Despite the contrary sentiment expressed by Lord Sumption, becoming a barrister is very difficult. I have frequently heard the quest for pupillage described as a real-life equivalent of the Hunger Games. You exhibit extraordinary fortitude as you clamber over the bodies of your fallen contempotaries in an attritive, interminable war.
Though that is somewhat of an overstatement, great patience is required in completing the three components of bar training; the ‘academic stage’ (a qualifying law degree or conversion course), a “vocational course” (typically a one-year postgraduate qualification) and the “work-based learning” (‘pupillage’) components. I set out the enormity of the challenge briefly below.
The academic stage
The Law Society states that in 2019-20 some 38,490 students applied to study law at universities. 25,575 of these students were offered places. There were 16,499 law graduates in 2019 and 12,012 graduated with an upper second or first class degree.
The vocational stage
Several universities run variants of the vocational course required to qualify as a barrister. There has been significant liberalisation of the programme since I studied it, but the core remains; you must practise advocacy, learn about professional ethics, test your knowledge of criminal and civil procedure and study modules relevant to your intended areas. My course cost £19,700. BSB statistics showed that 1,753 students studied the course in 2018/19.
Regression modelling analysis of course scores by the regulator suggest that when taking all other demographic factors int oconsideration, there is a significant negative correlation between being a black student on the course and performing worse on modules set by providers (and even worse on the centrally examined modules).
The work-based learning stage
In February 2021 The Bar Standards Board published a report starting that the number of registered pupillages had fallen to 386 in 2020, a fall of 35% in comparison with the previous year. The disruption wrought by the pandemic rendered pupillage recruitment and its associated costs a risky endeavour for many chambers. The representative body of barristers, the Bar Council, stated that the formal portal for pupillage applications told a more dire story; some 3,301 students applied for 246 places through that platform.
The context outlined above makes clear that it is extraordinarily difficult to become a barrister. This difficulty is a product of the quality of aspiring barristers, the crunch for a finite number of pupillages, the inordinate cost of qualification and the fine margins used to distinguish between candidates. With that in mind, I summarise my own journey below:
The academic stage
Applied unsuccessfully for work experience at every single set of chambers visible walking through Birmingham City Centre.
Applied to study the BA in Jurisprudence at Oxford and was rejected without interview.
Received a conditional offer to attend the Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree at the University of Nottingham. The offer was for AAA across the subjects Citizenship, English Literature, History and Politics.
Sat the National Law Admissions Test, scoring 21.
Obtained A*A*A*A* grades in my A levels, fulfilling the terms of my offer.
Felt like leaving because of mental health problems and stress. Lost my father mid-way through my studies. My degree result was unspectacular; I achieved an unheralded upper second degree without any prizes for my academic performance.
Experienced a variety of life-changing developmental experiences whilst at university that plunged me into the worlds of activism, education and human rights. Moreover I became a nationally respected academic and civil society leader.
The vocational stage
Considered applying for a place on the bar course in 2014, but did not do so due to mental health problems. I looked at one pupillage application form and it made me very anxious.
Applied for mini pupillages across a wide range of practice areas and obtained 4. One of these was an informal arrangement that surrendipitously resulted from a random conversation with a barrister at a “Liz Kendall for Leader” event. I received a couple of rejections. One of the sets recruited its mini pupils 12 months in advance, so this work experience took place in October 2016. I undertook the others over a month-long period in Autumn 2015.
Applied successfully in 2015 to the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn (L. Inn) for a scholarship to assist with the course fees.
Applied successfully to study the bar course at the University of Law (Birmingham, significantly cheaper), BPP University. This involved completion of a ‘selection event’ comprising a written test and an advocacty exercise.
Applied unsuccessfully for a scholarship from the University of Law in 2016.
Applied unsuccessfully for a scholarship from the University of Law in 2016. I did not receive a response informing me of this second decision and was told that “due to the high number of applicants we were unable to provide every student with the outcome…if you have not been contacted by a tutor…it means that you have been unsuccessful in obtaining one.”
Applied unsuccessfully for another L. Inn scholarship that would fund the course in 2015. The decision was delivered in May 2016.
Declined the offer to study the course at the University of Law in 2016.
Informed by the University of Law that they would not have been able to deliver the part-time course in Birmingham due to a small takeup.
Applied successfully to study the bar course at the University of Law in London Bloomsbury starting September 2017. This involved completion of a ‘selection event’ comprising a written test and an advocacty exercise.
Applied unsuccessfully for a scholarship from the University of Law in 2017.
Declined the offer to study the course at the University of Law in 2017.
Applied successfully to study the bar course at City University starting September 2017.
Applied successfully to study the bar course at BPP University in Birmingham starting September 2017.
Applied successfully for a fee waiving ‘hardship’ scholarship at BPP University. £3000 was awarded.
Accepted an offer to study the bar course at BPP University in London, deferring my start date to September 2018. The university required me to pay a deposit despite the fact I had earned a scholarship. I did not have the money and so had to ask my partner to pay the £500 required.
Applied successfully for another L. Inn scholarship that would fund the course in 2016, and was awarded £3,000 in 2017. I sat with my partner and tried to work out how I could afford to study the course with that amount of funding. I would have been able to do so with no expendable income whatsoever.
THE BIGGEST RISK I TOOK: Applied successfully for another L. Inn scholarship that would fund the course in 2017 and was awarded £10,700 in 2018. This was later increased to £12,000. This process was not a foregone conclusion and it seemed as though my third scholarship application might invalidate my second successful one, such that I would ‘lose’ my scholarship before a decision was made as to whether I would get the same or similar.
Passed the Bar Course Admissions Test with a score of 58 while feeling quite unwell.
The vocational stage
There was some overlap between my applications for bar scholarships and pupillage, but for the sake of presentation I have separated these. There is really not much to say about my initial applications for pupillage; the initial 2 years combined secured little interest from the pupillage committees.
In 2017 I made 11 applications within the gateway and 2 from outside. One of the gateway applications was an unsuccessful joint mini/full pupillage application. This resulted in 1 solitary first-round interview.
In 2019 I made 6 applications within the gateway and 2 from outside. This resulted in 2 first-round interviews and 1 second-round interview.
In 2020 I made 3 applications within the gateway and 3 from outside. I had incorrectly misremembered the gateway deadline as 1600 rather than 1100 and took a comically ill-advised break from about 1000 to 1200 after completing a non-gateway application. The upshot of this error was that several near-complete applications were not sent. This was compounded by one set deciding to defer its pupillage recruitment until 2021. Despite the complexities of the COVID climate I secured a 100% success rate of 5 first-round interviews. This led to 4 second-round interviews, though I did not receive a pupillage offer.
In 2021 I made 10 applications within the gateway and 2 from outside. I received 5 first-round interviews and 3 second-round interviews. This rate was comparable to the previous year but I was rejected without interview by two sets who had given me second round interviews the previous year. Despite securing fewer second-round interviews in 2021, I was ultimately successful and secured 2 reserve offers and an offer from my favourite chambers.
Never give up on your dreams.