There is a debate that perennially surfaces on social media and leads to animated discussion – ‘far too many students start the Bar course with little or no prospects of success; spending money they can ill afford; and that any given scholarship money could be used differently’. The debate can be stifled, or misdirected, by inaccurate statistics or recollections of a Bar course from a halcyon age. Fortunately, and in the best Twitter form, this debate also provides a whole host of suggested solutions.

Before we get directly into the number of Bar students, let’s look at pupillage numbers. Over the last 30 years, the number of pupillages fell from a peak in 1992/93 of 882 to a low of 445 in 2008/9, and then to 542 in 2019/20. The Bar Standards Board (BSB) recently released a comprehensive report, Trends in demographics and retention at the Bar 1990-2020 which examines these figures and a lot more. Anecdotal evidence suggests that COVID-19 has reduced the number of pupillages in the last 18 months. Whether that, along with the continual downward trend of legal aid fees, will see a return to the low of 450 pupillages in 2008/9 remains to be seen.

The number of places at Bar school has changed, too, over the years. In 1996, the final year of the Inns of Court School of Law’s (ICSL’s) monopoly for Bar training, 1,100 students all studied in central London. By 2011, this had risen, incrementally, to around 1,600 places across eight different providers across all Circuits. 2018-19 had the largest number of Bar students, with 1,753 enrolled. (All these statistics are available on the BSB’s website.)

When you compare student numbers with available pupillages, the odds do seem to be stacked against you. But if we highlight that in 2011 about a third of students taking the BPTC were domiciled outside of the UK/EU, with that number climbing to almost 46.5% by 2019, this does help to bring success within reach (see BPTC Key Statistics Report 2021, BSB).

A proportion of non-UK/EU students do seek pupillage in England and Wales. There appear to be no statistics on this. But even if we assume that 60% of the 2019 cohort of BPTC students were seeking pupillage, that’s 1,011 out of 1,685. Assuming there are 500 pupillages (a mid-point between recent highs and lows) that’s close to a 1:2 pupillage to student ratio. Of course, not everyone who starts the Bar course, passes it. Since the introduction of the centralised assessments in criminal, civil and ethics, the numbers of those who pass the course have decreased.

This is worse odds than the mid 1990s when about 1,100 students were chasing at most 882 pupillages. How, then, do we hear of thousands of applicants applying for pupillage each year? It’s because a pass on the Bar course remains valid for five years (and can be extended) so the applicants are eligible to apply again and again.

Faced with a glut of students who pass the course but don’t secure pupillage, what options are available that will mean demand won’t outstrip supply?

Option 1: Only allow those who have secured pupillage to take the Bar course

For this to work, chambers would realistically all need to agree to a single pupillage application window to allow a successful candidate to enrol on a Bar course. Currently, the Pupillage Gateway runs from January to ‘Offer Day’ in May. Assuming the same timescale and allowing for a reasonable period for candidates to apply for a place on the Bar course, pupillage recruitment would have to run from November of an applicant’s final year of their law degree (or law conversion course) and end in March – a two-month application window.

This process would preclude chambers from offering pupillage any sooner than 18 months before it was due to start. There are still chambers who, for a multitude of reasons, offer pupillage starting sooner than that. What if a set offers a pupillage and a person fails the course, changes their mind about becoming a barrister or has to interrupt their studies? Save for the initial few years post-change where there would still be candidates in the system who had passed the course, it would leave a pupillage vacant with no way to fill it in the short term.

The second issue relates to students from jurisdictions that recognise the Bar course and being called to the Bar of England and Wales as part of their qualification regulations. How, then, would they be accommodated? The popular answer appears to be signing a waiver declaring they will not seek pupillage in the jurisdiction. Two problems arise with this. First, they will have gained the same qualification as a domestic student. If they change their mind, it would seem unfair to preclude them from applying for pupillage. Second, domicile doesn’t necessarily determine where someone wishes to practise. What would stop a domestic candidate from declaring an intention to practise in another jurisdiction, taking the course and then seeking to have the waiver voided? We’d end up in a situation where entry requirements would differ, depending on where a candidate declared their intention to practise; a course designed to allow candidates to practise in England and Wales that is harder to apply for if you are a domestic student than one ostensibly seeking pupillage in another jurisdiction.

Option 2: Reduce the number of places/providers

One of the major enhancements in breaking the ICSL monopoly was allowing candidates to take the Bar course outside London, a city that has become more expensive to live in. There’s now a provider on every Circuit and it would be a retrograde step to diminish geographical choice. If the number of Bar course places was reduced, remembering that about a third currently go to those seeking pupillage outside England and Wales, then what is the right number? If it’s not directly equal to the number of pupillages, then how many extra should there be? This would still result in some taking the course without a pupillage at the end. And should everyone who studies the course be guaranteed a pass?

Option 3: Only permit candidates to be called after they start their first six

Current BSB regulations require you to be called before you start your second six, not necessarily before your first. At various points in the past, it has been suggested that call should be delayed until after the start of pupillage and this would dissuade candidates from taking the course simply to get called. There doesn’t appear to be strong evidence, if any, that candidates are taking the course simply to be called to the Bar or that Call Night blinds their ability to properly assess their prospects of pupillage.

A further difficulty with postponing call would be the effect on candidates who return to their own jurisdiction to practise. They depend on being called to satisfy the regulations of their local Bar. A system of waivers could, again, be introduced but come with the same drawbacks explored above.

Allowing students to make data driven decisions

Perhaps there’s another way. I still remember the day I became a tutor on the Bar course. It was the day that students listened to me just a little less! I was a barrister, but not a practising one. Students are, understandably, more interested in the views of those who do the job rather than those that teach them how to do it. The answer might lie in knowing more about who chambers recruit. I accept that this proposal won’t eliminate students paying for a course who don’t go on to get pupillage.Those students who couldn’t be dissuaded from taking the course or the suggestion that they reconsider their prospects of pupillage are likely to be the same kind of students who, in para 32 of the BSB Review of the Bar Vocational Course 2008, led by Derek Wood QC, complained, ‘that they had no real knowledge of the difficulty in obtaining pupillage until they had committed themselves to the course and incurred fees. Warnings of the position are disseminated by the Inns and the course providers. Whether this lack of understanding is their own fault or not, students nevertheless say that if they had been informed more explicitly, or at a much earlier stage, about the shortage of pupillages they might, and some of them would, have made a different career decision’.

There is more information and advice readily available to candidates now than there was in 2008. The ‘health warning’ mandated by the Wood Review has existed for well over a decade and yet the numbers applying for the course remain high.

I taught on the Bar course for almost ten years. In that time, I attended countless pupillage fairs, outreach events and met students dead set on a career at the Bar, each unswerving in their belief that while the odds weren’t great, they would be ‘the one’. Pre-course, it really was impossible to dissuade candidates from applying. Even where you could quote their likely prospects of success given their academic background and experience, they were sure that they would be the person who would defeat the odds. There is, I suspect, an element of self-belief which, in many cases, becomes buyer’s remorse upon completion of the course.

Candidates are aware of the raw number of pupillages and, to some extent, what chambers are looking for (though in most cases it doesn’t really extend much beyond ‘A First or Upper Second Class degree with an aptitude for the Bar’). This describes the overwhelming majority of candidates, certainly in excess of pupillages available. The sheer breadth and depth of experience demonstrated by those applying for pupillage increases year on year.

Regardless of whether any of the proposals above regarding entry to the course, the number of places or when someone is called, the time has come for a greater amount of specific information for candidates. 5 Essex Court writes a comprehensive annual report on its recruitment and Keating Chambers publishes its mark scheme to name just two – but they are a minority.

Data point 1: Publication of mark schemes

In order to decide which sets to apply to, candidates ought to know how their applications are being scored. How many marks does a First get over a 2:1? How many marks for the dreaded question, ‘Why do you want to be a barrister?’ What is the weighting of those two questions? When chambers solicit references pre-interview, what weight is placed on them? Is there a cut-off score beneath which an applicant will not get an interview? None of these give a candidate an unfair advantage or reveal ‘how the sausage is made’ (Hamilton) but instead allow candidates (or those who advise them) to perform a realistic appraisal of their application and prospects of success. I have lost count of the number of students who ask me why, having met the high-level descriptors of who a set seeks to offer pupillage, they failed to get an interview there or, in some cases, anywhere. The sheer number of applicants means it is impossible for chambers to give feedback to unsuccessful applicants at sift stage.

Data point 2: Publication of statistics

‘But Ishan, I’ll be the first person with an unusual profile to get pupillage at X Chambers!’ Perhaps you will, but I wonder whether you might reconsider if you knew who they interviewed. In my view, chambers should publish statistics of the academic credentials and institutions attended at the application, sift and interview stages of their recruitment process. There’s scope for this to be extended to almost any piece of information collected about candidates that would be useful to their decision-making process. Past performance is not a guarantee of the future but it does give candidates a useful steer.

The argument against this is probably administrative. Chambers would be required to produce statistics and busy self-employed professionals already devote so much of their time (unpaid) to recruitment. Technology and process are the answers here. Every candidate for pupillage could be required to submit this basic information to the Pupillage Gateway in order to receive an application number. That number can be added to applications so that the burden on chambers would be reporting a sheet of numbers with an indication of who was interviewed at each stage and who was offered pupillage. A small burden that benefits those applying and those who chose not to apply.

For my part, I can’t see why the Gateway couldn’t be used by all chambers even if they wanted to design their own application form. It could act as an electronic post box as a minimum to upload a specific form or it could be flexible enough to permit chambers to add any questions following input of the basic information that would be reported on.


Two final pleas while we are on the subject of chambers. Please don’t reject candidates by silence. It causes great upset in a time of angst. And please stop asking why they want to do pupillage at your set. If you want to know their commitment to an area of law or a part of the country, ask them that. When I was in chambers, I said to myself that I’d offer someone an interview if all they wrote was ‘because you are offering a pupillage’. Nobody ever did.