The Final Report of the Neuberger Committee on Entry to the Bar came up with 57 recommendations to improve access to the Bar for those from backgrounds not traditionally associated with the profession. It ambitiously addressed all aspects of improving access to the Bar, and established substantive targets that the Bar should be working towards achieving. It is fair to say that previous reports initiated by the Bar Council had been more limited in scope and concentrated on the point of entry to the profession.

The Neuberger Report identified the kind of qualities that are needed for a successful career at the Bar and that chambers will look for pupils to demonstrate. These are analytical skills, intellect, persuasiveness, organisational skills, good judgment and fluency. It identified attributes of temperament that are needed for a successful career at the bar - honesty, courage, commitment, common sense and perseverance. Clearly, candidates from all social backgrounds will have these qualities.

One of the fundamental points often missed by commentators is that the Bar is a graduate entry profession and the pool of graduates from which it chooses pupils is determined by the admission policies of universities. It is not comparable to medical schools who are recruiting directly from schools. By the time that potential pupils are making applications they have completed at least one degree course and the BPTC. Different skills are looked for by chambers when they are considering applicants. It should also be remembered that the policies the Bar seeks to implement should be careful not to work against admissions policies designed by universities to promote diverse entry.

Barriers to entry: real and perceived

Nevertheless, there are a combination of social and economic barriers, many of which are perceived, but which nevertheless the Bar must continue to work hard to combat. The perception remains that the Bar is only open to the privileged, disproportionately populated from public schools and Oxbridge, with the result that able graduates from less advantaged backgrounds, socially, educationally and financially, may be put off considering a career at the Bar. There is also a risk that those who feel discriminated against on grounds of ethnicity, gender, physical ability or age may be put off considering a career at the Bar. Those from less financially secure backgrounds who have accumulated debts at university can be put off a career at the Bar by the costs of the BPTC and the uncertainty of obtaining one of a decreasing number of pupillages. They will inevitably weigh in the balance the generous packages of support and assured employment by the Bar’s competitors. Finally, large firms of solicitors are quick to advertise their ability to undertake advocacy outside the confines of the Bar.

Action being taken

These factors should not detract from the work carried out both by the Bar Council and the Bar Standards Board to take steps to ensure that there is a level playing field for those aspiring to a career at the Bar.

The new podcasts developed by the  Bar Council and the Inns of Court earlier this year in a collaborative project are designed to produce information suitable for both school and university students about a career at the Bar. The pilot projects run by the Bar Council in Bromley and by the Inner Temple, in conjunction with the National Education Trust, are aimed specifically at secondary schools. The chambers placement schemes, in conjunction with the Social Mobility Foundation, bring talented students each year to sets of chambers. Simple practical measures such the Bar Mock Trial Competition open to all non-fee paying secondary schools and further education colleges, and the Bar Council’s ‘Speak up for Others’ scheme, with the opportunity to participate in a talk from a visiting barrister, introduce the Bar to school students. In addition the Bar Council and the Inns of Court organise and attend numerous careers days and law fairs.

At entry level the Bar Council Positive Action Guidance recommends publicising mini-pupillage and pupillage opportunities to under-represented groups by using media that target these groups and by messages that particularly welcome applications from these groups. The Equality and Diversity Code for chambers advises on open and fair recruitment of mini-pupils. The Inner Temple has developed the Pegasus Access Scheme to place talented university students who meet set socio-economic criteria with competitive chambers for mini pupillage. The students taking part in the scheme will have participated in either Pathways to Law and NET programmes, SMF Placement, or the Multicultural Scholars Programme run at Warwick University. The mini-pupillages will be in addition to existing opportunities. The arrangements for applying for pupillage, particularly, the Pupillage Portal, are continually subject to improvement providing an environment in which applications are processed transparently and fairly. Interviewers are trained to look for and identify the potential demonstrated by each candidate. The BPTC Aptitude Test has been developed specifically for the skills required by students on the vocational course.

Is it enough?

The answer lies in the fact that there remains a significant gap in knowledge on the part of both teachers and students at school and university level as to the nature of a modern career at the Bar. The most exciting project to be launched this year is designed to create clear lines of communication between law schools, barristers and courts to promote and assist recruitment to the legal professions from the widest pool of talent. With the support of the Senior Presiding Judge, Lord Justice Goldring, Designated Community Relations Judges have agreed to act as Liaison Judges in contact with representatives of the circuits and local law schools. It is to be hoped that students will learn the importance of clear communication and the different use of language in different settings, both through observation of cases and opportunities for role play.

The programme should not be seen a recruiting tool for the bar but one designed to bridge the aspiration gap that still exists for many students. It will utilise major court centres throughout the country capitalising on the fact that many local judges already have good relations with these institutions. It will make use of major court centres in cities and towns with new universities showing students courtroom practice. It will go to the heart of one of the criticisms of the Bar’s recruitment policy, the proportion of students who have been to Oxbridge and Russell Group universities. As the statistics show, the number of students who attended fee-paying schools is significantly fewer at new universities than at Russell Group universities. The programme should promote effective and efficient communication between institutions, local judges and Circuits, to the direct benefit of the students and the legal profession more widely.

Much still to do

There remains considerable work to be done. The profession has to continue to develop and carefully monitor programmes that are in place and to stay alert to the opportunities available to expand them. The context of sustained cuts in publicly funded work does not make it easy. Whilst the Inns of Court continue to award scholarships of over £4m per year and the HSBC continues to provide loans, the reduction in numbers of both pupillages and tenancies in publicly funded sets is likely to affect adversely graduates from non-traditional backgrounds seeking a career at the Bar. There is a continuing need for solid data to demonstrate whether the change in the make-up of the bar equally affects different sectors, commercial or criminal, inside and outside London. The Bar Council will need to devote significantly more resources to the efficient running of the present and future programmes preferably under one umbrella. The list is long but the commitment of a large number of barristers who provide their time voluntarily to achieve the goal of “No bar to the bar” should not be in doubt.

A seismic shift

The fruit of the work undertaken in recent years is shown by the Biennial Survey of the Bar 2011. Women now represent an increasing number of practising barristers; 37 per cent of all who responded to the survey and 57 per cent of those aged under 30 were women. It is a far cry from 1972 when there were only 142 women in practice at the self-employed Bar. There are still problems retaining women at the Bar after 12 years call but that problem, common to other professions, should continue to be addressed, particularly providing more flexible working conditions for women with children. One in ten barristers are from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups, with similar proportions of BME barristers across the profession. The change is also apparent in the educational background with 43% in different age groups of those who responded attending a fee paying secondary school, although more female and BME barristers went to state schools. Almost a third went to Oxbridge with 14 per cent attending a new university. The emphasis remains, and should remain, on academic excellence with three-quarters being awarded either a first or an upper second class degree. These changes represent a seismic shift in the composition of the modern Bar during the period in which I have practised.

It is over 15 years since I was asked to be a member of Sir John Chadwick’s COIC Working Party on the Keeping of Terms and Admissions to the Inns. At that time it was difficult to persuade all the Inns to agree that keeping terms, or qualifying sessions as they became, should have an educational content; now the Inns lead the field in providing careers information and delivering education to young barristers. The pace of change has moved at lightning speed. In my view, continuing to promote diversity is vital to maintaining the high standards upon which the Bar’s survival depends.

David Pittaway QC, Hailsham Chambers, was Chair of the Bar Council’s Training for the Bar Committee from 2007 to 2011 and the Neuberger Monitoring and Implementation Working Group 2009 to December 2011