Maximising mini-pupillage

No contacts, no mini-pupillage? Dr Elaine Freer examines the state of work experience at the Bar in light of recent guidance for chambers and her own research on socio-economically disadvantaged aspirant entrants

On its website pages about work experience, the Bar Council states: ‘Mini-pupillages provide an invaluable insight into life as a barrister and may provide some useful contacts to assist you in finding pupillage. 

You are strongly advised to do at least one mini-pupillage before making pupillage applications and you should try to do more than one.’ This is likely to be uncontroversial advice – within the profession it has long been recognised that undertaking mini-pupillages allows candidates to better engage with typical questions such as, ‘Why the Bar?’ or ‘What makes you think you’re suited to being a barrister?’ But is that advice really so easy to act on?

Reaching the non-traditional aspirant entrants

Between 2012 and 2015 I looked at this question as part of my PhD research, which was part-funded by Inner Temple, and supervised by Professor Andrew Francis (then at Keele University) who was an Academic Bencher of Inner (see Final Report to the Inner Temple on the Pegasus Access and Support Scheme).

One angle of my research was looking at whether there were specific difficulties experienced by ‘non-traditional aspirant entrants’ (students who had no family background in the professions and were from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds) in accessing mini-pupillages. This built upon previous academic research that had identified the importance of work experience in a professional field and its improvement to the chance of entry to that profession in relation to the solicitors’ branch of the profession (eg Sommerlad, H (2007) ‘Researching and Theorizing the Processes of Professional Identity Formation’, Journal of Law and Society, 34(2), 190-217).

Inner Temple’s Pegasus Access and Support Scheme

As a case study I examined Inner Temple’s Pegasus Access and Support Scheme (PASS), which was seeking to ensure that aspiring barristers from less socio-economically advantaged backgrounds had access to the opportunity of securing a mini-pupillage. Its method involves chambers surrendering a number of mini-pupillage slots to Inner Temple. Inner Temple created an application form and receives completed applications. Applicants must be predicted a 2:1 or above and fulfil a number of other criteria indicative of a less-advantaged background. Members of Inner Temple’s Outreach Department then review the applications and attempt to match successful candidates to chambers practising in their area of interest. The travel costs of the student have to be paid by the chambers with which they are placed.

Formative stage of entry

Against this background, I read the newly released Bar Council guidance on good practice in relation to mini-pupillages with interest. Mini-pupillages have long comprised one of the formative stages of entry to the profession. Usually undertaken by students who are at some stage of their university education, they take no standard form. They range from two days to a week; vary in content both by practice area and chambers, and at some chambers form part of the formal assessment process that is used to assess candidates for pupillage. In the majority of sets they involve shadowing a number of barristers, and seeing a cross-section of work done by those chambers.

Securing a mini-pupillage can be a difficult task, often due to the sheer number of students who are applying for mini-pupillages as they are considering a career at the Bar. Those who have no previous legal work experience, and no contacts from whom they can secure access to such work experience, seem to struggle to get mini-pupillages. In light of the value attributed to them by the profession when selecting for pupillage, this is a cause of concern. This article looks at the recommendations made by the Bar Council, and whether they tackle some of the main issues identified in my research.

Recommendations for good practice

The Bar Council adopted an advisory approach, setting out a document that encouraged chambers to think about how they could incorporate ‘best practice’ into their methods of selecting mini-pupils, and the experience of a mini-pupillage. The document offered guidance under three headings: ‘Applications for Mini-Pupillage’, Content of Mini-Pupillage’ and ‘The Role of Mini-Pupillage in Pupillage Selection’.

Overall, the document is clearly helpful guidance for chambers in considering how they can make their processes as fair as possible. However, I would argue that there are still matters that the guidance does not satisfactorily address.

Room for further improvement

‘Applications for mini-pupillage’

The document advises chambers to advertise mini-pupillages on the Hub, which was launched in December 2015. In theory this is a very good idea, but over a year later (February 2017), there are only 19 chambers listed there. For this to be a useful database, there needs to be much greater participation by chambers.

Once chambers are considering applications, there are a number of steps that chambers can take to try to stop the process turning into a cycle in which candidates who already have a lot of mini-pupillages are able to secure more at the expense of those candidates who have none. For example, prioritising a candidate (regardless of background) who has no prior mini-pupillages, or no experience of that chambers’ area of work.

There is also a recommendation that chambers distinguishes between mini-pupillages given informally to the children of friends or professional contacts, only allowing students who come through the external application process to undertake a ‘recognised’ mini-pupillage. It is hard to know how it is thought that this will be policed. How can chambers know if, months later, a student puts a mini-pupillage undertaken with a family friend on their CV as ‘recognised’ or not? The provision of mini-pupillages to informal contacts is a real problem for social mobility at the Bar. But this approach is not going to help resolve the problem, in my view.

Furthermore, making clear to candidates whether they are ‘permitted to describe their experience as a mini-pupillage’ is to rather miss the point. However a period of time shadowing a barrister is described, it still allows a level of knowledge to be gained that is not open to other aspiring entrants who have not been able to obtain mini-pupillages. The use of that knowledge will still improve answers on a pupillage application, whatever terminology is applied to it. When members of the Bar are approached through family members or professional contacts, the most appropriate response would be to encourage that person to apply through the formal route. Due to the self-employed nature of the Bar, regulating this sort of conduct is very difficult, but a greater awareness of the indirect problems that it causes is the first step.

Overall, it is disappointing that the Bar Council has stopped short of recommending largely ‘qualification-blind’ selection as seen in the PASS. Really there is one main question: is this student predicted a 2:1 at university (or has extenuating circumstances if not?). By reducing questions about existing qualifications to that, there will be a much greater focus on the interest and potential of an aspirant entrant to succeed at the Bar, and less on disadvantage caused by lower educational attainment resulting from educational disadvantage.

‘Content of mini-pupillage’

It is good to see the guidance recognising that expense is an issue for many students, and that there is encouragement to consider provision of a ‘hardship fund’ for travel expenses of those mini pupils who indicate that they will struggle to afford to complete their work experience. It is a shame that, in recognition of those who might struggle to take time off from paid employment or caring responsibilities outside of term time, there is no suggestion that chambers is flexible in the length of mini-pupillages that it offers: two or three days will be more manageable for some candidates than a week, but will still give them valuable exposure to the profession. Shorter mini-pupillages might also be more manageable financially and practically for small chambers, or those where a lot of members work off-Circuit, without devaluing the candidate’s experience.

‘Role of mini-pupillage in pupillage selection’

In this section the underlying message could have been made clearer. The real relationship between mini-pupillages and pupillage is that students have been given a tiny glimpse of what they are letting themselves in for on a mini-pupillage, and an opportunity to get accurate information. If mini-pupillages were accessible to those across socio-economic demographics, then their use in selecting pupils would be unobjectionable.

In a sentence, those who are selecting for pupillage need to take into account a wider range of demonstrations of aptitude for, and engagement with, the Bar than mini-pupillages. But this is because of earlier fault in the process. The role of mini-pupillages in pupillage selection cannot be satisfactorily dealt with whilst the provision of mini-pupillages is fundamentally unequal. If that can be tackled by all chambers making efforts at least of the sort advised in the good practice document, and preferably further, then this issue has much less impact.

Contributor Dr Elaine Freer, 5 Paper Buildings

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Dr Elaine Freer

Elaine is a tenant at 5 Paper Buildings, prosecuting and defending in criminal matters. Prior to pupillage she completed a PhD at Keele University part-funded by Inner Temple. She is also a College Teaching Officer at Robinson College, Cambridge.