Ishan Kolhatkar wrote an article in the October issue of Counsel entitled To cap or not to cap, that is the question. He discussed the acute problem of Bar students currently seeking pupillage, in particular the fact that there are overwhelmingly more pupillage applicants than there are pupillage spots. The situation is worsening with each passing year, meanwhile the number of pupillage places remains static at best – or is indeed decreasing. 

Kolhatkar’s article provoked quite the Twitter storm. Legal Twitter made their opinions heard, ranging from Bar students to junior barristers and QCs. As a recent graduate from Bar school and starting out on my pupillage journey, this is an issue close to my heart. Therefore, I decided to explore the debate further and arranged to speak with some of those who had engaged with the Twitter debate to understand their views on this vital issue.

In his article, Kolhatkar puts forward a data-driven approach, including making it clear to candidates exactly how competitive the process is and ensuring that chambers are transparent about their criteria. While giving students all the information is sensible, it is unlikely to put off many eager pupillage seekers. I spoke to Faisel Sadiq, barrister at Gatehouse Chambers and a diversity and inclusion advocate, who argues that when faced with unfavourable odds, students will always believe that they will be the exception.

Currently, the flow of students taking the Bar course is relatively unrestricted. Many providers accept students with a minimum of a 2:1 undergraduate degree or equivalent and without any interview process. The only real impediment is whether students can afford the fees, which of course favours the privileged in a stronger socio-economic position.

At the pupillage stage, thousands of students compete for around 550 spots per year. The Bar Standards Board (BSB) revealed that 3,301 Bar hopefuls chased 246 pupillage spots through the centralised Pupillage Gateway in 2021, giving odds of around 7.5% (BPTC Key Statistics 2021: An analysis of students over three academic years). Even taking into account the chambers which are not offering pupillages through the Gateway, your odds are unlikely to be much better than 10-15%. 

After completing the Bar course and before obtaining pupillage, your career and life are essentially put on hold. Many, myself included, take up paralegal roles, often low-paid, in order to gain the experience needed to stay in the running. Already shouldering significant debt from the costs of an undergraduate degree and the Bar course, candidates must continue to participate in moots and mini pupillages in their spare time.

This is not to mention the gruelling pupillage application process itself, rife with rejection, which takes a strain on the mental health of applicants. The sad truth is that some of these students, through no fault of their own, will put themselves through this exhausting process year after year, and will not ultimately get a coveted pupillage place. Sadiq calls it ‘cruel’ and this is a sentiment shared by many barristers I spoke to about this issue. 

A limiting of pupillage applicants should, I suggest, come early in the process. My proposal is to introduce a more rigorous entry process for Bar school, which mirrors the written and oral advocacy skills required to succeed at the Bar. If the process were more akin to a pupillage interview and focused on potential rather than the finished article, this would restrict numbers to those who had a realistic chance of pursuing pupillage. It would make the ‘odds’ of achieving pupillage much more realistic while maintaining an element of competitiveness to ensure that pupillage providers have sufficient choice. It would follow that the scholarship money and other resources could be distributed in a much more targeted way. Currently, the Inns of Court alone offer £5 million of Bar course scholarships. If the number of Bar course places was halved, to 900 places a year, that would mean that every student could receive £5,500.

A key consideration of any reduction in the number of Bar school places must be that of diversity. The Bar is already failing in this regard; the BSB report noted that Bar graduates from minority ethnic backgrounds enrolled between 2014-2018 were less likely to have commenced pupillage than those from white backgrounds, almost half as likely in fact. 

The problem with a reduction in numbers, is that this will adversely affect the less advantaged students, who are less likely to have the means to carry out the unpaid internships or lack connections to edge ahead of the pack. Hence, the application process must assist in levelling the playing field. This can be done in a variety of ways – blind CVs which do not indicate university or social standing, a competency rather than experience based approach and recognition of facing adversity or disadvantage.

Some students may choose to take a year out and gain further experience in order to improve their application. Surely it is better that students take this step before they have paid up to £17,000 for the Bar course and invested the time and effort, rather than after? If they are to discover that the Bar is not right for them, better that they discover this earlier on. The emotional investment in the Bar is significant and it can be heart-breaking for students to let go of the dream, especially if they are forced to watch their peers succeed. The more that students have invested in the Bar, the harder it is to move on when circumstances dictate that you should.

Steven Barrett of Radcliffe Chambers, a Commercial Chancery barrister and Chair of the social mobility group ‘BVL’, suggests (over afternoon tea at Lincoln’s Inn) that an even more radical change is needed for the Bar course, and that it is not fit for purpose. Pointing to a recent issue highlighted on Twitter where a criminal pupillage was withdrawn due to the individual being unable to pass the civil litigation exam, he questions why it should be necessary for a criminal practitioner to spend 50% of the course on civil matters. He suggests the profession copy accountancy and that pupillage providers, in combination with the Inns of Court, should be taking back control of training. In effect, what is taught in Bar school can be integrated into pupillage rather than a separate course. Having recently completed the Bar course I agree that it needs to be streamlined according to your eventual practice area. It is unlikely that a student set on the Criminal Bar will suddenly find an interest in shipping law. If they do, they can retrain with the new chambers and practice area.

I also spoke with Simon Myerson QC based on the North Eastern Circuit, who suggests that more oversight and accountability is needed. He recommends introducing a peer review system for the recruitment process, eg having a barrister from a different chambers sit in and observe a sample of pupillage interviews, and provide feedback. He further recommends that pupillage providers should be required to publish a summary of their recruitment process including any initiatives they are deploying to increase diversity, and qualification blind recruitment based on competencies.

In my view, the Bar has been paying lip service to diversity for too long without backing this up with any tangible results.

What has emerged from these conversations, is that change is required, and soon. On behalf of my generation of Bar students I call for the various stakeholders – the Bar school providers, pupillage providers, Inns of Court, Circuit groups, Bar Council and BSB – to come together to tackle this urgent issue. Like Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games when she shot an arrow into the judging panel, it is time for the leaders in our industry not just to sit up and take note – but make change.