Last year just over a third of students who successfully completed the Bar Vocational Course managed to secure a pupillage. Clearly, the route to becoming a barrister is an uphill struggle.
Imagine how much harder that struggle becomes when you’re a foreign mature student from a jurisdiction outside the Commonwealth and EU. The incline becomes even steeper.
The experience of Monckton Chambers’ most recent tenant, Drew Holiner, is a case in point. Holiner, who is now one of a handful of English-Russian qualified barristers, knew the bar would be difficult to break, but he was determined to do so.
“The bar, as one of my friends told me, is one of the most conservative professions in the world, with most people wondering why on Earth anyone qualified from anywhere but Oxford or Cambridge would want to join,” he explains. “To me that’s a bit overstated.”
Holiner, born in the US, has ended up at the English bar after almost a decade at the Russian equivalent. While in Russia, he saw a trend emerging for Western-Russian legal advice and that led him to qualify for the English bar.
In Russia Holiner became a prolific litigator, working on human rights and commercial matters across jurisdictions from Armenia to Moldova. Last year he successfully fought for the former executive vice president of oil company Yukos, Vasily Aleksanyan, who has Aids, to be moved from a Russian prison to a hospital.
All of these achievements, however, did not exempt Holiner from having to undergo the same English education process as someone without a law degree.
“I had to do my law conversion course and the bar qualification because the Russian legal certificate isn’t recognised here as Russia’s not part of the Commonwealth or an EU state,” he explains.
It meant Holiner had to contend with full-time study while keeping on top of his Russian practice.
“BPP Law School made it clear that the course should be my priority but we made arrangements allowing a certain amount of days to be taken away,” he says.
Obtaining pupillage was the biggest challenge for the then 34-year-old. “I started applying as soon as I came to the UK, but it took three or four years before I finally secured one,” he says. “I think it may have been that I was two or three years ahead of the curve as it’s only recently that Russian work has directly knocked on the bar’s door.”
Monckton, however, saw the opportunity and took Holiner on. Senior clerk David Hockney says Holiner adds another string to the set’s bow.
Although given no special treatment at the education stage, as a pupil Holiner was granted a reduced pupillage from 12 months to 10 months by the Bar Council.
“[The reduction is] given for those who have equivalent pupillage experience, such as being a solicitor or paralegal,” explains Holiner. “I suspect for me it’s, as I put in my application, that I’ve worked on dozens of cases in the European Court of Human Rights.”