Moving (with) the times

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Guy Fetherstonhaugh QC explains why the pupillage application timing has changed and outlines wider efforts to right wrongs of the old system

For as long as I can remember, students applying for a university place in this country have had to go through a centralised scheme (now UCAS). 


The advantages of this are obvious, not merely for the student (convenience and economy, at a fairly stressful time of life) but also for the universities (convenience and economy, again, perhaps at a less stressful time for them).

Why no compulsory system for pupillage?

It is perhaps surprising that a similarly compulsory system does not exist for pupillage. It is not for want of trying by the leadership of the profession. First, in the beginning of time, there was PATRIC. That was followed in due course by PACH; then by the Pupillage Portal; and now by the Pupillage Gateway. All of these various systems have had admirable features, but the very thing they lack has been an element of compulsion. As a result, the profession has historically divided into two roughly equal camps: those chambers that recruit for pupils using the Bar Council process; and those that have their own reasons for staying outside the system. While some sets choose to recruit outside the centralised system for reasons of convenience or cost, another common reason for staying outside that process is in order to recruit earlier, in the hope of securing the best candidates prior to their selection through the Gateway.

It was in the hope of addressing this practice that the Bar Council engaged in a consultation exercise seeking the views of sets of chambers, students and others, with a view to advancing the Gateway timetable opening date from April to January from 2017, thus aligning with the recruitment timetable of sets outside the Gateway. There were 126 responses and the results were striking, not for the views of the profession (which, by and large, reflected the split described above, albeit with a majority of sets in favour of the change), but for the views of potential recruits.

Views of law students

By an overwhelming majority (89% of respondents), law students favoured the earlier timetable. Their reasons were manifold. First and foremost, they saw sense in a timetable which meant that they would know the outcome of their pupillage applications prior to committing to full Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) fees. Some providers require a deposit to be paid prior to the outcome being known, but that is usually a modest amount that does not compare to the full fee. Secondly, most students viewed with concern the old timetable, which committed them to pupillage interviews at the same time as they were revising for (and in some cases taking) their exams. The new timetable is considerably better in this respect, although we of course appreciate that no timetable will entirely suit busy students. Thirdly, the move to January brings the Gateway into line with most training contract applications.

Throughout the consultation, and the decision to advance the timetable, we recognised that one important student cohort would be concerned by the change. Non-law students taking the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) had very few months under the old Gateway timetable in which to familiarise themselves with the system, then apply for and sit the mini-pupillages which would give them the information they needed in order to select the chambers to which they wanted to apply for pupillage. In practice, GDL students had only the autumn and spring terms available to them. Under the new timetable, the time available is effectively shrunk to the autumn term before the Gateway opens in January.

Steps towards a level playing field

Despite this shortcoming, it is significant that many GDL students themselves voted for the advance in the timetable. Nevertheless, the Bar Council has been working to devise a series of steps that it hopes will ameliorate the lot of those students.

First, the Bar Council has been working to raise awareness among GDL students of the need to take prompt steps to apply for and sit mini-pupillage in good time. We have included guidance to students in university welcome packs, attended law fairs and met with careers advisers to inform what they are telling their students.

Secondly, the Bar Council has been engaging with sets of chambers in a bid to persuade them to soften the requirement that many of them hold concerning the need for prospective mini-pupils to have studied at least a term of law. While we of course appreciate that a knowledge of law is bound to enhance the mini-pupillage experience, the requirement should not be such as to prevent GDL students obtaining the requisite experience altogether.

Thirdly, the Bar Council has been consulting generally with the profession regarding mini-pupillage, and has just published to chambers some suggestions which we regard as good practice. These suggestions seek to address the problem of well-informed, comparatively advantaged students chasing opportunities for mini-pupillage at the same sets of chambers, thus denying opportunities to less privileged students.

Fourthly, the Bar Council has been working with the Council of the Inns of Court to seek to persuade the Bar Standards Board (BSB) to allow for the BPTC to be split into two. Part I, which will cover the knowledge-based subjects (evidence, procedure and ethics), will consist of a series of modules, available online, and very cheaply. Under our proposals, students will be able to take this part of the course in their own time, thus giving them their own opportunities to tailor their mini-pupillages to suit their timetable. Part II will be classroom-based, covering drafting and advocacy, and will last three months. Students will be unable to take this part unless and until they have passed Part I, thus ensuring not merely that the quality of students for Part II remains high, but also that students do not waste money on Part II when it is plain from their results on Part I that they will be unlikely to pass it. We very much hope that the BSB will see the sense of our proposals, as part of their general review of legal education and training in their current program, ‘Future Bar Training’.

Feedback and benefits

Quite apart from all this, we have been talking to those sets which already recruit early. We see this as a two-way process. For our part, we are keen to learn from those sets how they have grappled with the problems set out above, and in particular with the difficulties faced by GDL students. This dialogue has led us to undertake a full review of mini-pupillages, in the hope that we can make it easier for GDL students to acquire mini-pupillages earlier. This will mean that they will be on a level playing field with those who have studied law at undergraduate level. For their part, we hope that those sets are persuaded by us that the Pupillage Gateway, which has now been running for three years, with increasing success, offers to them an inexpensive and administratively streamlined method of securing great candidates.

If you remain outside the Gateway, then we suspect that you do so because of historic memories about the inefficiency of the old system. We would urge you to talk to someone who is familiar with the new system, and who will be happy to extol its benefits to you. If you would like to know more, please contact PupillageGateway@BarCouncil.org.uk.

Finally, we are not vain enough to pretend either that this is the perfect solution, or that it will endure. As times change, we will be listening and make any further adjustments that are needed.

Contributor Guy Fetherstonhaugh QC, Chair, Bar Council Education and Training Committee (with grateful thanks to Alex Cisneros, Bar Council policy analyst)

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Guy Fetherstonhaugh QC

Guy took Silk in 2003. He is joint head of Falcon Chambers, an Hon. Member of the RICS, a Fellow of the CIArb and Chair of the Bar Council Education and Training Committee.