Compas points way ahead for pupil selection

John Malpas reports

A GROUP of chambers has devised its own clearing house scheme in an effort to bring order to the current free-for-all system of pupil selection.

The common law sets, which include Lord Williams of Mostyn QC's chambers at Farrar's Building and Robert Seabrook QC's set at 1 Crown Office Row, hope to bring order to the annual scramble for pupils between competing chambers.

So far 11 sets have signed up to the system which is the brainchild of Michael Spencer QC, of Robert Nelson QC's set at 1 Paper Buildings, and Christopher Purchas QC, of Raymond Kidwell QC's set at 2 Crown Office Row.

Called Compas and starting this autumn, it appears to have left the Bar Council's own plans for a pilot clearing house project standing in the starting blocks.

"Christopher Purchas and I met socially in September and we had both just completed reading about 500 application forms over three days," says Spencer.

"We agreed the system was crazy and there had to be a better way of organising it. The fact we later had a fight over a pupil deadline added impetus to what we had agreed."

A widely recognised problem of the current system is the deadlines imposed by sets on candidates, forcing them to commit themselves to offers before they have had time to explore all their options.

Spencer says sets are holding their interviews earlier and earlier into the summer in an attempt to bag the best candidates. This is a trend he hopes that will be countered by Compas.

The scheme is based loosely on the system for allocating university places to candidates and is designed to rationalise the annual pupil selection round, saving time and effort for both candidates and sets.

Anyone wishing to apply for a pupillage at a participating chamber will be required to fill out a single application form for all 11 sets.

After a designated interviewing period a computer will then marry offers with candidates and there is provision for further interviews and offers under a clearing system to take up unfilled pupillages.

The Compas rules forbid sets to communicate directly with pupils after interviews and offers are made indirectly through the clearing house.

It is hoped this will prevent sets from poaching promising candidates.

Under what Spencer describes as a "gentleman's agreement", there will even be a committee to enforce the rules with the ultimate power of expelling sets from the scheme.

This year Spencer anticipates Compas will process up to 800 applications for around 40 pupillages.

If all goes to plan it will expand next year, but he does not believe that a clearing house covering all London's sets is practicable.

Instead, he envisages a whole series of clearing houses that cater for sets with similar specialities.

His brother Martin, of Harvey McGregor's QC's chambers at 4 Paper Buildings, is in charge of devising the computer system and has been elected scheme secretary for this year's selection round.

Martin, a computer enthusiast, says: "There are existing programmes which can be adapted for our needs – it's not a problem from an IT point of view."

Before Christmas, Peter Goldsmith QC, the then Bar Chairman elect, announced the setting up of a working party to devise a pilot clearing house scheme.

The organisers behind Compas went ahead with their own project confident that the Bar's own pilot scheme would not be ready for this year's pupil intake.

Now they have been offered assistance from the Bar, which could extend to financial help if they find that a computer programmer is needed to devise the database.

The scheme is likely to be welcomed by young members of the Bar. One young pupil barrister says: "I think there is widespread recognition that things can no longer carry on as they are.

"At the moment people have to write out hundreds of application forms and you hear stories of people being given 48 hours to make up their mind on an offer when another set they're interested in hasn't even started interviewing."

The participating chambers so far are: 1 Paper Buildings (Robert Nelson QC); Farrar's Building (Lord Williams of Mostyn QC); 6 Pump Court (Kieran Coonan QC); 1 Harcourt Buildings (Raymond Walker QC); 1 Crown Office Row (Robert Seabrook QC); 5 Bell Yard (Robert Webb QC); 1 Temple Gardens (Hugh Carlisle QC); 3 Serjeants' Inn (Adrian Whitfield QC); 12 King's Bench Walk (Ronald Walker QC); 4 Paper Buildings (Harvey McGregor QC); and 2 Crown Office Row (Raymond Kidwell QC).