Law: Competition is a bar to a job for life: Concern is growing that demand is outstripping the places available for student pupillage, reports Sharon Wallach

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Reading for the Bar was once a safe bet - prestige, a good income and a job for life. But along with heir to the throne, casualty doctor and newspaper editor, the barrister has become a member of an endangered species.

The profession has always been competitive, with more people embarking on the training process than could hope to practise. But it was generally agreed that given good social contacts, reasonable academic achievement and attendance at a set number of Inns of Court dinners, success was assured.

That was the golden age. Now the question is, are people being set up to fail? A member of the General Council of the Bar, Nadine Radford, thought so when she spoke at the Bar's conference in the autumn. 'We must find a more realistic method of entry,' she said. 'We allow hundreds of students to go on believing that if they pass the exam and attend the regulation number of dinners they will, in due course, be able to practise as barristers.'

An apprentice barrister has to complete vocational training, followed by a year-long pupillage - akin to solicitor's articles - which is divided into two periods, or sixes, usually worked in different chambers. He or she is then called to the Bar and on order to practise, must find a tenancy in chambers (sets of independent barristers practising together).

The problems begin at the point of entry into the profession. 1,040 students are currently undertaking the compulsory vocational course at the Council for Legal Education (CLE), the Bar school. But according to Ms Radford, only some 500 pupillages are known to be available at the end of the period of study. (It should be said that the figures are difficult to estimate; the Bar's own statistics are sporadic and sparse.)

A new selection system coming into force this year will reduce the number of CLE places to 800. The college's secretary, John Taylor, says that allowing for natural wastage, this intake 'would provide an equitable number for the profession'. But the figures still don't quite add up: the success rate for the course is a steady 85 per cent.

Ms Radford said at the Bar conference that there was no absolute right of a tenancy for life. But neither does there appear to be an absolute right of a tenancy at all. According to the Bar's own statistics, only 395 tenancies were accepted in 1989. The number has crawled up to just under 500 for last year.

Few newly called barristers struggling to find places in chambers are prepared to be named. 'You don't got selected on merit,' said one. 'It's a question of being in the right place at the right time. So you're frightened of being identified and breaking the spell.'

A practice becoming more and more common as a short-term answer to being without a tenancy is squatting. This is an informal arrangement whereby the squatter is provided with temporary office and clerking facilities. Some chambers treat their squatters as pupils, without obligations, others ask for contributions towards overheads.

Brigit Green (not her real name), squatting in a civil set, pays 5 per cent of her receipts. 'I have no supervision,' she says, 'but on the other hand I do have a practice - two firms of solicitors instruct me, and because I am more senior than the pupils, I get some work.'

She arrived at the Bar via a history degree, social work and academic legal research. Working as an au pair saw her through the CLE course. She was called to the Bar two years ago, was offered a pupillage but did not take it up immediately.

'My chambers had a pool of money, for which pupils had to apply. I was successful on my second application,' she says. Even then, the award was only pounds 1,000 - 'big deal', as Brigit puts it - and she had to continue to work elsewhere part-time. 'Not only was I having to fund myself, but I also had the appalling debt that everyone accrues at Bar school,' she says. Her second six was properly funded, with a pounds 5,000 award from chambers given to all its pupils.

When Brigit embarked on the search for a tenancy, 'it was pretty apparent that recruitment had ground to a halt', she says.

'In times gone by, my profile would have looked very good: high grades at all levels, good class pupillages in good chambers. Also, I have a pre-history, I'm not a babe straight out of university.' She finds herself in an unfair competition against 'a lot of Oxbridge firsts.'

'My upper second from a redbrick university seems less than impressive. God knows what is happening to the lower seconds; they may as well pack up and go home. The clocks have gone right back.'

Just before Christmas she left her squat, having outstayed her six-month slot. She is in an insecure position. 'Technically, I am not allowed to solicit solicitors to instruct me when I move on,' she says. 'I am lucky in that I have a good relationship with the clerk, who will tell the solicitors where I have gone.'

Karen Farmer (also a pseudonym) is working for a firm of solicitors while struggling to find a pupillage. With a background in biochemistry and the pharmaceutical industry, Karen is aiming for a specific area of law, and she applied to the top dozen sets of specialist chambers. 'I was horrified to arrive at Bar school to find others had carpet-bombed at least 100 chambers.'

Specialist qualifications are no passport, she has realised. 'A lot of people read for the Bar with another string to their bow. I was nave.' The solicitors' firm does healthcare work, which suits her at the moment, she says. 'I'm busy deciding whether to convert (to be a solicitor) and stay here or try again next year. It's very difficult financially. I've already done one year unfunded, the majority of pupillages are unfunded, and the prospect of another six months without money is pretty awful.'

Brigit Green supplements her meagre income by teaching. 'I wouldn't be able to survive without that,' she says. 'Of course I think about jumping ship, but part of the difficulty is that I made a positive choice to become a barrister.

'I divested myself of my life savings, got through the extremely unpleasant course at the CLE with good grades, found two very good pupillages, and I thought I was well off. Why haven't I got a job? It doesn't make sense. It has just been grisly.'