Job-seekers put to test in chambers challenge: Trainee barristers seeking entry to one of Britain's most radical practices face a rigorous examination. Marianne Macdonald reports

IT IS shabby, wedged beside Osh Gosh Leatherwear and has a vociferous troop of mice under its floorboards. But Bethnal Green Barristers Chambers is one of Britain's most radical legal-aid practices and its traineeships are keenly sought after.

The east London practice prides itself on defence work for the underprivileged: ripped-off tenants, victims of racism, beaten-up wives. It is fiercely committed to equal opportunities and deeply opposed to discrimination.

But being high-minded brings its problems. Over the last two months the set of nine tenants has had to apply its principles to itself after advertising two pupillages - six-month traineeships that may lead to a 'tenancy', or permanent position - and receiving a record number of applications.

It has become obvious that there are not enough pupillages to go round. The Bar school has become so oversubscribed that, from 1994, graduates with a second- or first-class degree, even from Oxbridge, cannot be sure of a place. This year about two-thirds of those who applied were given a pupillage. Those 750 soon face another scramble: only about half will get tenancy.

For Bethnal Green the selection process was poignant as 60 candidates applied, many with little hope of a job elsewhere because of physical handicap, politics, colour, sexual orientation or age. The chambers believes it is the only one that refuses to accept curricula vitae, and instead issues an application form to eliminate bias.

On 8 February, at its first discussion, the selection committee - Tahera Ladak, Peter Hall, Jayne Harrill and Abida Huda - admit to considering only left-wing candidates. After all, Mr Hall points out, some chambers only take graduates from certain Oxbridge colleges.

One Oxbridge applicant, with an upper-second degree, is discussed. She has fallen down on an open-ended question which asked 'reasons for applying to these chambers'. She wrote: 'I intend to practise both criminal and civil law with an emphasis on civil liberties. I believe chambers would give me good training in these areas. I would like to work in chambers outside the Inns of Court. I would be happy to supply further reasons if required.' All shake their heads.

Another candidate with a history of legal-aid work and helping the homeless is, according to Mr Hall, a 'Florence Nightingale application, a privileged background stepping down to help the poor'.

He explains: 'His reasons for applying are cobbled together from the handbook. This is someone who has the resources, but not the feeling.' Others disagree. Ms Harrill, who strives to see the good in everyone, says: 'I think he has done some interesting legal representation work for the prisoners on death row.' Mr Hall, who does not, replies: 'That is interesting, but you need access to resources to go off and do that.'

Ms Ladak says: 'But if you're looking at voluntary work as a criterion, you can't criticise someone with the resources to do it.' Mr Hall inquires what school the applicant went to: a grammar. He is rejected.

Of another borderline candidate, Ms Ladak says: 'I was impressed with his work with the homeless, although it was while he was a student. But I think the reasons for applying are all 'me'.'

She quotes from the application form: ' 'Yours is a progressive set of chambers in your own words acting on the side of the powerless against the powerful' . . . Then he says he would greatly appreciate working in a set of chambers outside the glass-bead game,' she concludes, outraged. Others find his handwriting hard to decipher. He gets an interview, nevertheless.

The last borderline candidate is given a tough time. Mr Hall observes loftily: 'He has put extensive reasons for applying here which, while superficially detailed, appear to me little more than pure sophistry.' His colleagues demand to know what sophistry means, which puts him on the spot. He adds: 'He said at one point 'cornerstone of my personal philosophy' '.

The applicant, who has shot himself in the foot by tacking on an extra page of reasons for applying to the chambers, has worked for Nacro - which helps ex-offenders - meals on wheels, Crisis at Christmas. Mr Hall says: 'The more I read of his reasons, the more he lost me.' Ms Ladak replies: 'I think we are hard-pressed to turn him down because he wrote extra.' He also goes through.

On 6 and 7 March, the first interviews are held. Ms Harrill, Ms Ladak, Khatun Sapnara, Edward Fitzpatrick, Eamonn Sherry and Christopher Williams race through 15 interviews in one weekend.

By Sunday afternoon the tenants, showing signs of wear, begin shortlisting for second interviews. Olu Boto, a graduate from Nigeria and a former laboratory technician, has made a good impression. Mr Fitzpatrick thinks he asked direct questions. Ms Sapnara is concerned that he was not articulate. Ms Ladak says six interviewers can be intimidating. He gets another interview.

Kevin Gannon, who went to a London polytechnic and has represented clients at more than a hundred social security tribunals, has also done 'quite extraordinarily well', Mr Fitzpatrick says. All are impressed with his articulacy, although Mr Hall objects to him as 'white, heterosexual and middle-class'.

Peter Katz, who was educated at public school, Manchester University and Italy, is rejected for being inarticulate and flippant.

Janet Fields, a lesbian in her thirties, discussed her sexuality but is thought not to have coherent politics. Mr Sherry observes: 'She said she wouldn't represent rapists.' Mr Fitzpatrick says: 'She said she wouldn't represent men who beat up their wives either.' Mr Sherry says: 'For quite a lot of the interview she wasn't looking at anybody.' Mr Fitzpatrick says: 'She was coherent at the start, then she began waffling.' She is rejected.

All warmed to Tom Riley, an Irish ex-headmaster in his fifties with a PhD in criminology. Ms Sapnara says: 'Given his age and background he was remarkably open-minded.' He is shortlisted, along with Sharon Momawni, a young black woman from north London.

Paula Hampton, who is blind and took her Common Professional Examinations at Manchester Polytechnic, loses ground by saying she might vote Green or for the Liberal Democrats. Ms Ladak thinks she is a 'wishy-washy liberal'. Ms Sapnara finds her a bit 'airy-fairy'. Her blindness is not mentioned. Taken up on this, the tenants point out that she has a guide dog.

Questions at the second interviews, on 26 and 27 March, are markedly tougher and include preferred changes to the legal system - to legal aid, wigs and so on; response on being asked to represent a landlord; how to deal with a woman pulling out of a domestic violence suit; the legal basis for the right to silence and the political motivation for removing it.

Discussions reveal that Kevin Gannon and Tom Riley are pulling ahead, with Olu Boto and Sharon Momawni least favoured. This presents a dilemma because the first two are white and middle-class, and the others are not. The set is torn between positive discrimination and an urge to take the best.

Mr Hall says of Mr Gannon: 'There was a strong liberal tendency in his answers which could have been got from a textbook.' He and Ms Harrill worry about how he would deal with clients. Mr Sherry says: 'But overall he was immensely articulate.' Mr Fitzpatrick agrees: 'We're nailing him because he's widely read.' Mr Hall says: 'There's a difference between drawing from experience and regurgitating what you've learnt.'

Meanwhile, the lawyers have been charmed again by Mr Riley. But Ms Harrill says his response to the legal-aid changes - where he expressed concern for the Bar, not the clients - 'sunk him for me'. Ms Huda thinks he assumed that went without saying. They wonder if he could cope with a tough judge. They do not mention age again.

They do, however, when talking about Sharon Momawni. 'But do we think she has potential, given her lack of maturity and her working-class background?' Ms Harrill asks. 'Whatever her potential, she falls below the standards of at least three other candidates,' Mr Sherry replies. Mr Hall notes a 'lack of order in her thoughts'. Ms Harrill thinks this could develop. But Mr Hall says flatly: 'If she was representing us in court tomorrow, I would be worried.'

Of Olu Boto, Mr Hall says it is unacceptable that he does not support a merger between barristers and solicitors; Mr Fitzpatrick thought his asking whether they would choose him at the end of the interview let him down. But the mood imperceptibly swings in his favour. Finally, he and Mr Gannon are chosen. Mr Boto rejects the pupillage; Mr Gannon accepts.

I say to Mr Hall on the telephone: 'So, you got the one you called white, middle-class and heterosexual?' Mr Hall pauses cautiously. 'I may have made some such wild allegation,' he says. He has the grace to sound embarrassed.

The names of unsuccessful applicants have been changed.

(Photograph omitted)

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