Pupillage fairs are a fantastic opportunity to talk to a wide range of barristers about their lives and experiences at both the self-employed and employed Bars. The Bar Council Pupillage Fairs are always very popular, with a constant stream of aspiring barristers visiting the stalls, seminars and CV workshops, and are busy ‘non-stop’ from start to finish. If you enjoy extolling the virtues of your own profession to many different people (and barristers tend to like the sound of their own voices!) it is great fun, and everyone there gives up a precious Saturday to get involved.

I’ve attended many Bar Council Pupillage Fairs as a barrister but also as an educator from the Bar Vocational Studies programme at City Law School. In 2022, there were 92 exhibitors. Some chambers had made real efforts to show how much sustainability was part of their ethos. This included reducing the quantity of printed information such as pupillage booklets or chambers brochures and/or using QR codes to take the prospective pupil to relevant information online. In addition, the usual ‘swag’ handed out as an incentive to come and chat was noticeably less than in previous years, with many chambers solely handing out pens, notebooks or jotter blocks. A number of sets didn’t hand anything out at all, which was particularly impressive.

At the 2023 Bar Council Pupillage Fair on 14 October, I expected to see more chambers reducing wastage and promoting sustainability in accordance with the Bar Council’s Sustainability Network advice. How wrong I was! There were 108 exhibitors ranging from Bar training providers, chambers from every possible practice area, the employed Bar, accounting firms, the Inns of Court and specialist Bar associations, and the number of freebies being given away was astounding. I couldn’t understand why things seemed to have gone full speed into reverse, so I decided to go and speak to as many exhibitors as possible and ask them.

I went from table to table asking those present about their offerings and whether they were happy to give me a single item from their ‘gift’ display. They were all very generous, some offering me multiple items, but I accepted only one item from each stall I visited, and I didn’t visit every one. As I moved through the exhibition halls speaking to the different practitioners and representatives, I noticed a real variation in attitudes towards sustainability. I notionally divided them into four camps: (i) the ‘we really don’t care about the planet’ camp; (ii) the ‘we pretend to care about sustainability but are more worried about how we look’ camp; (iii) the ‘we care about the planet but still want you to remember us’ camp; and finally (iv) the ‘we care and want to show it’ camp.

As I went round, I tried to work out which camp they might fall into based on how they promoted themselves – large or small numbers of giveaways, fancy printed brochures or QR codes, a bowl of sweets or a vase of flowers? It was lamentably easy and 90% of my ‘guesses’ were confirmed after a chat.

One chambers had around six or seven different items to hand out, many of which were boxed, all with chambers logo, ranging from water bottles, coffee cups to stress balls and highlighters. When asked if they had considered how sustainable all this was, they looked at me as though I was speaking a different language. Another set with a similarly overflowing table said that they had only given out sweets and QR codes last year and felt embarrassed as their table had been so ‘bare’. They also thought it had affected the number of prospective pupils they had spoken to, so this year were doing the complete opposite. I spoke to them again at the end of the fair and they were very proud of having handed out so many reusable coffee cups, claiming to have been much busier this year than last.

A few brave sets (and I would promote them vociferously if I was allowed to name names) had nothing to give away except a business/QR code card. Some also handed out a small item or treat. One chambers decorated their table with some vibrant flowers and used an impressive glass centre piece (perhaps nabbed from chambers ‘best’ conference room or someone’s home!) filled with chocolates from a sustainable brand. Another had some pens but explained they were left over from last year and did not intend to get any more. From my perspective, they were all just as busy talking to prospective pupils as other stalls and did not seem to be hindered by their lack of chambers’ paraphernalia.

I should probably say at this point that I am not an eco-warrior, intent on ridding the planet of all single-use plastic or calling for an immediate ban on fossil fuels. Nor am I averse to getting a freebie or two when I attend a conference. In fairness to many of the exhibitors I noticed that many of the items given away were reusable such as refillable water bottles and coffee cups, phone charging wires, thumb drives and judge-shaped stress balls (particularly handy for those tough days in court). What I have an issue with is the sheer scale of what is being handed out. As I went from stall to stall, as a student would at a careers fair, I was given more and more ‘stuff’ and it frankly became quite embarrassing. I was jokingly told ‘you need another bag to carry more’ and then offered a tote bag to continue.

As an aside, I will admit to being a huge fan of tote bags. I keep them handy to use for everything and my daughters tell me they use them over and over at university for hauling sports kit or shopping etc. It is the only item we give away on our stall, at my insistence, and we use a sustainable company who makes them from recycled fabrics. So I do try to put my money where my mouth is.

Some of the chambers with numerous different items to give away tried very hard to defend their offerings by showing me how sustainable the items were. This ranged from a pencil which could be planted (which was rather cool) to cupcakes and wooden phone stands. Sadly, not everything was planet friendly – plastic pens, metal pens, bottle openers, keyrings, tins of mints etc, not recycled, or recyclable and most ‘made in China’.

In the space of about two hours (including the time spent talking to exhibitors) I had a huge amount of ‘swag’. At the end of the day, I placed it all on a table to see what there was. As you can see from the photograph below (branding removed), it was verging on the ridiculous. I saw many an attendee leaving the conference similarly encumbered. Sadly, most of it will end up being thrown away. When the pupillage fairs went online during the pandemic did chambers notice a huge drop in interest because prospective pupils didn’t want to talk to them if they didn’t get a present? Of course they didn’t, and they never will because there will always be fewer pupillages on offer than those seeking one; an imbalance that remains unchanged for over 25 years.

So how is the Bar Council dealing with this issue? Should it even get involved? In my opinion, it should. The Bar Council website provides information to chambers to assist with improving their sustainability and carbon footprint so naturally, any events sponsored by them should be leading the way. I asked the Bar Council for its views on the issue and it responded:

‘The Bar Council takes the sustainability of our events seriously. Among other things, we partner with venues that have strong environmental policies, have moved most printed material to a digital format, and use minimal single-use plastic. Our Sustainability Network is designed to help the chambers reach net zero and part of our work includes encouraging exhibitors at the Pupillage Fair to adopt green recruitment practices. We issue an information pack to all exhibitors which explains that there is no evidence to suggest that high volumes of free merchandise make pupillage recruiters more appealing to applicants and ask that they choose a limited number of sustainable assets that have a long-term use. We also prompt our exhibitors to review their supply chains, use joint couriers and public transport, and consider how they can reduce waste. In 2022, we held a free ‘green recruitment’ event for chambers and were pleased to see the impact it had on our exhibitors’ choices. We will continue to promote sustainable event practices and lead by example ahead of this year’s Pupillage Fair.’

I think the Bar Council can do more by creating a sustainable event policy which places all exhibitors on an equal footing, provides clear event expectations and promotes a positive attitude on sustainability to all those who attend. As the event organiser, the Bar Council gets to make the rules and maybe it is time to let exhibitors know what is, and is not, acceptable. Perhaps allow exhibitors to give away a single item, providing it is made sustainably? I realise that one fair attendee could still collect a large number of ‘gifts’, but by advertising the event as ‘sustainable’ might also encourage the barristers of the future to decide that they really don’t need six coffee cups and three water bottles and 24 pens etc. Perhaps if the Bar Council placed clear but fair limitations on what exhibitors should be giving away, aspiring barristers could collect more ‘tips’ than ‘tat’, because after all, they want pupillage, not to open a gift shop. 

Join the Bar Sustainability Network: The Bar Sustainability Network is a Bar Council initiative run in conjunction with Achill Management, a sustainability consultancy with expertise working with the legal profession. The network provides a range of services and support for chambers, Inns and others to help the transition to a more sustainable way of working – saving not just carbon emissions but costs. Forty eight chambers have joined the network as 2023/24 members. Find out more here.

The Bar Council’s Climate Crisis Working Group: The Bar Council’s Climate Crisis Working Group is exploring how best to support the profession in terms of how the climate crisis might affect its ethical obligations, as well as ensuring that barristers have adequate training on related issues. Find out more here. And in ‘Why barristers should care about the climate’, Ben Cooper KC and Estelle Dehon KC, co-Chairs of the Bar Council’s Climate Crisis Working Group, discuss why barristers are uniquely placed and skilled to act on climate change – see Counsel September 2022.

Bar Sustainability Summit 2023: On 16 June 2023, the Bar Council hosted its first Bar Sustainability Summit for members of the Bar Sustainability Network. Zoë Leventhal KC, barrister at Matrix Chambers and member of the Bar Council Climate Crisis Working Group, chaired the event. Read Zoë’s blog here.