A foot on the ladder

Taryn Lee QC outlines the benefits of the Bar Placement Week initiative.

If you were in court in London or Birmingham in July and your opposite counsel was accompanied by an earnest-looking youth, you may be forgiven for thinking “my goodness, solicitors are getting younger”. In fact, you might have been standing opposite a “mentor barrister” with their Bar Placement Week student. Bar Placement Week is an extraordinary initiative that places high-achieving Year 12 students from low income backgrounds with barristers from a whole host of practice areas across London and Birmingham.


This year’s London Bar Placement Week, in partnership with the Social Mobility Foundation, was our largest to date, with 75 students taking part. For the first time, we also held a similar week in Birmingham for around a dozen students. Taking the Bar Placement Week outside the capital was one of the Bar Council’s Social Mobility Committee’s priorities for the year, and we are delighted to have been able to give students in the West Midlands the opportunity to take part.

Both weeks began with introductions to the profession and ended with some fantastic training from the Advocacy Training Council, giving students the chance to practice examination-in-chief and cross-examination for themselves (based on Goldilocks and the Three Bears, no less), having seen their supervising barristers demonstrate the very same advocacy skills in real trials during the course of the week.

Importance of the work experience

Opportunities to gain work experience are particularly lacking outside the capital, hence the importance of developing regional initiatives. Now that we have shown that Bar Placement Week can flourish outside of the capital, we hope to go on and develop similar initiatives in other locations in England and Wales.

Spending the week in chambers, external meetings and in court, students were given the chance to not only observe but also undertake tasks of their own, such as opinion writing, conducting research and evaluating damages claims.

Access to high quality work experience has never been more important, especially to offer a glimpse into a profession that is all-too regularly portrayed as mysterious, elite and even anachronistic. Perhaps the reason that the university access debate is somewhat, shall we say, stuck in the mud, is the absence of a consensus around what success looks like for students from low income backgrounds.

In my view, simply getting these students into university does not go far enough. High-quality work experience such as this is one way that students can be supported to fix their sights onto progression beyond their undergraduate degrees, but we feel that more still needs to be done. To this end, the Social Mobility Committee is currently looking at ways in which these students can be supported through university and then into the profession, and throughout their career at the Bar.

Taking part in Bar Placement Week not only gives high-achieving young people from low-income backgrounds this opportunity to experience life at the Bar first-hand, but also helps us demonstrate that a career at the Bar is open to everyone, irrespective of background, and that it is not the outdated and unattainable profession of the stereotypes that pervade us so.

I have felt privileged to be involved in these initiatives, and it was an honour to spend time with the students, who visibly grew in confidence from a rather nervous start on the Monday morning, to deliver some compelling cross-examination of Goldilocks in the Friday’s advocacy. Whether or not they go on to embark on a career at the Bar, I am certain that the skills and knowledge they have taken from this wonderful scheme will be invaluable to them.

Taryn Lee QC is chair of the Bar Council’s Social Mobility Committee.

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