As the legal profession waits eagerly for next Friday's screening of the first fly-on-the-wall documentary series devoted to the realities of court life (The Barristers, 14 November, BBC2, 9pm), leading London chambers are keen to spread the word that having a privileged background is no longer enough to secure a path to the Bar.
"Thirty years ago, the chief qualities required of a trainee barrister may have been supreme confidence and a certain sort of upbringing," says Hugh Tomlinson QC, chair of the training committee at human rights specialist Matrix, the chambers of Cherie Booth QC. "But today, we are far more interested in finding more thoughtful candidates with analytical skills, wherever they come from."
He admits that the problem of widening diversity in the profession is complex, and while the record of taking on more women barristers at the junior levels has improved, problems remain later on in their careers. But Tomlinson stresses that, in some chambers at least, "there is nowadays no premium in being an aggressive, white, middle-class male."
When it comes to attracting more working-class entrants to the profession, however, the headaches continue, says Duncan Matthews, chair of the Bar Council's Neuberger monitoring and implementation group, which was set up following Lord Neuberger's report on elitism in the law.
"In terms of gender and BME [black and minority ethnic] candidates, we have already achieved a lot of what we set out to do," he says. "But until we see far more of our recruits coming from state schools, and crucially from families where working-class jobs are the norm, we won't have achieved our goals."
Entrenched attitudes among teachers and careers advisers must also bear responsibility for closing doors on potential talent, he adds. "As long as some careers professionals and teachers continue to drum it into state school pupils that you need to be a toff with good connections to become a barrister, we will continue to find it difficult to recruit from non-privileged backgrounds."
Popular perceptions of the qualities needed for the profession may present a more subtle challenge, says Tomlinson. For, despite the portrayal of many TV barristers as egocentric wafflers, oratory is on the wane, while written skills are riding high.
"Cases can be won or lost on the basis of written submission to judges and we are very much looking for the ability to write clearly and concisely," he says. "The confidence to present your arguments verbally tends to come later on."
He adds that, while another popular misconception is that all barristers are fat cats, it is usually the desire to make a difference, rather than picking up huge sums of cash, that unites many people in the justice business. "If you truly want to be a rich professional and that is your main motivation, there are other, more suitable careers for you to follow," says Tomlinson.
Barristers are essentially courtroom advocates – specialist legal advisers who may either generalise or build a career in a particular area such as criminal, family, media or employment law. The cream of the crop make the dizzy heights of Queen's Counsel or QC.
While self-employment is the norm, around one-quarter of barristers are employed by organisations such as the Crown Prosecution Service, the Government Legal Service, armed forces or local government. The capital houses more barristers than any other city. But Mark Harper, who sits on the recruitment committee at Kings Chambers, based in Leeds and Manchester, advises graduates looking for pupillage to spread their search beyond London.
"We're looking for life experiences from our pupils and we prefer it if those experiences are not law-based," he says. "Whether it's volunteering abroad in a gap year or working in a bar in the vacation, we're looking for well-rounded individuals who can make relationships. Being very bright too is a given."
While law remains one of the most popular degree subjects in the UK, making it through to becoming a barrister involves three separate stages.
Stage one is the undergraduate degree. While lots of would-be barristers opt to study law at this level, some chambers may be attracted by a BA or a BSc in a quite different subject – history or modern languages perhaps – as long as the graduate completes a one-year conversion course: a GDL or CPE.
Second is the Bar vocational course or BVC which involves joining one of the Inns of Court. It currently takes one year full-time or two years part-time, costs around £13,000 and aims to sharpen academic skills and prepare a candidate for the rigours of courtroom advocacy using mock trials and tribunals. Around a quarter of BVC students receive help with the fees.
Stage three is pupillage, which more modern chambers, such as Matrix, call a traineeship – consisting of a paid year spent in a barrister's chamber or other authorised training provider.
"Even getting an interview for this critical stage is about as competitive as it gets," says Harper at Kings Chambers, which specialises in chancery and commercial law. With only around 500 pupillages available across England each year, hundreds of applications for just two or three places at each chambers is the norm.
In at least some chambers, the final hurdle is to successfully beat other pupils to become a full member of a chambers or a tenant, but at Kings, all successful pupils are offered a tenancy.
"Having come this far, the last thing we want to do is force our pupils to compete against each other," says Harper. "We take the view that they've already had enough to contend with."
'There were more women barristers than I expected'
Elizabeth Prochaska, 28, became a full member of Matrix chambers last month, after completing her one-year traineeship. A history graduate from Cambridge, she also completed a year's fellowship at Yale and a Masters-level Bachelor in civil law (BCL) at Oxford. She is currently seconded to Baroness Hale as judicial assistant.
"I can't claim that I wanted to be a barrister when I was small – in fact, after my degree, I expected to be a historian.
I fell into academic publishing for a year, which wasn't challenging enough, but after working for a Lib Dem MP on issues such as housing and immigration, I realised that I could feel just as passionate about the law – and what it says about who holds power in society – as I had always been interested in politics.
My conversion course (GDL) at City University taught me about advocacy and I soon realised that I was more interested in the academic side of the profession, which meant I should become a barrister, not a solicitor.
Some of the old stereotypes about barristers being male and public school certainly hold true, but there are far more women than I expected. I'm very interested in immigration law, as well as housing, education, welfare and employment and human rights.
Fighting for people who are discriminated against because they're disabled or black is very important to me, as are all issues around social inequality. I already do some work for free and I hope that will continue.
Aside from perhaps writing popular histories one day, I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing than working as a barrister."