Top private school summoned by BSB over pupillage auction

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) has approached the head of Westminster School after it auctioned off a mini-pupillage in a bid to raise money for a new building.

The public school, which costs up to £10,450 per term, has auctioned off various high-profile internships, including one for private bank Coutts, as well as a one to two week mini-pupillage with a criminal defence barrister in London. The bidding so far has reached £700. 

A description of the so-called prize on the school’s auction page reads: “The lucky winner will have the opportunity to gain an insight into the working life of a criminal defence barrister, attending court and observing a criminal trial. They will also have the opportunity to meet the barrister beforehand and read the case papers so that they can be fully au fait with the issues before the trial starts.”

The bar regulator said it had contacted the school. A Bar Standards Board spokesperson said: “As regulators, fairness and advancing equality of opportunity at the Bar is at the heart of what we do and our director is in touch with the head of Westminster School.”

Mini-pupillages are short periods of work experience, usually for one week, in a set of chambers. Generally speaking they are not part of the formal process for becoming a barrister and so are not regulated by the BSB. However if undertaking an assessed mini-pupillage is part of the selection criteria for a full pupillage then it should follow BSB rules.

Social Mobility Foundation chief executive David Johnston slammed the concept of an auction, commenting that it illustrated nepotism in the profession.

“A lot of people say it’s only a week of experience so it doesn’t matter, but in that week you can get insider knowledge and key contacts that will help hugely to how you approach a job application,” he said. “Just a short amount of time with an organisation can get you these key tips and connections.”

“The legal profession has really worked hard on social diversity in recent years but we can’t ignore the fact that even if it’s for a good cause this shouldn’t be happening. I would rather they gave a donation than auctioned a placement to someone who can then outcompete others.”

The Social Mobility Foundation has recently launched a programme with Linklaters, which aims to bring people from around the country to London for a placement with the magic circle firm. The majority of the participants will be sixth-formers who are eligible for free school meals, the equivalent of a household income of less than £16,190.