Doubtless aware that Britain has some of the poorest opportunities for social mobility in the developed world, Theresa May in her first speech as Prime Minister on 13 July 2016 promised her government would ‘do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you’.

In June 2017, the Social Mobility Commission, analysing efforts made by all governments in the last two decades, concluded that the gap between rich and poor will ‘widen, not narrow’ unless minsters adopt new approaches to tackling inequality.

Historically, the Bar has been as poor as recent governments at promoting social mobility. Those with judicial aspirations but from underprivileged backgrounds faced even more difficulties. In their report analysing judicial diversity, published in 2014, Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC and Karon Monaghan QC reported that 71% of the senior judiciary had been privately educated ('Judicial Diversity: Accelerating Change'). By February 2016, The Sutton Trust was reporting that 74% of the senior judiciary and 71% of Queen’s Counsel were privately educated.

Looking at the statistics, one might conclude efforts to improve social mobility have passed the Bar by. However, there is reason to believe that some progress has been made. Over the past 25 years, with help from barristers and Circuit judges, the Citizenship Foundation Bar Mock Trial Competition – an early example of social mobility initiatives encouraging school students to consider a career at the Bar and instrumental in my own pathway – has encouraged over 53,000 state school children to take part in mock trials at crown courts around the country. It aims to enable those students to better understand how the justice system works. It also seeks to encourage students who may otherwise have little opportunity to meet barristers and judges think about the legal profession as a realistic career opportunity.

Even so, the speed has been a little too slow for me. I was one of the students who benefited from the mock trial competition. As a painfully shy 14-year-old at a northern comprehensive school my career aspirations were limited to being a local librarian, according to the school careers teacher. Nobody in my family had ever been to university. At the time, my dad mended domestic appliances and my mum worked in a garden centre. There was no money for me to carry on studying after college. I knew nothing about the legal system, other than what I learned from friends on the wrong side of it.

What I did have was an extraordinary English teacher who was determined to turn me into a confident public speaker. She found out about the Citizenship Foundation competition and entered a team from my school. The Foundation seeks to pair a barrister with each school taking part but unfortunately, our barrister did not bother to come to our school. We had to work out what we needed to do for ourselves. My teacher made me take one of the barrister roles. I was completely hooked. Yet I was convinced that I had absolutely no chance of becoming a barrister. This was not a profession for the likes of me. Sadly, many of my experiences in the years which followed reaffirmed what I thought as a 14-year-old.

I went to university, after being encouraged to do so by my law teacher at college. She wanted me to apply for Oxford or Cambridge. That was impossible. I couldn’t afford to leave home. Local authority grants had been abolished by then and I did not want to take out a student loan as I just didn’t believe I would ever earn enough money to pay it back. That is what happens when nobody tells you otherwise (and barrister volunteers don’t come to your school when they should!). Like many students now, I feared years of debt. We compromised and I agreed to apply to the University of Manchester and take out the minimum loan possible so long as I could commute every day and study something in addition to law as a back-up plan. I obtained a place studying Government and Law. I worked throughout, at one stage juggling three jobs. I bought all my books second hand and (£250-car permitting) would get to the library early every day in order to study from those books I couldn’t afford. After university I’d go straight to work, study when I got home and, if lucky, would have a ‘refreshing’ three hours sleep before setting off again. Family commitments also placed a financial burden on me and by the end of the course, there was no money left. I knew that if I were to pursue a career at the Bar, more debt would be incurred.

Funding available for students from underprivileged backgrounds was, and continues to be, a significant deterrent to those who may wish to pursue a career at the Bar. I entered the mock trial competition again when I went to college and have assisted every year since as a volunteer mentor. I also give talks to school children when I can to try and encourage them to pursue a career at the Bar and, on occasion, teach those undertaking the Bar Professional Training Course. The issue that consistently arises when I talk to students is the high cost of training and likelihood of ever being able to pay off such enormous debts. Over the past two years, not one law student that I have spoken to has wanted to pursue a career at the criminal Bar; not expecting to be able to earn enough money to live on. Some had, by the time that they had completed part of the BPTC, decided to give up on the Bar altogether, looking instead for in-house roles with a regular salary. Those seeking to encourage social mobility at the Bar should speak to such students in order to better understand both the enormous pressure high training costs place on them and the potential implications for their career decisions.

Although I was offered a place on what was the Bar Vocational Course (BVC), I couldn’t take it as I just didn’t have the money (BPTC course fees today range from £14,400 to £17,500 for the full-time course). I took a job in a local solicitor’s firm and saved as much money as I could. The only way I could afford to complete the BVC was to apply for a Professional Studies loan, then available from most high street banks, but unlike student loans, this needed to be paid back as soon as the course was completed and with far higher interest rates. These types of loan are now rare (at the time of writing, only the Co-Operative bank offers an equivalent) but their abolition further adds to the deterrents for those with limited funds. Some providers of the BPTC have funding options, such as payment of fees by instalments or in the case of The University of Law, a professional studies loan with the Metro Bank. The Education and Skills Funding Agency also offers a professional and career development loan. I was eligible for a bank loan, but was terrified about taking one out because I continued to fear I’d never be able to repay it, fully believing that no chambers would want to take somebody like me.

Whilst at university, I undertook some mini-pupillages; a challenge in itself because it necessitated taking time off work and incurring additional costs of travel. My mini-pupil mistress offered me some advice. If I was really thinking of pursuing a career at the Bar, she said, I must have elocution lessons first. No chambers would want to take on somebody with a strong Lancashire accent like mine. I was furious. However, I do owe this (former) barrister a debt of gratitude. I decided as a result that not only would a secure a pupillage, I would never change my accent.

Despite my renewed determination, I continued to face huge problems securing the necessary funding to continue my studies. I joined an Inn of Court and tried obtaining a grant or a scholarship from the Inn. The interview was a soul-destroying experience and the panel seemed more interested in asking me what jobs my parents did and why there were no lawyers and doctors in my family than whether I had any potential. I did not receive a single penny from the Inn. My dad came with me to the interview (as he did most of my pupillage interviews. He has always had much more faith in me than I had in myself). His advice, as we sat in the gardens at the Inn, me wondering what on earth we were doing there, was ‘you prove ‘em wrong kid’.

Considerable progress has been made as far as the distribution of funds from the Inns of Courts is concerned. I spoke recently to a Bencher at an Inn who was appalled by my experience and who was at great pains to reassure me attitudes have changed. The four Inns of Court give approximately £4m per year in grants and scholarships to those at university or on the BPTC. I know from speaking to current students that funds are distributed wider now than I believe they were when I applied. I have recently completed a reference form for an applicant, an older student and single parent, who is hoping to undertake the BPTC in September 2018. The reference form asked questions about the applicant’s legal knowledge, ability and prospects. She has found the Inns to be a helpful source of advice and support and is presently waiting to see if her application has been successful. I have my fingers crossed.

Keen to avoid a crippling bank loan, I wrote to various charities and organisations who offer small grants. Public libraries hold a book called The Grants Register (although funding cuts mean that this is not now available at every library) which details over 4,900 awards available to students, with a section dedicated to law. Most of the grants available contain certain restrictions (some are only available to those studying at a certain institution or in a particular country) but for the law student struggling to obtain the necessary funding, it is well worth a look. One charity I applied to gave me £100 towards the cost of the BVC. This was a huge amount of money to me and gave me a much-needed confidence boost.

In the year between university and BVC, I managed to put enough away that I allowed myself to take a small bank loan. I still had sleepless nights worrying about how I was going to pay it back. During that year, I wrote over a hundred letters to chambers all over the North West (and Devon and Cornwall as I’m a surfer) asking for a pupillage as I wanted to know that I had a job to go to if I took out the loan. I received two offers of second sixes, which was wonderful, but no use without a first six.

I enrolled on the BVC again and whilst on the course was fortunately offered a pupillage at 9 St John Street Chambers in Manchester. A senior member of chambers attended one of my classes and saw me conducting a piece of advocacy. It was the first time that my potential mattered more than my background. By that stage, all chambers had to fund pupillages. (The minimum award currently stands at £12,000, with the potential for pupils to also earn from case work in their second six.) The pupillage award enabled me to complete pupillage and support myself financially. I stayed ‘up north’ and 15 years on, am still at the same chambers as a member of the Criminal Team.

I don’t think I would pursue a career at the criminal Bar if starting out now. The fees available for newly qualified criminal practitioners are so low that I do not believe I could have paid back my loan (even if still available) and still be able to pay the necessary costs of living. In 2016, I was appointed a Recorder. For me, it worked out in the end, despite what I perceived to be a fairly obvious attempt at the time to limit opportunities at the Bar to those with the money to complete the training and the right connections to secure pupillage. Not only has my accent never changed, but I reinforced the northern stereotype by adopting a beautiful whippet. I ‘proved ‘em wrong’.

Is social mobility dead? I don’t think so. I can hear a pulse. There are many in criminal practice in particular who know diversity is essential to sustain a strong, independent profession made up of exceptionally talented individuals; people who, regardless of background, are able to assist the most vulnerable in society and who understand the challenges faced by those who find themselves in the criminal justice system, be that as a defendant or a witness. Those people need to step up and ensure that the talented students of today have the support and means to become the barristers of tomorrow.

Change: leaders, chambers and individuals

Eleven years ago Lord Neuberger, at the launch of his Interim Report on Entry to the Bar in April 2007, said: ‘The fact that the Bar is a very competitive profession does not mean that it should only recruit from the social or economic elite… the Bar should be open to all, and the Bar has to play its part in ensuring that it is’.

How far have we come? I strongly believe attitudes are changing. This can be seen, for example, in the work of the Kalisher Trust, a legal charity established in tribute to the inspirational Michael Kalisher QC, which helps young people who aspire to become criminal barristers develop advocacy skills. The Trust works with children as young as seven, right through to those who have successfully begun to practise at the criminal Bar, with legal internships, an annual essay competition for criminal pupils, educational presentations and bursaries and scholarships. I wish I had known about this when I was at university and applying for the BVC.

For those having to choose between a day’s wage and the opportunity of work experience, a funded mini-pupillage might be the only opportunity to experience the work of a barrister

Chambers are also playing their part. Many are now seeking to do what the solicitors’ profession has done for many years, namely offering funded work experience, although this appears to be more common in London than on Circuit. For those having to choose between a day’s wage and the opportunity of work experience, a funded mini-pupillage might be the only opportunity to experience work of a barrister.

As to the ongoing role of chambers, Jaime Hamilton, Head of the Pupillage and Tenancy Committee at 9 St John Street Chambers in Manchester (perhaps better known to some by his Twitter moniker ViewFromTheNorth @jaimerh354) doesn’t ‘believe that the Bar should constantly beat itself up about equality. We have made huge strides over the period of my career. But that is not to say we should rest on our laurels and we definitely have a long way still to go.’ 

9 St John Street introduced anonymised applications many years ago. ‘We looked to develop a competency based point scoring system shortly afterwards,’ says Jaime. ‘Yet we are still looking to do more. At the moment we are talking about ways of improving this system to makes sure we get the best candidate by the fairest means, to allow our selection to be made from the broadest base of candidates possible.’

He believes chambers don’t just have a responsibility to select on a fair basis. ‘It is our duty to encourage the barristers of the future, to inspire people with the talent to succeed and to tell people that is all you need – talent. Not an Oxbridge degree or a certain background. Just talent. And opportunity. We want to increase those opportunities and are discussing how we can provide such opportunities.’

On an individual level, more practitioners need to volunteer for the mock trial competitions and the Bar Council ‘Speakers for Schools’ programme, to enable students to know that the door to a career at the Bar is open to them. I have seen the organisers of these events struggle each year to secure enough barrister volunteers to assist the students.

Takeaways from a tale of grit


Contributor Louise Brandon is a criminal barrister at 9 St John Street Chambers, Manchester