No room at the Inns for students

Just who and how many people should become barristers is generating increasing debate. In 1976 an aspiring lawyer was told by her law tutors that two things stood in the way of her becoming a barrister.

She was a woman and she was black.

In 1997 Baroness Patricia Scotland, a Queen's Counsel at 35 and head of her own chambers at 1 Gray's Inn Square, has confirmed the third thing her tutors told her.

She had the ability to make it.

Yet for the class of 1997 is ability enough?

"I'm actually quite worried about young people out there now who are in the position I was in 1976, when I came to the Bar," Scotland told more than 500 barristers at the 1997 Bar Conference on 27 September.

The figures are frighteningly clear for any aspiring barrister.

Of the 16,000 law graduates pouring out of the universities of England and Wales each year, just 450, or three per cent, will get a tenancy.

Further, there is pressure on the Bar Council from within the profession to stem the flow of recruits in order to protect existing junior barristers' fees.

But the Director General of the Office of Fair Trading, John Bridgeman, has advised the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, that the number of people taking up legal training "should be determined by natural competition rather than constraints set up by professional bodies".

Dr Peter Gray, secretary of the Non-Practising Bar Association, says the result of this policy is that, of the 1,450 students who go through the Bar vocational course each year, 1,000 – who have all paid more than £6,000 in course fees – will never make it to a chambers.

Last week a group of law students complained to The Lawyer about paying thousands of pounds for their training only to be shut out by the profession.

They suggested that the Pupillage Application Clearing House (Pach) system should allocate pupillages before students go to Bar school.

Bar Council race relations committee chair Lincoln Crawford supports the concept of guaranteed pupillages.

"When people have trained at the Bar they should be given a pupillage," he says.

Bar Council chairman Robert Owen QC is now pressed uncomfortably between those who want to stop the Inns being flooded with new barristers and those who do not want chambers to return to being the preserve of white men in pinstripe suits.

One of Owen's solutions is to get into law schools at an early stage and confront students with the ugly truth of how few of them will make it to the Bar.

But who would be more discouraged by this message? The young white man from a wealthy legal background or the young black woman from a poor family? And tutors warn that even dire warnings would not deter many.

Tales abound at the Bar of the shattering effect that failure to secure a pupillage can have on students who have never failed an exam in their lives.

"I suppose what Robert Owen is saying is that we have to help people make a informed choice," says Scotland. "You need to say 'these are the obstacles', but you add 'if you want to get there, there are systems at the Bar that will enable you to achieve your goal'."

At the moment the discretionary grants which are theoretically available have virtually dried up. Next year the Bar Council is offering £5.3m worth of assistance to pupils and students in scholarships and grants.

The four Inns of Court will pump in a further £1.9m.

Yet £7.1m in assistance is not enough, according to the Bar Council's public affairs committee chair Nigel Pascoe QC.

"Chambers have got to extend their scholarship system," he says. Pascoe believes every barrister in a set should be levied to fund a scholarship.

But others argue that, although more chamber sponsorship would benefit students who otherwise would not make it to the Bar, many smaller sets are themselves struggling to survive and cannot afford to help.

Former Bar Council chairman Peter Goldsmith QC has been given the difficult task of ensuring that nobody is unfairly barred from making it into a chambers but also that the Bar is not flooded with would-be tenants. He is leading a working party looking into the problem finance causes for students.

But whatever Goldsmith comes up with, Inns of Court School of Law principal lecturer Clive Coleman says one thing will never change for some hoping for a career at the Bar.

"There are still going to be people who are broken-hearted at the end of the day."