Social Mobility at the Bar and Securing Pupillage
It is that time of year again where people up and down the country await their exam results and eagerly sit by their emails to see if they have secured a place at university. For those of you, that time may be a distant memory, but you may be looking ahead to the bar course or fresh out of an unsuccessful pupillage gateway season. It can be the most exciting time, but for many, it can be disheartening and disillusioning. Particularly for those who may have come from a school in special measures, like I did. Or for those who didn’t quite get the exam results they hoped for.
If you are hoping to be a Barrister and your education has not quite gone to plan, or you feel because of your background this means you do not have a place at the Bar, please read on for my take on this area and some top tips on how to elevate your USP – no matter your educational background.
One’s educational background is up there with one of the biggest factors, along with race, disability and socio-economic background preventing people from believing the Bar is a place for them. The Bar is often depicted as a profession filled with white males speaking the Queen’s English who appear to have come from a lot of money and a private education (thank you BBC dramas). To a certain extent, that is still true and it can often lead people to believe they will not make it in this career. However, in reality significant change is afoot – the overall population of women at the Bar has increased every year since the Bar Standards Board began publishing their diversity statistics in 2015. For example, the number of female barristers at the Bar has increased by 1,026 since 2015.
Despite the Bar being a very difficult profession to enter (for reasons such as a high number of applicants compared to a limited number of pupillages), the tide is beginning to change in this respect. Of course, there is something to be said for a high level of intellect and keen attention to detail in this profession. Barristers work on difficult cases with complex legal issues so it is not without good reason candidates need to evidence they can meet such standards. However, statistics show that since 2015, there has been a gradual downwards trend of UK Independent School attenders at the Bar compared to UK state school attenders.
Having said that, the data still suggests that a disproportionately high number of Barristers attended a UK Independent School. A number of things can be inferred from this. Firstly, how you are educated and whether you pay for your education may play a role in whether you are recruited. But also there are a number of other inferences such as your societal connections, ability to afford the expensive training courses, confidence to apply (and keeping applying) for pupillage and so on and so on.
There does not appear to be the same amount of data available to assess trends in the grades Barristers received in education (some Chambers helpfully release their own statistics after their internal pupillage process). But what we can see, and is evidenced on a lot of Chambers’ websites, recruiters generally ask for a 2:1 or higher at degree level. Moreover, possessing high intellectual ability is consistently referenced in Chambers pupillage guides. Again, there is a lot of merit in getting the best grades possible and being able to demonstrate this on your paper application for pupillage.
It is interesting to note that more and more Chambers are publishing Equality and Diversity documents on their website that specifically reference social mobility (i.e. which type of school their Barristers attended). Some websites quote organisations, such as Bridging the Bar and other outreach programmes, that they are involved in to reach out to those who may not believe the Bar is for them. Most pupillage suppliers make clear that they will consider applications from those with lower grades if they can demonstrate extenuating circumstances and others state each application will be considered on its own merits.
On a personal note, I left high school with no maths or English GCSE due to poor education and other societal factors. Luckily, I was able to re-sit those GCSEs at Sixth Form College alongside AS levels and continue from there. However, I was plagued with predicted D’s and E’s (those of you sitting your GCSE’s and A-levels now may not be familiar with this grading system) and as a result, I had to stay behind for an extra year whilst my friends went off to the University. I am now a practising Barrister.
Things you can do to overcome poor grades/non-traditional education:
- Don’t give up – just as in my tale of woe, there will be opportunities to re-sit and re-try. Stay behind in your lunch break and complete extra essays, ask for extra help from teachers and most importantly do not be deterred if it is what you really want;
- Some Sixth-Form colleges and/or Universities may require certain grades for you to undertake a law course. Consider undertaking an alternative degree and convert to law later – lots of people do;
- Some Universities offer Access schemes to provide candidates with the opportunity to lower their entry requirements if they are from a non-traditional background. I participated in the Access to Leeds scheme (https://www.leeds.ac.uk/access-to-leeds/doc/access-leeds);
- Make the most of extra-curricular activities whilst in education such as debating and mooting. Not only will this demonstrate time management, interest and commitment to the profession, it will also help you with the skills you need to demonstrate those required abilities in interviews;
- No matter what stage you have reached, employment is extremely useful. Again, work has the same benefits as set out in point 3 above but it also increases your confidence, your interpersonal skills and sense of accountability – for when you do feel like giving up;
- Mini pupillages and shadowing opportunities are on every candidates’ application for pupillage. You can gain future contacts and learn what the profession really entails. If you can find any other opportunities that will stand out on your application, do them!;
- There are alternative routes to the Bar. Lots of Barristers enter the profession after having been solicitors, legal advisors and in other areas of employment. You can transfer at any age and those that do come with more maturity and experience to be able to really understand and help their clients. (See the Bar Council’s website for Social Mobility Advocates for some words of inspiration: https://www.barcouncil.org.uk/media-campaigns/campaigns/iamthebar/social-mobility-advocates.html)
When you do not achieve the grades you want, or you have not received the best education available, it can feel impossible. However, it has to be said that the Bar does seem committed to having a more diverse and inclusive profession. It will be all the more richer for it for having you. So go for it and don’t be deterred.
Jazmine Lee – Barrister