Editor's Weekly: Propping up the bar

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  • The Bar

    Reading the above article brings tears to my eyes, because it touches on so many home truths that people just do not want to admit. I can completely affiliate with contents contained within the article. Having been kicked out of home at the age 16, I had so much options open to me, most of which could have ended up being negative.

    Being so young and vulnerable, and having full-blown responsibility thrown at me at such a tender age meant that, I now had to take responsibility not only of my life, but my entire welfare.

    With the right friends, and support network I pursued my education. This was however not easy, having to juggle so many other things alongside. I ended up with five GCSE’s A-C and four E’s. I went on to get two A Levels, in Sociology C and English Literature D, having failed history.

    To most, the above grades on paper indicates that am a write-off and not good enough, yet alone, to have the agile intellect one needs to pursue a career at the bar and they like to refer to as “consistent academic record”. Through having my support network around me, I was able to gain admission to university to read Law and Psychology. The problem... it was not what one might like to term a “red brick university”.

    Nonetheless, I got a 2:1 overall, and proceeded to law school where I gained admission and enrolled to do the BVC part-time while working full time to support myself financially. I successfully completed the BVC and called to the Bar in July 2007.

    I am now at the stage where I am trying to obtain pupillage. I cannot justify my past because these were occurrences in my life which were beyond my control, and ended up having a detrimental effect on my grades. Despite this fact, I know my intellectual worth and I know what I am capable and not capable of doing.

    I did not use my past as an obstacle but rather as a way to better my life, my future, and the future of the family I am yet to have. The sad fact is that I have met the minimum threshold that chambers ask for, which I think most chambers ask for these days, which is that of a 2:1 degree; nonetheless, it seems that is of no relevance. It is also sad that chambers are so quick to judge ones application based solely at looking at one’s academic results and nothing else. Although most chambers state that they look for other things aside that of one’s academic ability, the reality is that they do not.

    As for me I have the 2:1 degree you are asking for, so is that not enough to prove my intellectual ability, yet alone determination. There are some individuals out there who have excellent grades throughout but end up with really poor degree classifications, but yet they are still given a chance, so why when it’s the opposite, there seems to be an issue?

    When completing applications for pupilages, nowhere on the form are you asked to explain the reasons for what one might term “flaws” in your academic achievement, that should be something chambers should consider. This should not be used as a way of gaining sympathy, but rather as a good way for chambers to gain more insight into an individual’s background.

    To most who know me, they are immensely proud, having known where I have come from and I have even had my old head of year in sixth form use my bar pictures at talks at school assemblies to encourage younger kids to aspire and never to give up. It is very inspiring, touching and makes me proud. Nonetheless, to me I feel like a failure, not only have I incurred debt of over £50,000 but also it feels to me that being called to the bar will be the closest I ever get to practicing at the bar.

    I have scarified so much, and I mean so much to be where I am today, a so-called pre-pupillage barrister and I ask myself what for? I have ended up in financial hardship, unable to get decent paid jobs because most employers do not even recognize the BVC qualification, or sometimes told I am overqualified for the post in which I am applying f

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  • Reply to previous comment from Anonymous

    To Anonymous,

    You are my inspiration and I mean that with every fibre in my being: thankyou. Your story is core moving, I wish you every luck in the world.

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  • Reply to Anonymous response

    I guess we are all Anonymous in this forum:-)

    I wanted to say a big THANK YOU!. I am glad to be an inspiration to you, and it gives me the courage and tenacity I have been building up over the years not to give up. I will not lie to you and say it has not been a struggle, because it has. Nevertheless, your comment makes me believe that the fight is worth it!!! which I am grateful to you for. Your response was powerful and will remain with me for life. I thank you again. I also wish you luck in whatever your heart so desires!

    From the original Anonymous. God Bless!

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  • Re: the woman writing about the bar

    I found your story inspiring and hope that you secure the dream that you're after.

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  • "Non-traditional" backgrounds

    I don’t agree that the students depicted in “The Barristers” have “non-traditional” backgrounds – with the exception of Iqbal, perhaps. Jo, Cat and Anna are all patently middle class, with parents who are willing and able to support them, and good educations/opportunities.

    Pupillage statistics indicate that females are not at a disadvantage (whether or not they are at a disadvantage after gaining pupillage, or indeed tenancy, is another matter). Similarly statistics indicate that ethnic minorities are not at a disadvantage in applying for pupillage, indeed if anything they are actually statistically significantly over-represented on last year’s statistics. Thus being a female or ethnic minority should not be thrown in with the class issue, which is frankly the only real obstacle facing potential applicants to the Bar.

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  • To the 'original' Anonymous (1/3)

    I appreciate that you have had a difficult journey and hope that you eventually succeed. However, as an ethnic minority female who has also come from a disadvantaged background, I hope you take this as my opinion, perhaps constructive advice, but not offence.

    Considering my BVC yeargroup as a whole, I cannot think of anyone who has a 'really poor degree classification' who went on to obtain pupillage and disagree that you are being treated unfairly in that respect. The only barristers I know with low 2:2s or 3:3s are over 15 years' call when the Bar was far less competitive. I would have thought that any current candidate without a 1:1 or 2:1 would be in the same position as you, i.e. having to mitigate their grades via work experience, etc.

    Furthermore, I also disagree that 'most employers do not even recognise the BVC qualification... [which] is very narrow in nature and very specific so without obtaining pupillage it’s almost worthless’. Within the law, I have variously worked as a freelance advocate, paralegal (for three different employers), and a legal assistant in a law centre, and each one of them (as did all 9 of my legal recruitment agencies) recognised and valued my BVC qualification. In fact, most of my agencies considered it a key selling point over their LPC candidates because of the increased focus on practical skills. I had no trouble whatsoever gaining relevant legal experience. I don’t think this is because I was innately fantastic or that it was down to luck; it was simply a matter of ensuring that my CV got maximum exposure to the areas in which I wanted to work.

    Outside of the law, many employers appreciate the intrinsic value of a post-graduate professional qualification. I know BVC graduates at the Big Four accountancy firms, at various financial institutions and in business consultancy firms. Within law, the majority of BVC graduates pre-pupillage work as paralegals, legal advisors or freelance advocates.

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  • To the 'original' Anonymous (2/3)

    In addition, I thoroughly disagree with bringing back unfunded pupillages. Perhaps you are the exception, but the reason that there are more people than ever from non-upper-middle-class non-Oxbridge backgrounds is precisely because pupils are no longer expected to be independently wealthy.

    Having regard to human rights, it cannot be correct that pupils can be exploited to the extent that they are expected to work for free; it is bad enough that they are expected to work long hours for minimum wage but you do have to balance against free market conditions.

    Whilst requiring that pupillages be funded decreased the number of those available, the side effect is that the Bar is more competitive than ever. Anyone who does even basic research into a career at the Bar would be aware of the impressive qualifications and skills required, and that the statistics show that the majority of BVC graduates will never obtain pupillage.

    This does not mean that people who have poor pre-university grades should not apply. However, it does mean that if your grades only permit you to study at a former polytechnic, the reality is that you do have to mitigate these poor grades by demonstrating that you are an academic high-flyer (by obtaining a 1:1 or, at the least, a very high 2:1) and that you excel in every other requirement (excellent relevant work experience and positions of responsibility, as a minimum). I know candidates who have done just that.

    Put yourself in the position of the chambers: you have a few hundred candidates applying for one pupillage and the vast majority have shining CVs with no blemishes such as poor grades on there; why should they offer you an interview over any of these candidates unless you are able to show that you exceed (as opposed to match) these other candidates in other ways? Presumably you did this research and decided that you could exceed the requirements which is why you made the conscious decision to take on £50,000 of debt in the process.

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  • To the 'original' Anonymous (3/3)

    I applied for pupillage between 2003-2006. Things may have since changed, but back then, every online form had an 'extenuating circumstances' box in which you could explain the reasons behind poor grades, etc.

    Otherwise, applications were by CV and covering letter where you could freely express yourself. I received only one interview under the (former) Olpas online system, but interviews with numerous chambers under the CV/covering letter process.

    If you haven't already, I would urge you to focus your energy on researching the latter chambers and also obtaining mini-pupillages there so you can demonstrate your other skills.

    You may also want to look at other options such as qualifying as a magistrates’ clerk, in-house pupillages or local/central authority training contracts (which will often accept applications from BVC graduates as well, subject to you explaining the conversion rules).

    The SRA is undergoing a consultation to review the conversion rules, however, currently, a pre-pupillage barrister can convert to a Solicitor subject to meeting the exam requirement (passing ¼ of the QLTT) and the experience requirement (two years of legal experience covering at least three areas of law in both contentious and non-contentious areas). The experience requirement is often met by piecemeal paralegalling.

    As a final note, and I appreciate that this is only a forum and you would pay more attention to your pupillage applications, there were numerous orthographical and grammatical errors in your posting. This is an oft-cited bugbear of barristers who have to assess pupillage applications as it denotes poor language skills and a lack of attention to detail. Barristers obtain work both on their individual reputations and that of their chambers as a whole; most barristers would be nervous about a colleague sending out an Advice to instructing solicitors riddled with errors lest the same would reflect on them.

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  • Response to HTS

    To: HTS

    From: The Original Anonymous

    I am grateful for all your advice, some of which I have taken on board. I will however disagree with you on two issues, one being that “many employers appreciate the intrinsic value of a post-graduate professional qualification”. Most employers I have met, and this includes recruitment agencies always ask why I did the BVC if I do not intend to go on to pursue a career at the Bar. They always feel as though, I am being dishonest, and that if they were to employ me, I would eventually leave were I to be in a position to be offered pupillage later on down the Line.

    Believe me; it is hard to convince them otherwise, especially for me because practicing at the Bar is all that I want to do.

    If you were to conduct a survey on the prospects of obtaining a job after completion of both the LPC and the BVC, you will find that those who have completed the LPC are more employable than their BVC counterparts, and that is a fact. This is because the LPC qualification is more recognizable within the employment industry.

    You also go on to say that, you “thoroughly disagree with bringing back unfunded pupilages” and that statistics show that the majority of BVC graduates will never obtain pupillage. Although you stand corrected in your argument, the issue of pupillage is a serious problem hence why the BSB are reviewing the current pupillage model and contemplating in bringing back unfunded pupilages. If that is the only way in which more pupils can obtain pupillage, then so be it. The current system is obviously not working, hence why most BVC graduates end up not obtaining pupillage.

    I am personally in great favour of the review by the BSB. The issue of pupillage is a real problem, and it is fine for those who have gained pupillage to turn around and make comments like: “simple notion that seems to have escaped a number of those who criticise the low number of BVC places to pupillage places; you do not have to undertake the BVC. No one is forcing anyone to hand over the £13,000 to go to Bar School. It’s a choice that each of us made before deciding that this was the profession for us”.

    The quote is from one David Talbott in October’s Counsel Magazine. Unfortunately the issue at hand isn’t as simplistic as some would like to make out, because if it was then the BSB wouldn’t be considering a review of the current model. Yes no one forces you to hand over your money, but it remains a fact that there is a process set in place which one has to adhere to if they want to pursue the Bar, and that includes aside from a degree, the BVC as well as pupillage. No one would want to intentionally throw away money and their time just for the sake of it - people invest for a reason and some endure immense financial hardship speaking from experience in order to pursue a career at the Bar, and to then be told that a career at the Bar was always a gamble or that you just don’t cut it for the final stage of training to becoming a barrister is just absurd.

    What people need to remember is that despite the university attended, everyone ends up in the same law school and we all take the same exams, so how does one all of a sudden stand a better chance of obtaining pupillage just because their degree came from what one might term a “redbrick university”? This one of the issues chambers need to seriously address. I thus endorse the idea of a waiver to allow unfunded pupillages.

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