Do we need more pupillages?

The number of students who want to become barristers shows little sign of diminishing with 3,100 applicants to the Bar Professional Training Course (BTPC) in 2010/2011 and 3,016 in 2011/2012. In 2010/2011 1,618 students successfully enrolled on the BTPC

The statistics show a continuing healthy level of demand for the BTPC despite course fees of between £10 – 15,000:

BVC Year  03/04  04/05  05/06  06/07 07/08 08/09 09/10
 Applicants  2570  2883  2917  2870  2864 2540 2657
 Enrolments  1449  1665  1745  1932 1837 1749 1793
 Successful  1251  1392  1480  1560 1720 1330 1432

As a barrister I find this quite heartening. I enjoy my job and I think that it is fantastic that so many students continue to want to be barristers despite the often negative attitude towards us in the media – most of us are fairly skinny kitties and not the fat cats that we are portrayed as!

That said there is a growing level of concern at the bar and amongst students that the rising demand for the BPTC is not reflected by rising availability of pupillages, especially in areas where public funding cuts bite the hardest, such as crime and family law.

The statistics on pupillage generally make fairly stark reading:

Total number of barristers who commenced 1st six month pupillage between:

Date of pupillage  Number
1 October 2000 & 30 September 2001  695
1 October 2001 & 30 September 2002  812*
1 October 2002 & 30 September 2003   586
1 October 2003 & 30 September 2004  518
1 October 2004 & 30 September 2005   556
1 October 2005 & 30 September 2006   515
1 October 2006 & 30 September 2007 527
1 October 2007 & 30 September 2008 562
1 October 2008 & 30 September 2009 464
1 October 2009 & 30 September 2010 460
1 October 2010 & 30 September 2011 446

* Due to 30 September 2002 falling on a Monday, 112 pupillages which would normally have been registered in the 2002/3 year were registered in the 2001/2 year, causing the higher than usual figure for that year and the lower than usual figure for 2002/3.

Total number of barristers who commenced 2nd six month pupillage between:

Date of pupillage  Number
1 October 2000 & 30 September 2001   700
1 October 2001& 30 September 2002   724
1 October 2002 & 30 September 2003   702
1 October 2003 & 30 September 2004  557
1 October 2004 & 30 September 2005   598
1 October 2005 & 30 September 2006 567
1 October 2006 & 30 September 2007 563
1 October 2007 & 30 September 2008 555
1 October 2008 & 30 September 2009 518
1 October 2009 & 30 September 2010 495
1 October 2010 & 30 September 2011 477

The steady downward trend in the number of pupillages available together with the increasing number of BTPC students means that competition to become a barrister is fierce. I presume that any student who signs up to the swingeing BTPC course fees really does want to become barrister rather than using the BPTC as a bizarrely expensive way of moving on to do something else. I entirely accept that there are a number of BPTC students from other jurisdictions who have no intention of becoming barristers in England & Wales: 30% of those called to the Bar in 2009 – 2010 were not from the UK (see PDF) and this is fairly consistent with my own experience both of doing the BPTC (then called the BVC!) and of talking to new students, but the fact remains that we have far more successful BPTC students than there are available pupillages.

This is a problem with many possible causes and I am not going to attempt to unpick the reason for the increasing demand and falling availability, but instead simply ask whether we really need more pupillages?

The answer to that question will, I suspect, vary enormously depending on who you choose to ask. I have been a member of the pupillage committee in my chambers for a number of years and much to my astonishment am nearly ’senior’ enough to become a pupil supervisor (eek!) and I know that from the perspective of chambers a pupil is not just about the money (pupils must be paid a minimum of £10,000 although most are paid more than this) but as much about the huge amount of time and effort that is put into training them by their pupil supervisors. In reality chambers must look on pupils as an investment and consider what they anticipate their need for junior barristers to be in the future. I cannot imagine that this is any different in the other organisations that offer pupillages, but from my own experience I can only speak for chambers.

What is clear from the statistics is that if you do get pupillage your prospects of tenancy are much better than they were:

 Total number of barristers who obtained tenancy in the self-employed bar for the first time between:

Date of Tenancy  Number
1 October 1998 & 30 September 1999  541
1 October 1999 & 30 September 2000  511
1 October 2000 & 30 September 2001   535
1 October 2001 & 30 September 2002   541
1 October 2002 & 30 September 2003   698
1 October 2003 & 30 September 2004  601
1 October 2004 & 30 September 2005   544
1 October 2005 & 30 September 2006   531
1 October 2006 & 30 September 2007   499
1 October 2007 & 30 September 2008  494
1 October 2008 & 30 September 2009 497
1 October 2009 & 30 September 2010 467

Total number of barristers who entered the employed bar for the first time between: 

Date of Tenancy  Number
1 October 2003 & 30 September 2004  182
1 October 2004 & 30 September 2005  156
1 October 2005 & 30 September 2006   191
1 October 2006 & 30 September 2007   228
1 October 2007 & 30 September 2008  239
1 October 2008 & 30 September 2009 213
1 October 2009 & 30 September 2010 171

Given the relatively close correlation between the number of tenancies and the number of pupillages it seems reasonable to presume that once you have completed pupillage you *will* become a barrister, so shouldn’t steps be taken to increase the number of pupillages available?

It seems as though the advantages of more pupillages being available are quite plain. It is likely to be easier to seek employment as a practicing barrister than it is to find a pupillage. The extremely high level of competition for pupillage may well be discouraging able applicants from poorer backgrounds who are less able to run the risk of paying for the BPTC (or getting burdened with yet further huge debt more likely) with such a low likelihood of pupillage at the end of it.

That said what is the purpose of a pupillage without a tenancy? If ten members of a chambers cannot each contribute £1,000 of their annual earnings towards paying a pupil then is it realistic to consider that the chambers will have enough work to take the pupil on as a tenant?

The Government position in relation to public funding is clearly a factor and there is a very clear view in Government that there is an over-supply of lawyers doing publicly funded work. Anecdotally there is a view that the chambers who are not offering pupillages are mainly those which are doing primarily publicly funded work.

I think this is a really difficult question, but I think we do a huge injustice to the thousands of BTPC students who miss out on pupillage if we don’t resolve it.

Zoe Saunders is a family barrister at St John’s Chambers