Paching up the problems

The Pupillage Applications Clearing House (Pach) was devised in 1996 in an attempt to bring some order into pupillage recruitment. Prior to its introduction, those seeking a pupillage were faced with the daunting task of making numerous applications to chambers, while chambers were faced with an endless stream of inquiries about pupillage. Pach introduced a fixed recruitment period, with applicants completing a single application form on disk. There is also a limit on the number of chambers to which an applicant could apply, which reduces the number of individual applications chambers have to consider.

However, a problem emerged with the initial Pach system in that it was necessary to have a rigid and detailed timetable. This has imposed constraints, which some chambers found difficult to reconcile with their own well-established recruitment timetable and procedures. Recruitment through Pach takes place in early autumn when students have started on the BVC, and some chambers believe that this puts them at a disadvantage when competing with City firms of solicitors for the best candidates. The result has been that the system, while it has continued to operate, only includes about 60 per cent of chambers.

Advances in online technology have allowed the Bar Council to undertake a radical overhaul of the system. Under proposals currently being considered, a pupillage recruitment website will be set up and all pupillage vacancies will have to be advertised on the site. The new site will also include a new Pach scheme. Chambers will be able to come together and receive applications online using a common application form. In respect of chambers in the scheme, the number of chambers to which an applicant will apply will be limited to 12, as is the case now. Although there will be a single closing date for applications, which is expected to be 30 April, chambers will not, as at present, be required to make offers on the same day. Instead they will be free to make offers at any time after 31 July. The scheme will therefore be able to accommodate chambers which would like to recruit in the summer, as well as those which prefer to do so in the autumn.

The number of pupillages is limited, and competition for them is stiff. This proposal, if adopted, will create a single marketplace for pupillages, and this can only be good for those seeking pupillage. The flexibility of the new Pach will encourage more chambers to join. Again, this will be good for applicants. It is hoped that this proposal will assist in creating a level playing field of opportunity for those seeking pupillage.

Nigel Bastin is head of education at the Bar Council.


May 1995: Modelled on the Ucas system for awarding university places, the Pupillage Application Clearing House (Pach), aims to link pupillage candidates and their prospective employers with a single application.

July 1995: The Bar Council unanimously approves the Pach scheme at its meeting on 8 July, putting an end to the free-for-all selection system (The Lawyer, 18 July).

December 1995: In an early setback, a group of 11 chambers decide not to join the new scheme (The Lawyer, 19 December).

February 1996: 75 per cent of chambers sign up (The Lawyer, 6 February).

April 1996: The 248 sets give their seal of approval to the new scheme, describing it as a definite improvement (The Lawyer, 30 April).

November 1996: Bar students threaten to set up an alternative scheme following a wave of discontent due to the fact that 1,400 students were left stranded in the first round of the scheme after all the available 865 pupillages were offered to just 365 students (The Lawyer, 5 November).

February 1997: Several chambers pull out as more than 300 pupillages are left unfilled. Many fear the system has reduced the number of places on offer (The Lawyer, 18 February).

January 1999: The bar’s Race Relations Committee challenges the Bar Council’s decision to bring forward pupillage recruitment to the final year of university, voicing fears that changing the system could discriminate against visible minorities (The Lawyer, 11 January).

May 1999: Just one in five barristers find a pupillage through the scheme. The statistics were produced six months earlier but were allegedly suppressed by the Bar Council (The Lawyer, 17 May).

October 1999: The system faces collapse after 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square accuses Blackstone Chambers of poaching the best students (The Lawyer, 25 October 1999.)

October 1999: The Bar Council attempts to make changes to prevent chambers offering a place to students before 1 September in their final year of university.

November 1999: The row between Blackstone and 4-5 Gray’s Inn reignites as a student who accepted an offer from Blackstone goes to 4-5 Gray’s Inn. It seems students are left with only three options: accept and stick with an early offer, break the agreement, or gamble and wait for a later offer from a Pach member (The Lawyer, 29 November).

January 2000: Pach is granted a reprieve from collapse. A review group is established by the Bar Council to troubleshoot contentious issues (The Lawyer, 24 January).

April 2000: The latest statistics show that only 20 per cent of student barristers are likely to gain a pupillage through Pach. For the year 1999-2000, only 411 offers were made out of a total 2,062 applicants, a further drop from last year’s low of 22 per cent (The Lawyer, 10 April).