Familiar obstacles

One such obstacle was highlighted in conversation with a careers adviser at the College of Law. “All the pupils recruited by that set in the last six or seven years have been Oxbridge graduates,” he informed me as I listed the chambers to which I had applied for pupillage in 2011. The implication was clear – as a graduate of the University of Sheffield, I would be wasting one of my precious 12 pupillage portal applications by re-applying to that chambers in 2012.

The careers adviser’s comment struck a familiar chord. On my second mini-pupillage, the supervising barrister urged me to check the profiles of all the tenants at any chambers to which I wished to apply. If the vast majority had an Oxbridge education, she advised me to look elsewhere. The traditional Oxbridge and public school slant may have weakened, but in much of the Bar it remains resolutely entrenched.

The Bar Barometer report 2011 provides a numerical portrait of the situation. Combined, Oxbridge graduates occupied at least one-quarter of pupillage places in 2009-10. The third-placed university contributed 4.1% of pupils to the Bar, while the University of Sheffield placed fourth, accounting for 2.8% of pupils, despite having 4,000 more undergraduates than Oxford. Over a third (35%) of pupils attended a fee-paying school. Although more balanced than a decade ago, the statistics depict a profession which remains less accessible to a student without a privately educated/Oxbridge background than to someone from the elite of educational institutions.

Emphasis on excellence

The Bar is rightly renowned for its emphasis on excellence – the profession “welcomes all people of ability, whatever their background” states the Bar Barometer report. The error is perhaps in the weight given to a student’s undergraduate university in determining their “ability”. Lord Neuberger’s report on entry to the Bar gave a broad definition to the attributes needed for a successful career as a barrister – analytical skills, intellect, persuasiveness, organisational skills, good judgment and fluency, alongside qualities of honesty, courage, commitment, commonsense and perseverance.

A link between an Oxbridge degree and most of these traits is tenuous. An assumption that an Oxbridge graduate is blessed with greater intellect and analytical skills ignores the fact that some people elect not to apply because they prefer the educational environment elsewhere, or because their chosen course of study is not offered. Others may not have had the confidence to undergo the gruelling selection procedure at age 18, a point closely entwined with the private school system which instils confidence, or the semblance thereof, amongst its students – facilitating the offer of an Oxbridge place. “Ability” thus relates to far more than where someone was educated. The imperative is for the profession to reflect this broader understanding more fully in its recruitment patterns.

This article does not seek to question the credentials of Oxbridge graduates, or to imply they do not deserve 24% of pupillages. Rather, it argues that the continued tendency of some chambers, particularly in the commercial, chancery and civil Bar, to assume that the most able barristers have a private school/Oxbridge education and to select accordingly is evidentially unsafe and inappropriate in an era of equality of opportunity.

Erroneous assumptions

With the number of pupillages in persistent decline, access to the profession has never been harder. For those without an Oxbridge degree, that task is tougher still as we strive to prove that our worth and potential is equal to that of our counterparts. In addition to its admirable efforts in schools and universities, the Bar Council must find new ways to converse with chambers about the assumptions made about “ability” and educational background, and promote the broader interpretation of “ability” provided by the Neuberger report.

The Bar Standards Board should also strive to open new pathways into the profession beyond the narrow pupillage route – perhaps by accrediting those who have acquired the relevant skills outside the classroom, so that they too may practise. Only by addressing the story behind the statistics will the Bar match its desire for diversity with an improved reality for the majority of students seeking to join it.

Frances Aldson is a BPTC student at the College of Law, a graduate of the University of Sheffield, a postgraduate of SOAS, University of London, and a Middle Temple Queen Mother scholar