Virtually there

In the dim and distant past – 15 years ago in fact – if you wanted a pupillage, you basically had to write a hundred letters in your best ink pen and then pray very hard. The Bar Council obviously became tired of all these unhappy, unpupillaged folk lying around the Inns' lawns with nothing to do after their bar finals, so it introduced Patric, a matching service for spare students and leftover pupillages, which did not work too well. In 1996 the Pupillage Application Clearing House scheme (Pach) arrived, a more complicated clearing system. This, too, endured a traumatic life, so now in comes the On-Line Pupillage Application System (Olpas). Scheduled to go live on 3 March, Olpas is a web-based clearing system, supposedly designed to smooth out this most stressful and often mortifying of processes.

Rather like the forms you fill in at school for university entrance, Olpas allows you to nominate up to 24 sets of chambers, divided into two "seasons". These nominations then go direct via the web to the relevant sets, which, on the strength of your application, decide if they want to give you the once-over.

Do not be fooled by the apparent ease of this process, however. Out of a possible 369 sets UK-wide (in April 2000), only 166 have signed up to the scheme, leaving the rest to roam the Law School veldt to pick off the juiciest prey at their will. As David Grief, senior clerk at Essex Court Chambers, one of the UK's top four commercial sets, points out: "The problem with Pach was that non-Pach chambers could go into the marketplace, organise their own timetable, and sometimes get the best candidates."

While his and indeed all the top four commercial sets – One Essex Court, Fountain Court and Brick Court Chambers – are all signed up to Pach and now Olpas, he fears that Olpas will not do away with this flagrant cherry picking, even though it has brought the application process forward and introduced a moratorium period between 30 April and 31 July, when no offers can be made. "The problem is, it's not compulsory," says Grief. "I think the Bar Council thinks there might be a legal challenge in it." Indeed, the council's response to the question of making Olpas compulsory, according to a spokesman, is "not politically possible. Not all chambers want to join. Chambers are self-employed – they run their own affairs, and we can't force them to do something that's going to be unpopular."

Although Olpas is set to streamline the application process by making it web-based, the two-season approach could bring about a two-grade opinion of candidates. As Philippa Hopkins, a tenant of six years at Essex Court, points out, her set and probably all the other top sets will opt for the first, summer batch in order to snap up the best candidates. "I'm not sure why the Bar Council introduced the dual timetable; I'm not sure it's going to work," she says. "The autumn season will have a mop-up function, as not everyone will get a pupillage first time round."

So why should the best sets bother with Olpas at all, when they could cheekily cream off the brightest stars behind their brethren's backs? "Olpas takes an enormous amount of administration away from chambers," points out Grief, who prior to Pach was receiving around 600-800 pupillage applications a year. Now it is between 90 and 200, of which the set interviews around 25. "As one of the leading chambers, we feel we want to be there to support it. Potentially it's very good," he says.

Of course, this is all very well for the Oxbridge triple-A starred sons and daughters of judges who have brains the size of planets and mouths to match. But what about other aspiring lawyers who, although extremely bright and able, either would never, or would never want to, attain the giddy heights of top commercial tenancy and all the lovely lolly that such a job entails? Having dodged all those naughty clerks and pupillage committees out to trap you in their sticky little webs, what is left for you? If you complete your pupillage applications by the book, stick to Olpas and be a good, honest student, will you actually get anywhere? Or should you just ditch the whole thing and become a solicitor, accountant, management consultant or – the worst fate of all – a banker.

The good news is that if you are not snapped up immediately, there are those 166 sets who might take your application seriously. However, bearing in mind that there will be at least 1,000 other people all going for an average of two or three pupillages at each set, only one of which on average will turn into a tenancy, you may decide that it is not worth it.

One way to make the decision of whether or not to bother applying to the bar, according to those who have recently made it through, is to partake in mini-pupillages – by far the best way to find out first if you like a set, and second if you like the bar and all those funny people practising at it. Clair Dobbin, a junior junior at top criminal set 3 Raymond Buildings, was called in 1999, and still remembers how hard it was for most of her fellow students to get anywhere. "The system worked for me in that I got plenty of interviews, but I was in the minority," she recalls. "Lots of people at bar school didn't even get that far. I think the main problem with the whole system is bar school. It's scandalous the way there are so many places but so many people they know will never make it at the bar. There's so little guidance prior to entry."

With fees now running at around £8,000 for the Bar Vocational Course, plus the expense of living for a year in London with some degree of impecuniosity after that, if you are not on the commercial side, it is a heavy expense to let people in with no filtering system. "You have to think long and hard about it," warns Dobbin, herself a Cambridge graduate who won a rare scholarship to bar school having first worked as a parliamentary researcher for two years.

Surprising though it may seem in light of recent research showing that the UK is one of the most crime-ridden countries in the world, the criminal bar has been severely hit in recent years, mostly because chambers have become lean and mean and have kicked out all the dross. Dobbin advises extreme caution when choosing a criminal set, and says the two surefire signs of an also-ran set are barristers hanging around in chambers with nothing to do, and barristers of a few years' call still malingering in the magistrates' courts rather than taking on juicier Crown Court cases where prison is a definite prospect. Of course, this should not be confused with more senior barristers down the pub schmoozing with solicitors, which is a crucial and vital part of the job, and one which your clerk will encourage you most forcibly to practise, or the ones taking the morning off to put in their new Ikea kitchen. (No, crime doesn't pay).

Of course, if you want to be a barrister, you do not have to be either a criminal type or a commercial one – you could go the common law route instead. People in these chambers possibly have the most varied work, from personal injury, employment disputes, construction or technology and contractual disputes of all types, to family or landlord and tenant, or road traffic if you are really unlucky. Each chambers will have different strengths and a different emphasis, therefore again it is vital to do your research to avoid making a duff choice.

David McIlroy, a tenant of six years' call at 3 Raymond Buildings, also urges prospective pupils to do mini-pupillages in several sets to be able to compare and see how they like it. Pointing out that the skills a barrister needs now are the same as in the 16th century, he would ask a prospective pupil if they enjoyed the law. While as a barrister you get to chew over the law itself, "lots that solicitors do is about being a businessman and selling a product called law". However, he admits that his chambers, along with all the others, has pulled its socks up recently to react to a more competitive and demanding marketplace, which has led to the introduction of such revolutionary items as themed coffee cups and mouse mats to reflect the chambers' corporate identities. "Work doesn't come in by itself, you have to go and get it," he reasons.

Apart from a healthy regard for the law itself, Hopkins adds that a barrister must really want to be an advocate and says that whatever larger law firms may promise about rights of audience, solicitors will not have a fraction of the advocacy experience that a barrister gets. Almost any solicitor you speak to will back this up 100 per cent. Hopkins adds that another important element of being at the bar is the independence it affords. "You have all the advantages of self-employment – you can decide how to run your case. But obviously, this isn't something to do unless you really want to."

The other side of the coin, as she willingly admits, is that it can be incredibly stressful to be a sole agent, and "you're only as good as your last brief". And whatever anyone tells you about being your own person, in the early years you are totally at your clerk's mercy, and you will do as they say. And that is final.