I’ve been reflecting on the journey and sacrifice aspiring lawyers make to qualify as solicitors or barristers in England and Wales. Many of my friends and peers are still in the trenches fighting for their legal dream, so I want to take this opportunity to highlight the modern struggles of aspiring lawyers in 2023.

The traditional route on average takes three to four years of academic study at university and one year of vocational training at an accredited provider. During that time, it can be difficult to survive when your expenses are high and little to no money is coming in – I remember counting the slices of bread in a loaf to calculate the number of sandwiches I could make to ensure I could get through the weeks ahead. But as with any university student, you accept the loss of earnings as an investment into your career in the hopes of future returns.

Today as I logged into my Student Finance account, I was reminded of the financial cost of this crusade, which totalled £81.210.86 (including the Bar Training Course).

In addition to the financial struggles, the process itself is anxiety-inducing as you travel through the pressure cooker and prepare for each exam (I sat a total of 48 exams over a five-year period), conscious that any major mistakes could be the end of your legal aspirations which overtime takes its toll on your mental health. For the Harry Potter fans out there, I often describe the bar course as a horcrux because it felt like I left a piece of myself behind when I came out. I was financially broke and my mental and physical health was on the rocks because of the chronic stress I endured during the course. Mentally I was struggling to switch off and I found it hard to relax for a long time. I spent the next year on government benefits, struggling to secure a job as I discovered how little value my qualifications held outside of the legal job market, with prospective employers requiring a minimum of six months experience for any entry level roles.

It can feel like a sick joke because you have to spend the majority, if not all, of your time acquiring legal experience to even give yourself a chance of success, and find yourself entrenched as you have no other experience to be a viable candidate outside of the legal market… welcome to purgatory.

One of the most insidious aspects of the legal pursuit is after paying your pound of flesh you can be left with nothing, other than a few pieces of paper and an anvil of debt strapped to your ankle, should you not be able to secure a training contract or pupillage. Granted the SQE path now makes it easier for aspiring solicitors, the statistics are harrowing with approximately 17 per cent of candidates securing pupillage on the Pupillage Gateway in 2022/2023 and 18 per cent securing training contracts.

That means more than four out of five of applicants are unsuccessful. What happens to them? And yet the number of places available for vocational courses by accredited providers is rising. How can that be? It’s ethically repugnant and demonstrates a thirst for profits over people. I recall being on a mini-pupillage, shadowing a barrister, who used to teach at one of the providers, and she confided in me that she handed in her resignation because she felt morally conflicted that her employer was taking large sums of money from students, many of whom she said weren’t going to secure pupillage.

The reality for aspiring lawyers is that they are competing for an extremely finite number of places in a seller’s market. Even after leaving law school, you have only achieved the baseline entry requirements for you to enter the competition. For you to stand any chance of winning you have to embark on a campaign tour of voluntary work experience (more loss of earnings) which opens aspiring lawyers to being exploited. Every law graduate has a story to tell about a legal assistant or paralegal being worked to the bone, on an entry level salary, for an unusually long period of time and being dangled a carrot by their employer that their dream of qualifying is round the next 70-hour week.

For those that come from disadvantaged backgrounds the deck is already stacked against them. Only when I started applying for pupillage did I become aware that I attended a state school and the implications this had on my prospects of success. Those from privileged backgrounds may not have to be in full-time education and part-time employment to fund their academic years which provides them with an unfair advantage in the form of more free time to study and achieve higher grades. When it comes to work experience it can be significantly more difficult for candidates from low-income households to obtain work experience opportunities, as they tend to be unpaid and during the working week which can prevent them from applying and acquiring the necessary experience their applications need to get them to interview.

Almost a decade later my luck had turned around and on 6 May 2022 at 4:15pm, I received the email I’d been waiting for all these years… an offer for pupillage, enabling me to qualify as a criminal barrister for the Crown Prosecution Service! With one notification the weight of the world was finally off my shoulders and I felt like I could start enjoying life again.

I appreciate that not every story has a happy ending but there are things we can do to make the process fairer and more inclusive. Accredited providers should conduct more rigorous entry interviews that are more akin to the standards expected in training contract and pupillage interviews. There should be a greater emphasis on integrating careers advice into the course by running mandatory sessions which leverage the knowledge and experience of qualified lawyers, providing students with the skills they need to succeed at interview by preparing them for assessment centres, the Watson Glasser Test, advocacy exercises and challenging styles of questions.

Those that are unsuccessful in securing a training contract or pupillage, following the vocational course should be offered an aftercare program that supports them for a meaningful period. Finally, to help aspiring barristers from low-income households there should be more fundraising from chambers to provide bar course scholarships, similar to those available for aspiring solicitors by law firms.

As Ronald Reagan once said “We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.”

Taz Aldeek