Every year thousands of students, many already heavily burdened by student debt, throw large sums of money at BPTC providers in pursuit of a hopeless dream. We risk ending up with a Bar made up only of those rich enough to gamble thousands of pounds.

In the long term, only structural reform will address these issues, but this will take time to develop and implement. As a member of the Bar Council’s Social Mobility Committee, I was asked by the former Chairman of the Bar, Nicholas Lavender QC, to chair a working group looking at the timing of pupillage recruitment, within the confines of the existing system. The working group reported in March 2015, recommending a package of measures to encourage students to apply for pupillage before they commit to the BPTC. One of those recommendations is a change to the timetable for the Pupillage Gateway, which is the subject of a consultation this Autumn. However, this is not all.

The starting point is a firm belief that the best way for a student to obtain a realistic assessment of his or her prospects of ever obtaining pupillage is to go through the pupillage application process. Weaker applicants may come to appreciate that their best interests lie in another career; others learn how to improve their applications next time around. All this is best done before the candidate commits to undertaking the BPTC, allowing them time to take stock before embarking on a path which may not lead to their ultimate goal.

However, our research showed that large numbers of students do not have, or take, that opportunity.

The first reason for this is that many students are waiting until their BPTC year before making their first application for pupillage. The surveys conducted by the working group indicated that nearly half do not make their first pupillage application until they have already embarked on the course. This trend is confirmed by a recent survey which found that less than a quarter of applicants using the Pupillage Gateway in 2015 were applying before commencing the BPTC. The choice appears to be a deliberate one, since only a tiny minority are unaware that they could have applied a year earlier.

The second reason is the timing of the Pupillage Gateway. Under the current timetable, applicants do not get pupillage offers until August, but some BPTC providers require a substantial payment of fees (up to £8,500) in July. That means that even those candidates who do apply for pupillage before starting the BPTC may be obliged to fork out large sums of money before they know whether they have been successful.

Reasons to apply early

Waiting until your BPTC year to make your first pupillage application is not a good idea. First, you lose the opportunity to obtain a realistic assessment of the extent of the competition before you commit to, and pay for, the course. Secondly, you narrow the pupillage options available to you. That is because many pupillage providers, particularly those in financially secure areas of practice, recruit exclusively from those who are in their last year of academic study or who are working before undertaking the BPTC. Thirdly, because the Bar still generally recruits 18 months or so in advance, even if successful in the first round, you will usually have a year to fill after completing your BPTC and before commencing pupillage. By delaying your first pupillage application, therefore, you exacerbate the costs and risks associated with a career choice which is already costly and risky enough. This is bad news for all students, but it is particularly bad news for those from less privileged backgrounds who do not have the cushions against financial risk and delay available to their more privileged peers.

The working group therefore concluded that it is important, and in the interests of social mobility, to remove or diminish the elements of the current system which incentivise students to wait until their BPTC year before making their first pupillage application. We see these as being:

  • The fact that the Pupillage Gateway timetable clashes with academic exams. Under the current timetable, it is rational for students to prioritise their academic studies over the making of an early pupillage application.
  • The fact that the Pupillage Gateway timetable does not permit all students to know whether they have a pupillage before paying a tranche of BPTC fees. If applicants have to pay a substantial part of the fees in any event, there is little incentive to make an early pupillage application.
  • Lack of information about different practice areas, chambers and employers. Students may feel that they do not know enough about particular areas of practice to be able to make a strong pupillage application in their final year of academic study: this may be particularly the case for GDL (Graduate Diploma in Law) students.
  • The concentration by the Inns of resources on student members undertaking the BPTC, as opposed to those earlier in the process. Students may feel that they will gain skills during their BPTC year which will enhance their pupillage applications.

We have therefore recommended:

  1. A change to the Pupillage Gateway timetable, to bring recruitment from the Summer period into the Spring. As well as avoiding exam clashes and enabling students to know the outcome of their applications before paying substantial BPTC fees, this would have the beneficial effect of bringing Pupillage Gateway providers more closely into line with those outside the Gateway. This will help reduce the prospect that candidates, particularly those who are less well-informed because they do not have connections to the Bar, miss the opportunity to apply for non-Gateway pupillages because they do not realise that the Gateway timetable is not universal.
  2. The promotion of early pupil selection and an awareness of the issues over the timing of recruitment. We would ask pupillage providers to consider carefully the benefits to candidates, particularly those who are not from wealthy backgrounds, of securing pupillage during their last year of academic study. If on the other hand providers feel it is important that applicants have skills gained during the BPTC, they should consider offering pupillages to commence in the Autumn of the year of application, rather than a year later. We would also ask providers to consider allowing their prospective pupils to draw down part of their pupillage award to fund their BPTC year.
  3. That steps are taken to ensure that students are better prepared to apply for pupillage early. This includes offering mini-pupillages to non-law students, so that GDL students are better able to apply for pupillage before they undertake the BPTC, and encouraging the Inns to direct more of their resources and support towards those who have not yet started the BPTC.
  4. Encouraging pupillage providers to ensure, as far as possible, that their recruitment processes do not unnecessarily favour those who are at a later stage of the process, or make it very difficult for pre-BPTC candidates to succeed.

I recognise that it may seem counter-intuitive to recommend earlier pupil selection in the interests of social mobility, since it is well-known that those from less privileged backgrounds tend to develop their skills later. However, we need to recognise that the Bar already recruits very late in comparison with other professions, including solicitors. Taken in the round, I firmly believe that the certainty and financial security which can be offered by early pupil selection is more beneficial for those from less privileged backgrounds than the delay, risk and cost associated with waiting until later. I hope the profession will take the chance to right, in some small way, the wrongs of the current recruitment system.

The Bar Council will be consulting the profession this autumn on the impact of moving the Pupillage Gateway timetable and would like to hear your views. Please look out for further announcements on the consultation process or contact the Bar Council press office at press@barcouncil.org.uk for more information.

Contributor Joanne Wicks QC