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The bar’s battle against elitism

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Baby boomers wake up to urgent need to help millennials

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At City University’s ‘Widening participation in the legal professions’ conference last week in London, Young Barristers’ Committee chairman Daniel Sternberg told a story that shocked the audience.

It was about a student he had just interviewed for pupillage. In advance of the interview, Sternberg — a tenant at London criminal set 9-12 Bell Yard — and his fellow barristers noticed on odd gap in the student’s CV. So they resolved to ask her about it. Sternberg explained:

It turned out that she had taken a year out between GCSEs and A-levels in order to work to earn money to support herself during sixth form college.

Since the financial crisis in 2008, stories like this are becoming increasingly common. Perhaps most surprising was that this student had made it all the way to an interview at a top chambers.

The widening gap between rich and poor in society is, according to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s recently-released report, ‘A Qualitative Evaluation of Non-educational Barriers to the Elite Professions’, especially noticeable in high status professions such as law, which, it is feared, may actually be going backwards in terms of social mobility.

An area of particular concern is the bar. Unlike law firms, barristers’ chambers on the whole do not cover the cost of students’ law school fees and living expenses, which run into the tens of thousands. And the handful of sets that do provide sponsorship tend not to devote a great deal of money to human resources and so often end up recruiting rather lazily from Oxbridge. These candidates are more likely to come from wealthier backgrounds and so sometimes don’t need the money.

Such practices stem from the fact that chambers are collectives of self-employed practitioners who are directly hit in the pocket by recruitment costs. The Inns of Court scholarship system fills the gap to an extent, with around £5 million handed out annually to students by the four inns. But there is a dawning sense that in 2015 Britain this isn’t enough for the bar to maintain a respectable level of socio-economic diversity.

According to Sternberg, the last government’s legal aid cuts mean that pupils he knows are earning a mere £2.40 an hour, with some junior tenants making less.

With money like that, just surviving is tough. Paying off debts is impossible. Buying a house for those without family money is a distant dream — and in London a deluded fantasy. It’s little wonder, then, that such a high proportion of the bar is privately educated. According to the most recently available figures, 42% of barristers attended a fee paying school. The equivalent figure for the general population is 7%.

For The City Law School principal lecturer Marcus Soanes, who together with colleague Linda Jotham organised Friday’s diversity conference, it all boils down to risk. He comments:

The bar has become an attractive place for a certain type of person who has gone to an elite educational institution and has the insurance of family money behind them. They can take the risk, many can’t.

Those other bright students might, concedes the former criminal barrister, be better advised to join City law firms that will cover the cost of their training and guarantee a good salary at the end of it. For someone like the comprehensive-educated Soanes, 50, who made it to the bar with minimal debts despite being the first person from his family to go to uni, this is a painful truth to admit.

It was so much easier for my generation,” he reflects. “University was free, plus I received a means-tested living expenses grant. And the local authority even funded the cost of my bar school fees via a means-tested grant! I always wanted to be an advocate, that was what really interested me, but if I was a young person now I would have to think very carefully about doing anything publicly funded. Having said that, I would still encourage anyone with talent who is a risk-taker and is prepared for lean times that they could still, even now, have a rewarding life at the criminal bar.

Happily, murmurings about taking steps to help wannabe barrister millennials are growing louder. A couple of major initiatives are currently being developed with the goal of supporting graduates from lower socio-economic backgrounds to develop careers at the publicly funded bar.

The first is an Inns of Court plan to divert some of their scholarship money towards grants to support rookie tenants in their early years of practice. Talks are ongoing about how this would work in practice, with the announcement of some fixed plans expected in the autumn.

The second is the creation of a more efficient Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) with as much online delivery as possible. Direct contact time where advocacy is taught could be limited to just one term. Uncertainty remains over the shape of the course, but according to the Bar Standards Board’s ‘Future Bar Training’ consultation published last week, the changes could be implemented as early as autumn 2017.

Still, even with these measures, few expect the bar to revert back to its glory years. Looking ahead, Soanes sees parallels with other slightly unusual careers, such as the army and the police:

One of the things that I have seen change is the culture of having a job for life. That has gone now, particularly in certain areas. I have contacts in the police and armed forces and the management there tell me that people who join them often look at it as a job for two to five years. Then they do something else. Young people have a much more flexible mindset these days.

This chimes with the experience of Sternberg, who has done a number of secondments from his chambers to government organisations such as the Treasury Solicitors Department and the Crown Prosecution Service “to supplement my earnings and develop more experience”. Indeed, many of his colleagues have left the bar altogether to go full-time at these organisation or elsewhere, with a stint as a barrister a valuable adornment to any CV.

The remuneration and perks may be better, but most leave with a sense of regret. Few jobs match the thrill of the criminal bar on a good day. For now Sternberg is hanging in there:

I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to develop a strong extradition practice, while I also do bits of crime and public law. After a number of very tough years, I feel like I’m at last in a pretty good place. One of the challenges now is helping to ensure a career path remains for those entering the profession today.

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