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Pupillage: Are we being fair telling Bar students that they will eventually succeed?

Pupillage is hard-fought. This year’s competition for pupillage has been like no other. 3,301 aspiring barristers applied for 246 pupillages advertised through pupillage gateway (total number of pupillages overall was 435 in May 2021). Some sets of Chambers offered funding to publicly funded sets to enable them to offer pupillages that might not otherwise have been available. On the 7 May, offers were announced and Twitter was alive with tales of joy and rejection. Well-intentioned messages of encouragement and resilience rang out.

Let us look at how students get to the point of applying for pupillage. Some apply as 3rd year undergraduates and some as GDL students. Many wait until they are on their Bar Course. The Bar training landscape has changed in recent times for the better. There are now several modes of study available; with or without an LLM, online or face-to-face or both. There are a range of fee structures but all of them require a Bar student to have access to more than £13,000. On top of fees are the living costs after completing either a qualifying law degree or a non-law degree and the GDL.

At the end of this expensive and challenging process is the much sought after pupillage. The Bar qualification lasts five years unless you can persuade the regulator to extend your qualification based on relevant experience in the meantime. This means, more often than not, that the qualification is finite. The percentage chance of securing pupillage, the older the qualification, diminishes year on year, until the fifth year when success becomes very unlikely.

I have been privileged to have taught many successful members of the Bar. It never fails to fill me with utter joy to see their successes, even after years of trying; cross-qualifying and chasing the elusive pupillage. This year, I have watched as many of our new ICCA students applied or re-applied for pupillage. They have juggled workloads, jobs, caring responsibilities, financial challenges and illness to complete a dozen bespoke applications, attend online and in-person interviews and rearrange classes so as not to fall behind. And then came Offers Day.

Some held multiple offers having shone brightly and impressed many. There were others on reserve lists hoping desperately that the first choice would falter and go elsewhere, otherwise, their hopes for another year would be dashed. For many, there were no offers.

What do we say to those who are struggling to understand what more they could have done? ‘You are good enough.’ ‘You will succeed.’ ‘Keep trying.’ ‘Don’t give up.’ But is that fair? There will come a point at which hope starts to fade. Statistically, the odds shorten and there are another several hundred new applicants in the hunt every year.

Some of our students will need picking up and reassuring that all is not lost. Some will be naturally resilient and go off to study or find more work experience. Some, though, will give up; unable to face it again; unable to keep life on hold on the off chance that they receive a glorious email telling them they were good enough. For all those who lost out this time, the earliest most of them can start a pupillage is 2023.

We tell them that they will learn from this experience and next time will be different or better. We can only hope that next year, after the destructive path of Covid, that there are more pupillages; that the Bar is healthier and more buoyant and that there are more chances for the many who would bring such talent and longevity to this profession.

So, can I just say this to those who applied for pupillage this year: You had the courage to enter the race and when you are brave with your life, you will inevitably know failure. If we knew how it was all going to turn out, none of us would need courage.

Bravi.

 

Lynda Gibbs QC (Hon)

Lynda Gibbs QC (Hon) is a barrister and Dean of the Inns of Court College of Advocacy