Good marks, get set, go
28 October 2009 | By Husnara Begum
For those of you who are worried about plummetting retention rates spare a thought for aspiring barristers.
You would think that, given the number of hoops candidates have to jump through just to secure a pupillage, a position upon qualification is a given. Unfortunately that simply is not the case, because many sets routinely take on more pupils than they can offer tenancy to.
The issue of tenancy is therefore something that is likely to hang over every aspiring barrister’s head throughout their pupillage. Indeed, the process is in essence a year-long interview by the rest of chambers, with pupils running the risk of being left jobless at the end.
One Essex Court tenant Sebastian Isaac admits that he was nervous about securing tenancy because the “prize is so big”.
“Every pupil’s worried about getting tenancy. That’s why, as a student, it’s really important to join a set that has a good track record of taking on new tenants,” explains Isaac.
Sarah Love, a tenant at Brick Court Chambers, agrees. “I wouldn’t imagine anyone’s overconfident about securing tenancy,” she says. “But there’s a very supportive environment at my chambers and you feel that it’s a very objective process.”
Although an increasing number of students are completing the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) successfully, the number of pupillages is dropping each year. During 2007-08 1,720 students completed the BVC, but only 561 started a pupillage, according to the Bar Council. Tenancy is even harder to get, with just 494 new tenants during the same period. There is therefore ever-increasing pressure on students at all stages of bar training, which in turn is pushing up the quality of successful candidates.
Saying that, commercial set Blackstone Chambers offered tenancies to all four of its pupils last year. Similarly, One Essex Court retained three out of four of its newly qualified barristers this year. One Essex Court senior clerk Darren Burrows insists that his chambers only offers pupillages to candidates it believes have what it takes to one day become a tenant. “We’ve got a very focused recruitment process,” he says, “which helps us to recruit pupils who have a good chance of tenancy. We then spend a lot of time cultivating them.”
The other encouraging sign is that, unlike the market for newly qualified solicitors, which has been hit quite hard by the recession, junior tenants are still very much in demand thanks to the counter-cyclical nature of contentious work.
All those of who have gone through the application process and the pupillage itself stress how hard it is. Jehad Mustafa a junior tenant at specialist criminal set One Paper Buildings, compared his pupillage interviews to an audition for actors. “You have to bare your soul to do well; and all the time people are making very personal judgements about you - about how you dress, how confident you are, how likeable you are,” recalls Mustafa. “There’ll be hundreds of graduates applying for every pupillage place. The competition is intense, so you’ve got to want it. And you’ve got to believe in yourself.”
Pupillages at the top commercial sets are all quite structured, with the year split between across three or four practice areas through periods with different pupil masters. Bar Council regulations dictate that the first six months of pupillage are non-practising. However, that does not mean there is less work. Instead pupils find themselves shadowing and supporting their pupil masters during a short period of intense learning. “I felt very supervised during my pupillage and there was a good pace of development,” explains Isaac.
Brick Court’s Love agrees. “Pupillage was a really fun and interesting year and a lot less stressful than I’d imagined it to be,” she says.
In the second six months a pupil is allowed to accept instructions and appear in court, with the supervisor’s permission. Indeed, Mustafa’s first court appearance coincided with the first day of his second six. “Going to court for the first time was very nerve-racking. I thought for a while that my words weren’t going to come out,” he admits. “But it went okay and I found the whole experience very satisfying.”
Now Mustafa is a seasoned advocate and, since securing his tenancy in September 2008, the junior barrister has even handled two Crown Court trials. “A trial in front of a jury is an incredible experience. You’re not only being a lawyer, you’re staging a performance,” says Mustafa. “The best way to put your case across is by making what you’re saying interesting.”
Chambers usually make decisions on tenancy around halfway through the second six, following a consultation process that involves a recommendation from the pupillage committee followed by a chambers vote. Many sets take into account assessments carried out through the first six, including problem-solving exercises and advocacy, in making the decision.
Not securing a tenancy does not mean your career as a barrister is over. A common option, particularly in criminal sets, is to do a third six months of pupillage at a different chambers.
For every barrister, whether pupillage has lasted 12 or 18 months, the transition from pupil to junior tenant is daunting. Support from chambers is good, but nevertheless it is a sudden change - from student to self-employed practitioner in a matter of months.
Blackstone’s Hanif Mussa secured a tenancy with the chambers last year after completing his pupillage with the top 10 set. “You certainly feel a real change,” he says, “especially in the level of personal responsibility, as you’re suddenly signing things off in your own name.
“It’s a very steep learning curve, because your lack of experience is combined with a significant increase in responsibility.”
Love at Brick Court concedes that the transition from pupil to tenant can be a scary process, but argues that her pupillage prepared her well for the change. “I also felt that, if I had any concerns, there were plenty of people to turn to for help,” she adds.
But as One Essex Court’s Isaac puts it, because there are a few months between finding out that you have tenancy and finishing pupillage, the transition is “evolutionary” with a “gradual removal of the safety net”.
For Love the biggest challenge during the first year of her tenancy was knowing when to say no. “The biggest issue is trying to strike a balance, because there’s a temptation to take on too much work,” she explains. “It’s also important to get a balance between being led on larger cases and taking on your own advisory and court work.”
There is also all the added administration that comes with being self-employed, which can take some getting used to. “All of a sudden you’ve got to deal with VAT returns, tax returns, indemnity insurance, business accounts, continuing professional development and practising certificates,” stresses Mustafa at One Paper Building.
“And yes, it’s as boring as it sounds.”
But the upside of being self-employed is that you are your own boss, which as Mustafa explains has several advantages. “You may not have a guaranteed income,” he says, “but at least you don’t have a boss making sure you’re still in the office at 7.30pm even though there’s no work to do. You determine your own workload, the number of hours you want to put in per day and when you want to do them.
“When you’re self-employed you don’t have that absurd situation of sitting in the office trying to look busy even though you’ve done your work. I have friends in other professions who take naps in toilet cubicles at work to make their day pass quicker.”
Newly qualified solicitors, particularly those employed by large City firms, will rarely win instructions on their own right and typically work on matters that have been handed down to them by partners. In stark contrast, barristers have to secure their own work regardless of how many years they have been practising. And although the idea of winning business sounds daunting, Mussa says that having Blackstone on his CV has certainly helped him to build his client base.
“When you start off it’s not your own reputation you’re trading off - it’s your chambers’,” he explains. “And because I was in the very fortunate position of having the Blackstone name behind me I found a steady stream of work coming through that channel.”
Financially the first six months of tenancy can also be tricky due to the time lag between cases being done and being paid. Many chambers offer interest-free loans or other forms of financial support, such as rent-free periods.
Indeed, with the likes of One Essex Court and Fountain Court boosting thier pupillage awards to a whopping £60,000 from 2010 it makes trainee solicitor salaries pale into insignificance. But it is worth pointing out that a chambers guaranteeing the income of a junior barrister during their first year of tenancy is virtually unheard of.
This is the case at both One Essex Court and Blackstone, although the latter does offer first-year tenants an interest-free loan of £30,000. One Essex Court, however, does permit its pupils during their second six to top up their pupillage awards with any fees earned and does not charge expenses.
Understandably, Mussa was coy about his first-year earnings, but hinted that he was expecting to pocket a similar amount to his £42,500 pupillage award. But as you would expect, life in the criminal bar is significantly less lucrative, with a first-year tenant expected to earn just £20,000.
“People often form the impression that being a barrister means your earnings will increase very rapidly. That isn’t always the case. Because you’re self-employed you only get paid for the work you do. So although you enjoy great independence there’s no guaranteed income stream each month,” explains Mussa. “It’s therefore dangerous to base a decision on which chambers to apply to simply on the size of their pupillage awards.”
If you are prepared to work hard then taking your first tentative steps into the bar need not be as daunting as you might first expect. And as Mustafa puts it, although pupillage and your first year of tenancy can be extremely tough, it is really important to stay optimistic and to keep your eyes on the bigger prize.
The route to qualifying as a barrister starts out in the same way as becoming a solicitor, with either a law degree or the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) - a one-year conversion course for non-law graduates. But once the academic stage is out of the way the paths diverge.
Mini-pupillages are an intensive week of shadowing and assessment, while vacation schemes offer social events and trips out of the office on top of work experience.
On average most trainee solicitors are taken on by their firms at the end of their two-year training contracts, while pupillage offers no such guarantee.
Trainees and solicitors are billed out by their firms and earn salaries. Pupil barristers cannot practise for six months and are paid only through a pupillage award (some of this award can be drawn down during the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) year and may also be tax-free). They can start to earn their own money during the second six months of pupillage.
Upon qualification a solicitor continues to be employed by a law firm and will have to practise for some time before they are invited to become a partner. In contrast, a junior barrister becomes self-employed from the day they secure a tenancy and must manage time and cases themself. Note, however, that some barristers, notably those at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), are employed.
For more information on bar training keep an eye on Lawyer2B.com and check out our mini guide to the bar, which is out with the Winter 2009 issue of Lawyer 2B magazine.