This programme, now in its second year, is an extension of the more well established London Week and builds on our ambition to offer work experience to those from non-traditional backgrounds across all the Circuits. Students participating in the Bar Council’s Bar Placement Week programmes are selected on the basis of their academic achievements and their interest in a career at the Bar. In order to be admitted to the programme they must also be in state schools, the first generation in their family to go to university or eligible for benefits such as free school meals.
Extending our work experience programme to the Circuits was, I believe, key to the Bar Council winning the Halsbury Legal Award for Equality and Diversity last September. Given that attempts are now being made by many in the legal world to expand the pool of candidates for entry into the legal profession, this recognition was particularly gratifying and everyone involved deserves the thanks of the whole Bar.
To those who are not familiar with Bar Placement Week, this programme is developed by the Bar Council in partnership with Pathways to Law and the Social Mobility Foundation, and is supported by the Inns of Court. It gives 17 and 18 year olds from less well-advantaged backgrounds the opportunity to spend three and a half days, from Monday to Thursday, in chambers, experiencing the wide variety of the work of the Bar. On the Friday, students are offered court visits, advice and interview skills and are coached in advocacy by volunteers from the Advocacy Training Council. Last month, there were 30 students on placements in chambers in Leeds and Manchester, taking the total number of students benefitting from the programme across England and Wales to around 120 in the last year.
The rationale of the scheme is simple. The Bar needs to be more representative of the whole of society and what we need to do, if we are to have a sustainable future, is to attract the very best talent into the profession. That means that no-one should feel intimidated or should refrain from applying to study for the Bar because they think, in some way, that they will not “fit in” because of their social background.
So, how successful is Bar Placement Week in achieving this? The best evidence for our success comes from what participating students say about the programme. Looking at the essays and their feedback many wrote of their initial feelings of anxiety when they entered chambers for the first time. They wrote of the friendly way in which they were treated by the Bar and how they all thoroughly enjoyed the cases they were observing and were amazed by the variety of work they saw and the geographical spread of the work covered by their barristers. Nearly all of them spoke about how enthused they were by the experience and that the week had inspired them to come to the Bar.
When you witness enthusiasm like this, it is truly depressing that there is so little recognition amongst the political elite of the great constitutional importance of an independent, publicly funded Bar. We cannot allow the position to become one in which we encourage young people of ability into a profession where, after seven or eight years of hard graft, they may be unable to make a living and be trying to find a way out.
This is very much an issue we are considering with care. The changing demographic of the Bar is something we have been tracking over the course of recent years and we are particularly interested in the extent to which people are leaving, and for that matter, joining the Bar, and at what stage they do this, and why. I will return to this issue in a future column once we have analysed the results more closely.
One other thing that emerged from Leeds and Manchester was that there is a great deal of interest from barristers whose chambers had accommodated students in providing further help under the aegis of the Bar Mentoring Scheme. That is another area in which those with experience, and who have made it through the pupillage recruitment programme, can make a real difference in ensuring that we truly represent the population in all its variety and diversity.
We are now beginning our search for chambers to accommodate students for Bar Placement Weeks in London, 6 to 10 July, and Birmingham, 13 to 17 July, and for barrister mentors for our students. I think that one of the great characteristics of the Bar is its unstinting willingness to give something back. How satisfying it would be if the team at the Bar Council had to turn away offers of placements on the basis that they were over-subscribed. Or that we were able to offer a mentor to all those students who wished for one. If you can make this aspiration a reality, please help.
Alistair MacDonald QC, Chairman of the Bar