Measures to help would-be barristers deal with the rigours of vocational training are being tested at the Council of Legal Education (CLE), the law school for barristers. A mini-sponsorship scheme pairs a current student with a graduate from the previous year, in an attempt to offer informal guidance and practical help.
The scheme has so far been taken up by more than 150 students, some 10 per cent of the year's intake. Stephen Mason, a member of the school's staff, explains that the idea for the scheme arose from the formation last year of a discrimination awareness group. A sub-committee was set up to discuss ideas for improving the lot of students. One issue before it was mini-sponsorship.
'When students join one of the Inns of Court, quite separate from the CLE, they are each allocated a practising barrister to act as a sponsor. The involvement of these sponsors is variable,' Mr Mason says. 'The committee thought that something was needed over and above that - a more informal link - provided by someone who has recently been through the same course, and who has similar and relevant experience.'
The aim, says Mr Mason, is to try to twin sponsors with students in the most useful way possible; for example, mature students with mature sponsors, students and sponsors from ethnic minorities, people with disabilities or young children.
'The reason for approaching this from the discrimination angle was to make sure that as far as possible everyone has the same access to information, to make the whole process as understandable as it can be, so that people with merit get through,' says Jeremy Callman, a barrister member of the action group.
Susan Gore is twinned with mature CLE student Janet Jenkins. Now in pupillage, Ms Gore was herself a mature student on the course last year. 'I see the sponsor as a steering hand,' she says. 'It is helpful to have someone to explain, for instance, which work has priority, and to say 'this was my experience last year'.' Sponsors are told that they may not give any assistance with course work.
Another sponsor, Andrew Burns, says that he can offer his 'spondee', Jamie Ingram, advice on dodges and dives that can only be learnt after a year at the CLE, such things as what work to spend a lot of time on and what work to do on the train. 'Hints on how to survive bar school, which the school can't formally tell you,' he says.
Jamie points out the necessity of such help as, unlike university, bar school can be a lonely place, with little in the way of a social life.
The CLE was established by the Inns of Court and exists, says Mr Mason, to supply them with future barristers. The Inns provide library and social facilities, but the school itself has no capacity for a common room for all its students. There are more than 1,000 - a great many more than the buildings were originally designed for; in fact, a one-way system has recently been introduced in the corridors.
Another way in which the mini-sponsor scheme can help, says Mr Callman, is by giving pointers about pupillage. 'It can be very daunting,' he says. 'In a way it is like a year-long interview.'
Ms Jenkins and Ms Gore have discussed the difficulties of finding a pupillage and dealing with rejections. 'I have very fresh recollections of what it was like last year,' Ms Gore says. 'There would be no one else for her to sound off to.'
The scheme could in theory help everyone, Mr Callman says, but most of all it is there for those who start off with extra hurdles to jump. It also has unexpected benefits: one twinned pair has discovered that they are long-lost relatives.
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