. The profession has been pointing this out for years; when ICSL had a monopoly on the Bar course it trained broadly enough people that you’d have a good shot of getting pupillage once you’d done it. It could be argued that this was at the expense of permitting some people to do the course who wanted to, but I would suggest that this is preferable to the current model, which causes far more people to do the course than will ever get pupillage (and spend loads of money doing so).

Chambers are groups of self-employed people who fund pupillages to invest in the future of the profession and the chambers itself. What they’re interested in doing is recruiting to serve their interests; the interests of the prospective candidates are secondary to that. The people who get on their high horses about recruitment practices tend to do so because they look at things from the wrong perspective (believing that because they’ve done the BTC they should be able to get pupillage, and that the number of pupillages should increase to facilitate that). Chambers won’t recruit more people than they’ve got work to support, and will look for people who are a good fit. They do their best to get the best candidates.

(1)(0)

BAME

‘Chambers won’t recruit more people than they’ve got work to support, and will look for people who are a good fit. They do their best to get the best candidates.’

That’s great, but I don’t believe that the ‘best’ candidates year after year after year are almost always White men from private schools.

(0)(0)

Partner

The bar is a dying dog, the work has steadily decreased over the years and now barristers charge inflated rates just to break even. Coupled with that, the overall quality has decreased massively over the years as there is no longer the volume needed for barristers to develop the experience and skills needed to do a proper job. At my firm, we just groan every time a client believes they might need to instruct a QC. Indeed, in the great majority of cases where we have instructed silks, the silks have massively effed up the case from beginning to end. In one case, the client is now suing the silk and junior for tens of millions. There are some sets (commercial chancery) which we will not go near again because they were just so bad. NEVER believe what you read in the legal directories.

(2)(4)

Facepalm

I remember researching a sexual harassment complaint where a pupil barrister claimed in his defence that he had a legal ‘right’ to be able to discuss a colleague’s sex life because the office was filled with his ‘friends’.

He then argued that the difference between ‘dating’ and being in a ‘relationship’ was something the office needed to decide too. He handed over 500 pages of evidence to that end, without citing a single case.

Absolutely incredible some of the lunatics who are taken on as pupils. With enough confidence and the right pubic school accent, I suppose you really can make people believe anything.

(4)(6)

Anonycounsel

“…in the great majority of cases where we have instructed silks, the silks have massively effed up the case from beginning to end”

You mean the silks which you selected, instructed, supervised, and worked with during the lifetime of the case? A dangerous statement to make. Also, given that the silks apparently ‘effed up’ the case right from the beginning, I presume that you told the client and advised them to seek alternative counsel?

(3)(1)

Corporate disputes partner

Please! A law firm’s job is not to do a silk’s job for them, though it never ceases to amaze me how many QCs appear to think otherwise. You go to counsel, you present them with the papers, conduct the litigation and prepare court papers and bundles. You expect counsel will at least know the law, be able to apply it properly and be thoroughly prepared for court. Nowadays that seems the exception rather than the rule.

(1)(0)

Anonycounsel

You cannot leave counsel in complex litigation to their own devices. That is a recipe for disaster. If counsel are ‘effing up’ a case it is absolutely your job to know about it and step in. You cannot simply act as a postman and then point fingers when things go wrong. The reason clients always talk about a ‘legal team’ is not just because they are fond of crass Americanisms but because their lawyers should be acting as a team. You need someone building a foundation, and someone taking the lead with advocacy, but there is always going to be overlap.

(2)(1)

Polite Disagreement

Some bold opinions set out there. There are some duffers at the Bar as there are in most professions, but the majority of the capable people have never been so busy as they are now. You only have to look on Bailii to see judgments being reported daily which involve big firms (across the entire spectrum of US Law to magic circle to litigation boutiques to everything else) instructing multi-counsel teams. If those people share your views, they’re doing a pretty good job of hiding it.

(0)(0)

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