There's a crush at the Bar, let's leave

The majority of trainee barristers will be thwarted in their careers. Frances Howelllooks at a flawed system
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Just one in three of the 1,000 trainee barristers who began their courses at the Inns of Court School of Law earlier this autumn will reach the end of the road via pupillage and be taken on as a tenant in chambers, says the Bar Council. Despite these appalling odds in the system, the Lord Chancellor and the director-general of Fair Trading last year decided that the Inns' monopoly over the Bar Vocational Course had to end. Consequently, the Bar Council is being forced to validate other institutions to teach the course from 1997.

Although it is not yet clear how many new course places there will be, the number of places is expected to double, with no corresponding increase in either pupillages or tenancies. The chances of obtaining one of the 750-odd pupillages, or 350-odd tenancies apparently available each year, will therefore halve.

But it is not just disappointment in their chosen career that these people face. There is also the prospect of a large debt. As well as a conservative estimate by the Bar Council of pounds 6,000 London living expenses for the year, fees at the ICSL have just leapt from pounds 3,750 to pounds 5,200. This is the result of the withdrawal of the Inns of Court's heavy subsidy of the school, which would be unfair to the other institutions that will be offering the course from 1997. Non-law graduates can add another year's living expenses and Common Professional Examination fees of around pounds 3,900 to this. Finally, despite the Bar Council's recommendation that all pupils be funded by the chambers to which they are attached, many of the 75 per cent of this year's Bar Vocational Course who will do pupillage next year will be paying their own way, and nearly all pupils will still be borrowing to break even.

Scholarships are available from the Inns, but these are increasingly few and far between. Meanwhile, the full-time schedule and workload do not readily allow for part-time employment. However, hardier students have been known to spend nights photocopying in Goldman Sachs, or even manning petrol stations. A couple of years ago one student was rumoured to be dealing drugs in order to pay his way.

Nor is a call to the Bar a passport to a job. According to Bar Council statistics, each autumn sees 250 ICSL graduates and a further 400 who have completed pupillage launch themselves on to the job market. Some are squeezed out of the system. Others are simply stifled by it, and make a break for fresh air.

"It's heartbreaking to see them," says Will Cock, senior consultant at Quarry Dougall Recruitment. However, things are looking up. The stigma which, three or four years ago, attached itself to young barristers without tenancies has gone.

There is increasing recognition that high-quality candidates are simply not getting through, or not choosing to do so. More and more barristers are going into law firms, and many are requalifying as solicitors. Others are joining the 2,000-strong Employed Bar. "A 12-month specialist pupillage is a real advantage. However, as long as they're bright, they've got gumph, and have an interesting CV, they should get into the banks and institutions," advises Mr Cock.

Not all would-be barristers, however, necessarily relish alternative legal career paths. Many jump ship and decide to start from scratch. The problem is that this is often just what they have to do. Employers are unlikely to see a year roaming the criminal courts as any more relevant than a character-building exercise.

A common route for ex-barristers is a couple of stops along the Circle Line to the City. Once in - several bright people have taken up to a year to find a job - former barristers will find that although they may be honorarily granted more status than graduates, they still will not know any more about the job than their colleagues straight from university, and will know even less than those from business school. But in so far as the bottom line of many jobs is about being basically commercial and inspiring confidence, all that negotiation, advocacy and conference training known as "interpersonal skills" on the Bar Vocational Course comes into play.

Some people go to the Bar thinking they want to pursue it for a while, and then may move on to something else, believing it will be a good investment for later. The reality, though, is that they will be one of hundreds of ex-barristers in the job market each year, and they will be several steps behind in whatever they move on to.

Meanwhile, each year, the Inns of Court School of Law collects more than pounds 5m in fees from its students, most of whom would be better off doing something else right away. The Bar Council is adamant that they don't encourage any false hopes. "We do give as many health warnings as we can on the milk round," says a spokesman, Mark Stobbs. None of the ex-barristers interviewed denied that they were aware of the risks involved. It remains to be seen for how much longer graduates will be prepared to expend such time, effort and expense for so little chance of reward.

Angus Watson, 25 (pictured right), read law at Cambridge. After 12 months' pupillage at a top commercial set, he left the Bar to work as a conference producer.

I knew going for the Bar was risky, but I had come to terms with it. I thought it would be worth doing in any case. On one hand, I was simply exploring my options after university as I had been encouraged to go to the Bar, but was unsure that was what I wanted to do. On the other, although I didn't expect to learn anything earth-shattering, this was a qualification that would add prestige to my CV, and would make me more marketable than a raw graduate, even though I might have wasted two years.

I didn't take any huge financial risks. My local authority paid half my fees, I had a funded pupillage and lived with my parents in London, so I didn't need much money.

I left the Bar because I didn't like the work. There wasn't much scope for innovation and standing out. Rather than any particular brightness, the most important qualities were energy and memory, and my memory wasn't good enough. Once there, the Bar also seemed parochial and tame. I don't think that you can enjoy the Bar unless you're awe-inspired by it, as it's not intrinsically interesting in its own right.

By the time I left, I had decided what I wanted to do, which was conference producing. I went to the biggest firm, got an offer, shopped around other firms. In the end I took an offer somewhere else that was smaller, friendly and more dynamic.

Being a barrister definitely helped. The people who interviewed me were in awe. They seemed to think barristers were masterly and authoritative, and immediately conferred me with managerial status and a degree of gravitas - even though you were clearly going for a job beneath that.

I think there is room for changes to the system. First, aspiring barristers should have the chance to find a pupillage before forking out for the cost of Bar School and even a CPE. This would then be more akin to the solicitors' path, where students have had a chance to test their marketability in the field before making a financial commitment, and can be subsidised by their future employer while studying.

It would also be interesting to see a relaxation or abolition of the rule that a barrister needs to be of five years' call before setting up a chambers. This would enable the many highly motivated young people who don't get taken on to have a go at finding their own work. As barristers work alone, it can make little difference whether they share chambers with senior members of the Bar. Opening this up would free up the competition at the Bar, which otherwise remains pretty much a closed shop, with, on the whole, only the established chambers offering a limited number of tenancies to pupils who fit their mould.

Originally, I intended to be a solicitor, as it was more financially secure than the Bar. I arranged articles, and went off to do my CPE However, I was drawn into mooting, and found myself hooked on advocacy. I knew I was taking a big risk in switching to the Bar but I knew that if I didn't have a go, I would always regret not having tried.

Financially, it was not a sensible move. Not only did I jettison my articles, but I also had to pay back the money that the firm had given me to study, and go it alone for the rest of the way. Luckily, I could stay with my parents in London. When it came to pupillage, I had to find a funded place if I wanted to continue.

So when I was offered one, I took it, even though it was up in the North- east. However, my living expenses in Leeds and the cost of travelling around the region to work added up. All in all, despite the funding, I probably didn't break even. I thought it was worth it at the time because when I was offered pupillage, the chambers said categorically that, unless there was something seriously wrong with me, they would give me a tenancy at the end of the 12 months.

At the end of that time, the chambers told me that it couldn't offer me a tenancy then, but that if I stayed on doing work for them for another six months, then they might. At the end of that period, they asked me to apply for a tenancy. But by then I'd had enough of mainly criminal work, and my life in the North-east, and couldn't stick it any longer. I had been making application for pupillages in London for some time, but it was impossible to attend for interview while working from Leeds. So I came home.

I then tried applying to all the legal jobs in the papers. When I telephoned the advertising recruitment agencies, the response was uniform: "Two years' PQE in a commercial solicitors' firm?" Before I got as far as "But ..." they had slammed the phone down.

By then, I had been applying for a legal job for a year, and I gave up. I realised I was going to have to change direction, and decided to take a break. Last March, I got a job running an unescorted trail-riding centre near the Black Mountains in Wales, lending small groups of people horses, equipping them with route maps and pub guides, and promising to pick them up from wherever they had got to in a week's time.

However, this was only seasonal work, and it ended in September.

I then decided that, as I have never done a ski season, I would go and be a chalet girl. I'm off in December until May. When I get back, I'm going to learn to type, and I shall temp while funding myself through fashion design courses. I've already had a couple of commissions from friends. I won't need to be much luckier than I was at the Bar to end up quite famous.

I loved being a barrister, and even now, I'd go to Bar School again because I really enjoyed it. Although it didn't work for me, I do think that the system is right. The Bar needs a big pool of candidates from which it can select the best.

This former barrister graduated from Oxford with a non-law degree. She did a 12-month pupillage in a top commercial set before leaving the Bar, and now works in asset management.

Although I was aware of the risks of pursuing the Bar, it never occurred to me it wouldn't work. In the end I left partly because there was a great shortage of work at the Chancery Bar, where I wanted to practise. Also, taking a long-term view, I found that working alone in a room, which I had been looking forward to, was in fact an isolated existence, and I realised that the work of even quite senior barristers involved a great deal of repetition. I considered becoming a solicitor, but came to the conclusion that it meant standing in the sidelines, and I wanted to be more involved.

After talking to dozens of people and working out what I wanted from a career, I decided to look for a job in asset management. I wrote directly to a selection of companies.

Some said that I simply didn't fit, as I was neither a raw graduate, nor was I trained in asset management. Others suggested that I went into a corporate finance department. My first choice was the first to offer me a place, and I accepted.

On the whole, I felt that my applications were well met. I was granted a certain amount of respect just for being a barrister. Some employers more specifically valued my legal training for its mental discipline and communication skills. Had I gone into an area such as corporate finance, where my legal knowledge would have been directly applicable, I would have started higher up the corporate ladder than I am now. However, because I have gone into a completely different field, I have had to start at the bottom. Still, on a practical basis, I am at least a rung above the graduate trainees.

Of course, I would be farther up the scale in asset management if I had done it straight from university, but the question is - would I have chosen to do asset management then? I don't think there is any need to hurry in life. I've got an idea of what I want to do, and I'll get there. But you can only go so far. If I'd started this straight away, then I'd simply be getting there sooner, and I'd just be in the same place for longer.

Given the choice, I would take the same path again, as I believe there is such a thing as training your mind, and legal training does just that. Also, in the world of commerce and finance, the law has got to stand you in good stead. I think, however, that the system of training at the Bar has got to change, and I know that moves are afoot. Up to Bar School level everything runs quite smoothly, but it breaks down at pupillage.

The first thing which needs to be improved is chambers' honesty towards their pupils. It is simply not acceptable to totally mislead pupils into believing that they have a chance of tenancy when they do not, while reaping the benefits of their unpaid labour. The longer you are out of the system, the more ridiculous it seems. It only works because people are so wrapped up in it that they can't see the wood for the trees.