Cherishing a strong and independent Bar

The Pupillage Gateway recruitment window will be brought forwards from April to January next year, enabling students to secure pupillage before committing to the expensive BPTC course; and Bar Council plans to work with chambers to create a recruitment ‘gold standard’.

A frequent question I am asked is why I became Chairman of the Bar. 

The anticipated answer may be that I had my arm twisted. The honest answer is that I believe in my profession and in the role that it plays in our society. It is at its most critical when defending the citizen against the state, but the Bar is also important in the context of disputes between family members, between employees and employers, and between commercial parties to a contract, to give but a few examples. I believe that a strong and independent Bar is something that needs to be cherished and encouraged.

Part of encouraging and cherishing the Bar is ensuring that it is open to all talented students and that those who succeed are able to earn a decent living and to progress. We all know of the crippling debt which many students now come to the Bar with, the small number of pupillages available and the real challenges faced by many even after they have secured a tenancy. Much work is being done to try to address some of these challenges including by the Bar Council, the Inns, Circuits and Specialist Bar Associations (SBAs) to name a few. I wanted to take the opportunity of this month’s column to flag the decision by the Bar Council to move the date for pupillage applications through the Pupillage Gateway.

When I did what was then called the Bar course through the Inns of Court school it cost just over £3,000. I remember thinking that that was a huge amount of money, particularly on top of living in London. I was one of the lucky ones who got an Inn scholarship. Today the equivalent course, the BPTC, commands fees ranging from £14,000-17,000. About 1,800 students take this course each year. They have five years during which they can apply for pupillage. Last year there were about 400 pupillages available across the Bar. One of several challenges is that currently students are frequently required to commit to the BPTC before they know the outcome of their pupillage applications. It is difficult to understand how this can be justified. Unfortunately, the BPTC providers are outside of our control.

The Pupillage Gateway is the Bar’s portal run by the Bar Council. The Bar Standards Board requires chambers to advertise all pupillages through this portal, but does not require participation for the application process. About 400 pupillages were on offer in 2015. Roughly 2,100 students a year apply for pupillages through the Pupillage Gateway and about half of the pupillages on offer are obtained through it. In 2015, 167 chambers advertised on the portal and 95 chambers used the portal to process their applications.

In 2015 a Bar Council working party produced a report aimed at increasing social mobility and supporting students from non-traditional backgrounds in undertaking a career at the Bar. Among other recommendations, the report recommended advancing the Gateway timetable from April to January, on the grounds that this would enable students to know if they had successfully secured pupillage before committing to the expensive BPTC course. This would also help to achieve parity with those sets of chambers outside the Gateway which recruited earlier and avoid the pupillage interview process clashing with exams. There was a real concern that the working party had not consulted widely enough, particularly among those chambers which recruit through the portal. The Bar Council therefore held a public consultation on moving the Pupillage Gateway date. There were 126 responses from chambers, students and other interested parties. The majority of those responding supported the move, including 88% of students who responded. Among the chambers currently using the portal to recruit and who responded to the consultation expressing a strong view yes or no, the majority supported the move. However, a number of chambers currently in the portal expressed concerns about moving the date. In January 2016 the General Management Committee of the Bar Council carefully considered the consultation responses, debated the same and decided to shift the Pupillage Gateway recruitment window from April to January. The change will take effect in January 2017.

We recognise that not all chambers will be happy with the new timetable, but we believe that it will benefit students because they will know the outcome of their applications before they commit to the BPTC and because the move will avoid clashes between academic exams and pupillage interviews. We will work with the profession to learn from the experience of those who are already recruiting earlier in the year and to consider in more detail the concerns expressed by those who did not support the move, to see to what extent these can be addressed. In real terms this will include working with universities to ascertain the extent to which predicted degree performance can be relied upon and working with students to increase awareness of the importance of securing mini-pupillages in time to feed into their pupillage applications. This also involves working with chambers to emphasise the importance of making allowances for the relative inexperience of GDL applicants and working to secure the status of the Pupillage Gateway as a recruitment gold standard to which all pupillage providers wish to belong. I very much hope that you will work with us, and that those chambers in the portal will continue to be involved, and that some chambers, currently outside the portal, will join and become involved in the scheme. 

Contributor Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, Chairman of the Bar