Many study, few succeed. Becoming a barrister is harder than ever, with a tidal wave of applicants competing for a shrinking number of pupillages. But the stats still aren’t putting students off. By Jon Robins

You want to be a barrister. What is the best way to prepare? If you are Andreas Stavrinides, the answer is: become a monk. Stavrinides is a law student at the College of Law doing the BVC who has yet to find pupillage. Thanks, perhaps, to his former existence in a monastic order under a strict vow of poverty, he appears unconcerned by the shrinking number of pupillages revealed in The Lawyer last week (2 May).

“I don’t mind, because I want to be a barrister more than anything else,” says Stavrinides. “I don’t want to be corny, but it’s the pearl beyond price. My experience is, if people are determined, then they actually do get pupillage.”

The number of pupillages last year shrank by 20 per cent to just 572 from 711 in 2003 and 766 in 2002. While the law schools keep churning out would-be barristers at huge personal expense (there are 1,594 places available for the BVC this year), the odds of finding a berth in a decent set are becoming longer and longer.

Helen Lyle, a 28-year-old law student at BPP Law School in Holborn, London, points out that she and her peers are all too aware of the “terrifying statistics” on pupillage numbers. “Obviously, hearing that kind of information is incredibly disheartening,” she says. “But perhaps what marks out potential barristers from other people is a kind of self-belief bordering on arrogance. You think that you’ll be the one.” Lyle has an £11,000 student loan from studying English at university. “I’m not going to tell you how much I’ve borrowed recently,” she says.

One of the reasons for the drastic drop in the number of available opportunities is the new obligation on chambers to ensure that pupils must receive at least £10,000 a year – at least according to some within the profession. “There’s some talk within the student body that they should get rid of [the requirement], so there would be more pupillages available,” Lyle says. “Despite the difficulties I’ve had, I feel quite passionately that it shouldn’t be scrapped. It’s important that there’s some money available, otherwise you’re cutting out a huge amount of bright barristers who don’t have the money.”

So what do barristers’ chambers make of the mismatch between demand and supply?

For the commercial sets looking to bag the best candidates, an oversupply is not really a problem. Paul Shrubsall, senior clerk at One Essex Court, reports that 221 students applied this year compared with 180 the previous year. Five applicants were offered pupillage. “It’s a hugely competitive market,” he says. “But once the top chambers have made the offers the pendulum swings the other way because the top students find that they’re sitting there with half a dozen offers, and they’re the ones we want.” One Essex Court offers its pupils £40,000 and they can take up to a third during their BVC.

At Seven Bedford Row there were a staggering 466 applicants last year. The set offers three pupillages a year. “We recruit pupils with the intention of taking them on as members,” comments chief executive Robert Graham-Campbell. “We don’t recruit people to use them as cannon fodder [like some sets], where if they’re really lucky one in six might be offered a place.” Seven Bedford Row was the first chambers to adopt Bar Council principles to help young members of the bar in 2003, when it guaranteed a fixed payment for its trainee barristers and pupils. From October this year, it will offer its successful applicants funding of up to £26,000, plus £10,000 guaranteed earnings in the second six months (£10,000 may be drawn during the BVC year).

What do the legal educationalists make of the prospect of training law students for a career at the bar that many will not pursue? “There are some serious strategic issues here for the bar,” reckons Nigel Savage, chief executive of the College of Law. “But the bar doesn’t do strategy. Where’s the next generation of barristers going to come from?” At the College of Law, enrolment for the BVC went up by 30 per cent this year. So where do the students go? Increasingly, they turn to private practice law firms and transfer to the bar later in their careers. “It’s not a disastrous situation, and in fact there’s a lot to be said for it,” Savage says. “It’s what happens in Australia; people go into a litigation department first and then transfer to the bar later. But at the moment it’s not happening through strategic decisions by the bar and the Law Society, but simply because of the marketplace.”

Savage also points out that, for the moment at any rate, students who complete the BVC can call themselves ‘barrister’ and therefore have “some status in the marketplace”. But from September 2008 law students will not have that consolation, as they will to have complete pupillage before they can adopt the title.

BPP Law School chief executive Peter Crisp reports that demand for the BVC is “phenomenal”. “It’s extraordinary given the narrow tunnel that students go down, in the sense that the opportunity of pupillage is becoming increasingly cramped,” he says. “It’s remarkable that so many people want to do it.” As he points out, there are overseas students who want to be called to the bar in the UK but not practise here, as well as those students who see the course “as an education in itself”.

But are they aware of the problems that they might face? “We find students go into this with their eyes open,” Crisp says. Certainly, Lyle believes that is the case for herself and her contemporaries. “Intellectually I know what the facts are, but there’s another part of me that’s sure I’ll be okay,” she says. “I’m pretty hopeful. I don’t care what anyone else says.”