Why the bar really is a meritocracy

I have the utmost sympathy with @Dusty_Cobweb author of ’Access Denied’. The hunt for pupillage is a miserable time, but that really is no excuse for continuing to peddle the easy myths about how you can only succeed in getting a pupillage at the bar if you are white, male, middle-class, went to public school, Oxford, Cambridge, have lots of money, blah blah blah.

If all those things were true the bar wouldn’t be as diverse a place as it is; admittedly not yet as diverse as society as a whole, but the statistics simply do not support the myths.

Don’t get me wrong, some of my good friends are barristers and some of those are white, male, middle-class, went to public school, Oxford, Cambridge, etc. but I don’t hold it against them because despite all these inherent disadvantages they are also charming, funny and generally good company as well as being damn good at what they do.

The reason they and others like them are damn good at what they do is not because of their backgrounds it is because they are persuasive. The key to being a good barrister is the ability to persuade – an obvious point perhaps, but it bears restating because it is so rarely included on the list of things everyone says you need to become a barrister: stellar academic qualification, work experience, connections, money, blah blah blah.

Sadly, this mythical view of the bar seems to be pretty pervasive. When I went to my careers office at university and told them I wanted to be a barrister I was asked whether I was going to get a first. I answered that I was not and was told ’oh well then don’t bother’ that was the entire extent of the careers support that I received!

Luckily I am not the kind of person who takes no for an answer so I did all the research about becoming a barrister myself. I applied for scholarships, scrimped, saved and got myself into further enormous debt to do the bar course and mini-pupillages. I completed the ghastly OLPAS and even more ghastly interviews and eventually got myself pupillage. I don’t fit the stereotype, I didn’t go to public school, I didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge, etc. I’m just very determined, which makes me a lot like most of the barristers I’ve ever met!

Let’s be honest – the difficult part about getting pupillage is that there is fierce competition for every place, as I have discussed elsewhere . I have been involved in sifting applications for pupillage and interviewing potential pupils for my chambers (www.stjohnschambers.co.uk) for a number of years and we get around 500 applicants for each pupillage. We have to sift those somehow and I suspect our criteria are much the same as other chambers.

If you have straight As or A*s, a double first from Oxford or Cambridge, work experience (e.g. mini-pupillage, marshalling, vacation placements with solicitors), a masters, internships, volunteer work with NGOs, etc. we probably will have a careful look at your application, but if you haven’t got all or any of those things that doesn’t mean your application goes in the bin.

Some of my colleagues have come to the bar from non-traditional routes and alternative careers as varied as aerobics instructors, midwives, and the military. Some of us have children, some of us are single-parents, in general we’re a pretty diverse bunch and nothing like the “unmarried, childless, parental-funded, internship-wielding super-students” @Dusty_Cobweb envisages. Frankly, I’m not sure I would want to be in a chambers full of such stereotypical barristers, even if one existed.

I can’t speak for how to get a pupillage in other chambers but for my chambers it is really pretty straightforward. I know that we can only really manage to interview 20 / 30 students out of an average of just under 1,000 applicants, so we have a shortlist of 50 applications which we try to reduce to 25 for first interview. If you want to get into the 50 you have to write a persuasive application. If it’s persuasive enough you get a chance to come and persuade us in person.

If you haven’t done the ’standard’ things and don’t have stellar qualifications then you may simply have to work a little harder to persuade chambers that you have got what it takes to be a really good barrister. That’s just the way life goes and it’s exactly the same as being a barrister: sometimes you have to argue difficult cases where the odds seem stacked against you. Your job is then to persuade your tribunal that those odds are wrong. If you can’t persuade chambers about your own potential perhaps you should have a careful think about whether you really have what it takes to persuade your clients, whether lay or professional, or your judge about your case, whatever it may be.

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