Data from the Bar Council in 2018 showed that 14,517 applications were received from 2,089 candidates, for a total of 232 pupillages through the Pupillage Gateway. Many hundreds more were received directly by chambers not using the portal. Shortlisting from this vast pool of applications is one of the most difficult tasks chambers undertake – and probably the one most prone to unconscious bias.

What is blind recruitment and who is using it?

Unconscious biases are not in our conscious control and are triggered by our brain making quick judgments about people and situations, based on our own background, experiences and culture. Research has identified that these biases can be triggered during selection, hence the increasing popularity of ‘blind’ recruitment. Blind recruitment is the process of removing personal information about candidates from their application or CV, such as name, address and university attended. These sources of data could indicate a candidate’s gender, ethnicity, age and social background, which may trigger unconscious bias from the shortlisting panel. At the Bar, blind recruitment is typically undertaken at the shortlisting stage for large volume applications such as pupillage. It doesn’t have to be limited to pupillage, however. This process could be used for any type of selection, including clerk or staff recruitment.

Whilst blind recruitment may be in its infancy at the Bar, many professions and organisations are already using it. The Civil Service, KPMG, Ernst & Young, Deloitte, Bar Tribunals Adjudication Service, BBC, PWC, and Clifford Chance are amongst those recruiting on a ‘name blind’ basis for particular roles. Amongst early adopters at the Bar are XXIV Old Buildings, Matrix and 3 Temple Gardens. As Edward Cumming QC explains, ‘It is difficult to quantify the impact of measures such as this, but we hope that, as part of our commitment to running as open, transparent and robust an application process as possible it has helped reassure applicants that they will be treated fairly at XXIV Old Buildings.’

Karlia Lykourgou, a barrister at 3 Temple Gardens agrees that ‘blind marking can be an excellent tool against unconscious bias’ but adds that ‘to effectively assess its use in ensuring a fairer demographic spread it is necessary for chambers to also collect and review candidate data’.

What does the research show?

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that gender and ethnicity bias exists in selection. A study commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions, for example, found that applicants with typically white British names were more likely to be shortlisted for jobs than those with names associated with ethnic minority backgrounds (Wood et al). Moss-Racusin et al found that staff in a science faculty rated male applicants for a laboratory manager role as more competent than equally qualified female applicants. Goldin & Rouse concluded that ‘blind audition’ procedures ‘fostered impartiality in hiring and increased the proportion of women in symphony orchestras’. Clifford Chance used a CV blind policy for final interviews for potential recruits and found that its scheme broadened the number of academic institutions from which the organisation recruits to 41, up from 32 the previous year (Law Gazette).

Managing the risk of opposite effect

However, blind recruitment can only go so far. Once shortlisting has been completed, the next stage in pupillage recruitment is usually an interview followed by some type of advocacy and/or written exercise. Any bias in relation to name, gender, accent, appearance, social class, university, or ethnicity cannot be completely eliminated at this stage. One field study in France also found an opposite effect of blind recruitment. Call-back rates for migrants and residents of deprived neighbourhoods were reduced when applications were anonymised. However, in other countries, equality for women and ethnic minorities improved (Anonymous job application in Europe by Krase, Kinne & Zimmerman, 2012).

"A study commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions found that applicants with typically white British names were more likely to be shortlisted for jobs than those with names associated with ethnic minority backgrounds"

It could be argued that being able to see the name of an academic institution can help chambers make ‘contextual adjustments’ for applicants from less privileged backgrounds, which blind recruitment may eliminate. Whilst this is a possibility, an alternative approach would be firstly to shortlist using a blind process and then get someone not involved in the shortlisting to check for any ‘adverse impact’ against particular groups. You may be surprised at the findings and discover that no adverse impact actually occurred. If it is identified, then those applications can be reviewed again, this time with the contextualised data. However, caution needs to be taken when conducting contextually adjusted recruitment to ensure that well researched, relevant and up-to-date sources are used when making judgments about a candidate’s social class, postcode, schooling and subsequent academic achievement.

How to get started

Chambers currently using the Pupillage Gateway can select to view and download applications anonymously, with no monitoring information. Further instructions can be found in the chambers’ user guide or via For those not using the Gateway, it may involve a little more work. It will require someone (who is not on the shortlisting panel) individually reviewing each application, blocking out the candidate’s name (for example) and replacing the name with a candidate number on each page of the application. The process could involve simply removing an applicant’s name. However, many organisations, including some chambers, have embarked upon removing other information such as the university attended, address and even an applicant’s school, in the hope to reduce bias. It is important to note here that any diversity monitoring information such as an applicant’s age, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, disability etc should already have been removed from the application form prior to shortlisting. This is in accordance with the guidance set out in the Bar Council’s Fair Recruitment Guide.

Take the equality challenge

Blind recruitment cannot eliminate unconscious bias entirely, but it can certainly help. Ideally, we also need to identify ways of addressing any bias or unfair discrimination in ourselves. Ensuring that recruitment panels are trained and competent in fair selection and unconscious bias will go some way to achieving this. Chambers should also review their entire pupillage recruitment process each year to check for any ‘adverse impact’ for particular groups and take remedial action if issues are identified.

Further information

  • Information on any aspect of your recruitment process can be found within the Fair Recruitment Guide.
  • Wood, M et al, 2009, A test for racial discrimination in recruitment practice in British cities: research report no. 607, Department for Work and Pensions.
  • Moss-Racusin, CA et al, ‘Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for the United States of America 109(4): 16474-16479.
  • Goldin, C & Rouse, C, 2000, ‘Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians’, American Economic Review, 90 (4): 715-741.
  • ‘Clifford Chance broadens diversity with “CV blind” scheme’, Kathleen Hall,, 10 January 2014.

Bindi Dholakia is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Director of Fairway Group and co-author of the Bar Council’s Fair Recruitment Guide.

Pupillage: is there an ethnicity-success link?

Significant links between ethnicity and success on the BPTC course and in attaining pupillage were identified by the Bar Standards Board research team. White candidates were twice as likely to secure pupillage as Black Asian and Minority Ethnic candidates, the regulator found (Exploring differential attainment at BPTC and pupillage, November 2017). The Bar Council asked Professor Martin Chalkley to analyse historic data from the Pupillage Gateway to establish what might be happening and thus decide how best to advise chambers and prospective pupils (Report on the Differential Attainment of Applicants through the Pupillage Gateway, February 2018).

What Professor Chalkley found was more nuanced: that while some ethnic groups perform as well as their white counterparts, others do not. Those performing well seem to be Irish, Black Caribbean, Asian Indian and mixed White & Black African, White & Asian, and White & Black Caribbean. Black African, Asian Bangladeshi and Chinese applicants are not performing as well and for some the attainment gap is large. There also seem to be some significant differences between men and women within the different ethnic groups but there was no significant difference found in the prospects of success of women and men overall.

The Bar Council’s Equality, Diversity and Social Mobility (EDSM) Committee and the Education & Training Committee are working with Professor Chalkley to look at this more closely in longitudinal studies, eg unpicking whether candidate behaviour (links between ethnicity, practice area, popularity of certain chambers and number of applications made) and/or chambers’ current practices influence success.