Access Denied: Infiltrating the bar

Last year, I was mostly angry. Not the sort of American-take-a-sniper-rifle-to-the-clock-tower angry; I get the impression that you can only pull that one off once in a lifetime. No, this was like a creeping itch of rage, manifesting itself in a cynical outlook and a hefty dose of class-envy.

What caused it was an extended epiphany I had over the course of several months, and the rage was squarely directed at the Bar.

During the course of my life, I have clung to the notion that I, one day, would be a barrister. From the age of seven I thought of little else (if you ignore the brief teen flirtation with politics) and this notion buoyed me up through years of raising children and watching my peers spread their wings. When I finally arrived at university, I was the ripe old age of 29 years and terrified at the thought of the effective 18-year-old synapses firing around me. Over the course of a few weeks the fear subsided and I realised that, not only was I passionate about law, I was really quite good at this.

Through the first year it seemed like a whole new world was opening up to me and at the start of the second year I began my evil plan to get to the Bar. I joined an Inn, I attended conferences, got the grades at uni, I observed barristers in the Crown Court, I hobnobbed, attended functions laid on by my Inn. I spent half of my time in London, travelling down six hours overnight on the awful, but cheerfully cheap, Megabus.

I did all this because isn’t the Bar now a meritocracy? Is not pupillage now paid? The Inns hand out a fortune in scholarships every year, you know.  If you are good enough, you will succeed.

What slowly began to dawn on me was that to a lesser or greater degree, all the above are true. The Bar is a meritocracy, to a point. I’ve met several barristers from my Northern patch who started from roots as ‘lowly’ as mine and who have ascended to dizzying heights of greatness. It was a challenging path, but they made it. Pupillage is now paid, albeit for the most part at a minimal level. The Inns do cough up an average of a million pounds every year in scholarship payments.

All this notwithstanding, other truths revealed themselves to me over the course of last year. For a start, you get nowhere without work experience. You can do a mini pupillage, marshal judges and the like, but then doesn’t every law student do that? Well, you need to do something a little different then. Do a Masters course. Perhaps you could teach English in Asia, or volunteer for an NGO in Africa. Maybe you could do an amazing internship in London, even Europe? To stand out, you must be different from the get-go. You need to have shown your dedication and that manifests itself in months of unpaid work. Oh hang on…

I spy a problem. The student loans that my partner and I receive do not support two, but five people. I can’t afford to work without remuneration for months of the year, or pay the fees for postgraduate courses. Ok, well how about those paid internships at the big law firms? Cripes, there’s another issue. It’s paid, but the online application forms seize up at the merest hint of a mature student without A-Levels. If you haven’t got 320 UCAS points, the forms will not let you progress. Even without this, internships anywhere beyond an hour’s commute from home leave me with potentially insurmountable childcare issues.

The BPTC? Impossible without a scholarship from the Inn. Even then, a scholarship would probably only extend to a partial satisfaction of the fees. Where do I find the rest of the money for the fees? What do we live on?

The point that I am slowly meandering to, and indeed the source of my rage toward an entire profession, boils down to this. With a few notable exceptions, the Bar is trying to exist in the same self-contained air pocket that it did one hundred years ago. Some things have changed and on the face of it, the Inns have worked commendably hard to create a level playing field. As a profession however, the Bar has not adapted well. It lacks the hunger evident in the solicitors’ profession, the unrelenting pushing forward to evolve and devour everything in its path. By allowing itself to become squeezed, the Bar has accidentally created unsustainable levels of contest that can only allow unmarried, childless, parental-funded, internship-wielding super-students to compete. “Age is no barrier to the law”, I was once informed by a Senior Clerk. For the reasons I have given, I have to disagree.

What of the barristers that I mentioned at the start, reaching and succeeding at the Bar? Quite simply, they were men. At least one that I know had a comparable domestic situation to myself, a spouse and children. I guarantee that during the time that he was submitting applications and attending the eighty-two interviews he had before securing pupillage, it was his wife who carried responsibility for the home and everyone in it. I am no militant feminist, but I find it difficult to pinpoint anything that is designed to facilitate the career of an intelligent and capable woman who has chosen to have children first.

As I begin the final year of my degree the rage has ebbed away, to be replaced with weary resignation. Reality has kicked in and, armed with my epiphany, I am coming to terms with the fact that my path, for now, may lie in a different direction. The desire remains, and perhaps a few years of working in a different role may equip me with more of the experience I need to stand out from the crowd.

Please feel free to let me know what you think.

This post first appeared on the author’s own blog page: http://cacoethesscribendi.com/2011/10/16/access-denied/

The author is a mature student who has three children.