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Want to boost your pupillage chances? Scholarships, perseverance and a first-class degree remain key factors, new report finds

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Competition still fierce

A new report published by the Bar Council has revealed some useful insights about what boosted aspiring barristers’ chances of success at obtaining pupillage.

The report, which uses data from the Pupillage Gateway, put the chances of first-time applicants getting an offer at just one in ten. The stats show the likelihood of success increases each year of trying, peaking for those who apply for the fourth time to about one in six applicants, and demonstrating the value of perseverance in the pupillage game.

In the 2021-22 application cycle, there were a total of 2,782 candidates applying through the Gateway for just 463 training spots.

NEW: The 2023 Legal Cheek Chambers Most List

The Bar Council report found that academic qualifications remain the most significant indicator for application success. Candidates with a first-class degree were more than twice as likely to receive an offer as those who attained a 2:1.

But it appears that it doesn’t matter if your high grades are in law or theology, with the new report stating that there is “no evidence to suggest that applicants who did not study law at undergraduate level were at a disadvantage in attaining pupillage”.

Top marks on the Bar Course also made a big difference with one in four candidates who obtained ‘outstanding’ receiving an offer of pupillage. The odds drop to one in ten for those who have been awarded ‘very competent’.

Applicants with a scholarship from one of the Inns of Court (Lincoln’s Inn, Inner Temple, Middle Temple and Gray’s Inn) were three times more likely to receive an offer than those without.

Bar Council Chair Mark Fenhalls KC commented that the report provided “a valuable resource for aspiring barristers, as well as providing those established at the bar with an insight into the patterns and trends emerging at the gateway to our profession”.

You can read the full report here.

The 2023 Legal Cheek Bar Course Most List

41 Comments

Numbers game

Not all pupillage’s are created equally. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is going to get into Brick, Fountain, OEC etc. on their fourth attempt. Your chances of a pupillage are not these numbers, they are entirely dependent on the set you apply to. All aggregation like this does is encourage weak applicants and dissuade talented applicants (who think they have a 1 in 10 chance when their odds are way better).

(33)(5)

Commercial/Chancery Pupil

I don’t think your logic is correct. As highlighted in the comments below, strong applicants are more likely to persevere, despite the odds against them. The competition from weaker applicants is essentially irrelevant.

(12)(3)

Legal Cheek Deletes All Interesting Comments

I have to agree with the first commenter. If someone has the potential to get an offer OEC or Fountain, they would – over the course of three years of applying – almost certainly have multiple offers from places like 3VB, Quadrant, 20 Essex. No one in their right mind would repeatedly turn down offers from good sets like that, just for a shot at applying to OEC on a fourth attempt.

As for your comment about weaker applicants being irrelevant, I again disagree. The sheer number of applicants means that sets have to be brutal and only interview people who look stellar on paper. There are plenty of very good candidates with upper seconds from Oxford and Cambridge who nowadays don’t even get first-round interviews at places like Littleton and Hailsham. The slew of mediocre candidates serves to bring down many better candidates in the process.

As an aside, Legal Cheek heavily edited my comment below, not that it matters much. This site is an embarrassment.

(7)(10)

Commercial/Chancery Pupil

“The slew of mediocre candidates serves to bring down many better candidates in the process.”

Ahh, I see what the problem is. Non-Oxbridge applicants with a first outshine Oxbridge applicants. That seems to be your implication (I’m happy for you to clarify your position). Look, it’s not just a numbers game, my friend. If you don’t have the experience and grades as an Oxbridge applicant, someone from a redbrick uni is going to outdo you. The sheer competition itself means that lots of applicants will never get a chance for a first-round interview if they don’t look great on paper. It’s as simple as that.

(14)(0)

Legal Cheek Deletes All Interesting Comments

With respect, you’ve very much misunderstood the point I was making. Allow me to remake it.

Back in the day, the pupillage market was not subject to the gross distortions it is subject to today. Because of that, strong candidates who were less than stellar on paper were still invited to interview and thus given the chance to shine.

Nowadays, because there are so many applicants, sets simply don’t interview candidates who are less than stellar on paper. As a result, there is a large number of strong candidates who do not get the opportunity to shine.

Ultimately, when talking about interviews, there are three types of candidate: (1) those who are stellar on paper and good at interview, (2) those who are stellar on paper and bad at interview, and (3) those who aren’t stellar on paper.

The point I was making is that there are many – very many – in Category (3) who deserve a shot. But there is a glut of MEDIOCRE candidates in that same category, and they take everyone down with them.

My comment had nothing to do with candidates with firsts from non-oxbridge universities ‘outshining’ Oxbridge applicants. Indeed, if they’re outshining strong candidates, it stands to reason that they fall into Category (1) or (2).

Numbers Game

You ignore the fact that each year a new batch, albeit small, of stellar applicants enters the competition. That is why you will never be getting into Brick, Fountain, OEC etc on your 4th attempt. My point was not that perseverance is irrelevant per se, but that it won’t help anyone get into the best sets. If you were not deemed good enough first time round, nothing you do is going to change that and the next year you will be fighting against the next sets of stellar candidates.

This site, and the BSB figures, treat pupillages as interchangeable. They aren’t. It’s like saying the odds of being a professional footballer are X. That may be true, but someone who plays for Manchester United and Colchester United are both professional footballers, yet the odds of playing for Man United are considerably worse than for Colchester. Hence why the figures published here are wholly irrelevant, because you are comparing apples and pears. Yes, the odd candidate may slip through the net, but the harsh reality is, that if you don’t make it at Man United you try and make it in the Championship, then League Two and next thing you know you’re so desperate you’re turning out for Dulwich Hamlet.

If you don’t get pupillage one year, you invariably drop down the rankings of Chambers for the next year. Another comment on here pointed out that for the best applicants that usually means going and becoming a City solicitor (or employed barrister) rather than becoming a criminal barrister.

(3)(2)

anonymous

Whilst I absolutely agree with what you say as to the value of these figures for prospective candidates, wholly irrelevant is a bit much. There are plenty of reasons why it makes sense to collect aggregate data of this type (most obviously so one can compare wholesale trends over extended time periods i.e. to identify trends in how many pupil are sought/coming to the bar regardless of quality within that cohort).

(3)(0)

Legal Cheek Deletes All Interesting Comments

When speaking about ‘perseverance’, there are several factors which need to be considered. For instance:

1) Candidates self-select (and self-deselect) themselves. At first, everyone applies for pupillage. However, things quickly change. Those who get a First, an Outstanding and several second-round interviews (rightly) keep applying. Those who get a 2:2, a Competent and no first-round interviews (rightly) give up.

2) Candidates calibrate their expectations and adjust their sights. At first, everyone fires off a few (often more than a few) speculative applications to the really good sets. However, by their third or fourth year of applying, those who keep applying lower their expectations and apply to sets which are far easier to get into.

(11)(3)

Old Guy

Does that work though? Say a kid with a first class LLB from Bristol. Very good university but not Oxbridge and did not come top of the year with a prize or two. He/she has mini pupillages in commercial/chancery sets and also vac schemes/internships in commercial law firms. Applies to those commercial/chancery sets for pupillage and gets nowhere. Realistically, would he/she apply to less competitive criminal sets the following year? Or just give up after the second go and become a solicitor? How receptive would a good criminal set be to an application that clearly shows the applicant wanted a different career path at first?

(4)(0)

Mr third rate

I imagine they’d apply for civil / personal injury sets rather than look at crime.

(8)(0)

Curious Georgina

Is becoming a criminal barrister an easy option because the pay is so bad?

It looks like the most interesting area of law, but if it’s paid less than minimum wage, does anyone survive?

Are criminal pupillages easy to walk into?

(3)(0)

Alan

Criminal pupillages are ten a penny and go to those who like the idea of
prancing about in a funny costume acting up to the jury.

You might as well also bring a cap in addition to the wig and leave it in the public gallery for coppers.

It’s not a real career and doesn’t involve real law.

Random passer by

The criminal bar has a lot of the following people now:

1) Posh kids with family money who want to be barristers but cannot make it to a decent commercial/chancery/civil set. Think your typical private school then 2.1 from Bristol or Edinburgh in history, not exceptional but with enough family money to have a free place to stay in London so that the £30k salary is not too bad. They will typically then move on to something else more lucrative after a few years.
2) Poor kids with okay to good academics who cannot make it to decent commercial/chancery/civil sets but want to become barristers and lack the careers advice to actually do something else (think 2.1 in LLB from Leeds, Manchester or a first from Kingston/Nottingham Trent). They will typically stick around for a while as for them £30k is a decent salary, and then will try to get employment, sports or corporate crime work as they get more experience.

Poet wot know’s it

Woke people scare Alan so silly…

They make wee wee come out his Willy!

😝😝😝

Actual criminal barrister

No they are not easy to walk into, they are massively oversubscribed like everywhere else. But if you have top academics and some real advocacy experience then you should have a good chance.

In my view not worth it at a predominantly legal aid set, but there are three, maybe four, ‘criminal’ sets where you can make a very good living doing the private work and some regulatory work alongside.

Another actual barrister

There are also some prosecution powerhouse sets where everyone is fully booked prosecuting wall to wall Crown Court trials and quietly making a very nice living.

Think the likes of 23ES… 2KBW…

Q

Many 2:1s today are the same as 2:2s in the past. So that needs to be factored in.

(7)(2)

Crimbo

When did that happen?

I got a 2:1 from a Redbrick and an Inns of Court Scholarship, VC on the Bar Course and had no trouble getting pupillage at a regional common-law set first time around.

(9)(0)

I think I know you!

Regional. Cute.

Did you exchange your chambers for a London one, by any chance?

(3)(6)

Crimbo

Yes, I did exchange my chambers for a London one as it happens.

Regional sets can be a bit chippy about London and love to over emphasise how much better they think they are.

Look at the pupillage awards that haven’t gone up in 20 years though.

Speak for themselves.

(4)(1)

Northern P.I. powerhouse with new Lambo

Are you the fat lad who was crap at civil?

How’s Legal Aid crime treating you down there, boyo?

Bet you haven’t even paid off your student debt yet!

Crimbo

I’m not a lad…

Jone

The pupillage process is incredibly random. Often see candidates rejected by mid tier sets and get offer from top tier set.

Not unusual to see someone get rejected by everyone and then land an offer from their dream set.

(3)(3)

Anonymous Slug

I do not agree with this and I don’t think the evidence you cited supports the view that pupillage is “incredibly random”.

1.) It’s somewhat, but not very common, to see an applicant get a top set and be rejected by everywhere else. The exceptions prove the rule, and for every person like this there are at least 5 or 6 pax who have a range of offers at top sets.

2.) Even these “one-shot wonders” are not actually random in the true sense: they almost always have excellent academics and good advocacy experience. The randomness is insofar as they are in the 10th percentile of applications and attained a top percentile pupillage. Find me e.g. a 2i in past 5 years at a top commercial set. In this sense, it’s a bit like saying that the NBA draft is incredibly random because there are surprise picks. There certainly are, but the “surprise picks“ can still dunk with their eyes closed.

(1)(0)

Jone

I mean it is random once you meet the minimum threshold, which for a top tier set would be a first class degree and generally solid CV. Once you meet the minimum threshold, the rest can be a bit of a lottery.

It is not just one or two people. It is very common for someone to get no offers one year, and land top set the following year. Or to get rejected by a mid tier set and receive an offer from a top tier set.

It depends a lot on who reads the paper application, who conducts interviews, which questions come up and what comes out of your mouth in those few minutes before the panel. After that, it also depends on the calibre of the other candidates you are against that year in that final round + what other offers the other candidates receive.

That is not to say that someone with a 2.1 from a poly would have a shot at top commercial set. It is not *that* random.

(0)(1)

anonymous slug

“It is random once you meet the minimum threshold”

The idea that everyone with a first and a “solid CV” is equally like to get pupillage is completely wrong. Each year there is a relatively small number of people who will each get a lot of offers from excellent sets, and for whom those sets will essentially compete. It’s actually moderately easy to work out who those people are going to be just from their CVs at the paper-sift stage.

(2)(0)

Anonymous Slug

As often, Bar Council provide absurdly granular data and (at least w/r/t Inn Scholarships + BVS grades) without drawing useful conclusions or properly considering causation/correlation

1. Having a Scholarship is not an achievement in itself that (m)any set(s) value because it is primarily reflective of the same characteristics that Chambers are looking for: academic achievement, advocacy skills, potential to be a good barrister. The BSB report actually does recognise this in its comments, but IMO not loudly enough. Almost all barristers at top sets will have IoC scholarships, but don’t worry if you don’t – Chambers won’t care!

2. Chambers don’t care about BPTC grades. People with excellent academic backgrounds are more likely to get top grades on BVS!

All the data and headlines like this hinders students trying to see the forest for the trees. Commercial/civil chambers care about three things above all:

1.) Academic achievements: undergraduate grades, prizes, Masters, etc.; the BVS does not count and you cannot atone for any prior academic failures with your BVS performance. Chambers do care about the Uni you have been to, but not as much as you think. Regardless of the justice or otherwise, a First from a lower/non-RG Uni is usually better than an Oxbridge 2i.

2.) Advocacy experience: get in some mooting or similar. Do as well as possible.

3.) Application/temperament. Spell well. Be calm and clear in interview. Be personable.

(9)(0)

Reluctantly Anonymous

I agree with much of what you say. I quarrel with two points only:

1. Scholarships do matter. It separates the wheat from the chaff. Why should chambers invite you for an interview (with probably similar experience to your competition) rather than the candidate with a scholarship?

2. I think you can only atone for previous academic failures to some extent. An Oxbridge postgrad or an Outstanding will help. But the Oxbridge postgrad is far more valuable.

(5)(0)

Nearly

Outstanding counts for nothing. No-one cares what you get in the professional qualifications when it comes to pupillage.

(4)(0)

Anonymous Slug

Let me take those in reverse order!

1.) Sorry – I did not mean to imply that “atonement” was impossible. I just meant to suggest that your BVS/BPTC performance cannot do so. A good BCL etc will obviously go a long way!

2.) So far as I know, no sets give any weight on their matrices to scholarships. (All sets these days have matrices just due to the sheer number of applicants and increased focus on objectivity). Of course, a set might use as a last-resort “tie-breaker”, but even that would (imo) be very rare given the wealth of information.

(0)(0)

Arthur

Wrong. My set does.

(1)(0)

anon

You can’t fix a poor undergrad result with a BCL as no one gets on without a 1st in their undergrad anyway

(1)(0)

Pupil

How do the best candidates with offers from multiple offers from the ‘magic circle’ commercial sets (OEC, Essex, Fountain, Brick, Blackstone) decide between them? Are any of them more prestigious than the others? I suppose those who want to do some public law will take Blackstone, but what about candidates only interested in commercial work?

(0)(0)

Bumblebore KC

There’s a special ceremony for special candidates like that with offers multiple magic circle commercial sets.

They take place in the great halls of the Inns of Court once a year, at midnight.

It’s black tie with gowns.

A meal is eaten.

Then, after Port, all of the candidates line up to face a chair that is placed on the dais.

One by one, they go up and take a seat in the chair.

When the candidate is seated, a full bottomed wig is placed on their head by the master.

I’m not sure I should tell you the rest as it’s a bit secret, but I’m going to…

After waiting for what must seem like an age, the wig starts moving and making strange noises.

Then, without warning, in a voice that echoes around the hall, the candidate will hear the name of the Chambers that they are to join shouted out by the wig!

“Hmm…. OK….OEC!!!”

They will then take off the wig and go and join fellow member of that Chambers at table for a celebration.

So there you have it. Now you know.

(8)(1)

H Potter KC

Is it known as “The Sorting Wig” by any chance?

🤔

(0)(1)

Future pupil

I’m actually interested in serious answers to this question. I was in this position recently (between two of those sets) and I struggled to find intelligent reasons to select one rather than the other.

(0)(0)

Future commercial pupil

It could be practice areas. Blackstone/Brick Court etc might do more public law work than a construction set for example, so more chances to appear in the CoA and Supreme Court rather than arbitration. Otherwise there might be slight differences in financial rewards, or even just wanting a certain “dream” set for a long time.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

So how did you decide?

(1)(0)

Junior Barrister

Your best bet of getting into a good civil London set with a 2.1 is to launder it with a Distinction at the best uni for postgrad you can get into – ideally Oxbridge, if not then LSE or UCL.

That is unlikely to satisfy commercial sets, however.

(1)(0)

Hope

Does mid-fortues career changer, with a (llb, non-RG) first and great prior experience, even have a chance? or are they wasting their time?

(0)(0)

Realist (original)

Look at the profiles of junior barristers in the top commercial, chancery and public law sets. You will see that no one matches your profile so that should give you your answer. The only people 40+ at the junior bar either are partners from City firms with equivalent academics to the kids and a contentious practice area moving on to the bar in their 50s to do something similar to what they did before (most will fast track silk having had substantial top class experience already), lawyers that worked in government (UK-EU) who are now coming to (or back to) the bar also with equivalent top class academics as the kids around them or foreign lawyers who are often silk in their countries (South Africa, Australia) and want to build a life in London.

(5)(1)

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