The Roll Of The Pupillage Dice


Is attaining pupillage more than a mere roll of the dice….

With the Pupillage Portal once again opening it’s doors in April and the publishing of the ‘Bar Barometer‘ from the Bar Council and Bar Standards Board, it is time to address the fundamental question of whether the opportunity of attaining a pupillage is more than just a mere roll of the dice?

Whilst I cannot dispel any myths in respect to attaining the elusive pupillage, I can however draw some conclusions from the available statistical information and hopefully elevate the tone of this debate by seeking to draw a clear understanding and some closure upon the issues which are dogging the profession, whilst hopefully answering the often asked question is there really no ‘bar to the Bar’?

From the outset, I need to point out that the formulation of both my opinions and conclusions are shaped by the various detailed reports from the pupillage statistics for 2009-2010, which have been made freely available from the Bar Standards Board, all of which are available to view online.  Importantly, the statistics that are outlined below address pupils and pupillage attained through the Pupillage Portal application process and not those derived through non-OLPAS application route.

How many pupils attain a 1st Six Pupillage through the online Pupillage Portal?

In 2009-10 there were a total of 2,841 applications made to chambers through the Pupillage Portal, for only 460 places of a 1st Six Pupillage.  The gender make up was as follows; 1,214 (42.7%) were male and 1,452 (51.1%) were Female. (Note that 175 (6.2%) applicants’ details were missing).

The data provides a very sobering thought for anyone seeking to join the profession, as in real terms the figures presented would suggest that there is only a 16% chance of attaining a 1st Six Pupillage.

So now it is important to identify the pupillage credentials of those 460 pupils, or in other words, from the 2,841 applications what does it take to make it across the finishing line to attain a pupillage.

How much weight does education play in the pupillage selection process?

Given the information provided, there is a very clear division between those pupils who attended a ‘Russell Group University’ and those that did not.  Therefore, it is clear from the evidential statistical data that the education of a pupil could be still considered as a principle factor in the pupillage selection process.

For clarity, The Russell Group describes itself as an association of 20 major research-intensive universities, namely: Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Imperial College London, King’s College London, Leeds, Liverpool, LSE, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Oxford, Queen’s College Belfast, Sheffield, Southampton, University College London and Warwick.

So how many of the 460 pupils attended a Russell Group University?

From the illustrated data, 109 (23.7%) pupils attended Oxford/Cambridge University, 103 (22.4%) pupils attended a ‘Russell Group University’ (excluding Oxford/Cambridge) and for 53 (11.5%) there was no available data.

Therefore, 46% of pupils who attained pupillage through the online Pupillage Portal attended a ‘Russell Group University’ and specifically 22.4% of that collective attended either Oxford or Cambridge University.  This information in my opinion would demonstrate the propensity that the selected educator of a pupil continues to remain as important today as it has ever been.

Excluding the unavailable data of 53 (11.5%) pupils, 195 pupils attended non Russell universities and it is my judgment that these figures send out a very clear message which reinforces the notion that the profession is still very much guided by the university an individual has attended. Students who achieved their academic qualifications from a ‘Russell Group University’ would statistically stand a better chance of obtaining a pupillage. Controversially, the ‘Final Report of the Working Party on Entry to the Bar’ led by Lord Neuberger in 2007 recommended that the Bar should try to cast its net more widely across the university spectrum. Evidently whilst the number of pupils from a non ‘Russell Group University’ continue unabated, the profession still has a long way to go to demonstrate a level playing field.

Does my qualifying degree play an important part on the path to pupillage?

As identified, attaining a degree from a ‘Russell Group University’ would certainly support the higher number of individuals who have attained pupillage, but crucially when the statistics are drilled down attaining either a First or Upper Second degree are prerequisite in becoming a pupil, which could present some uncomfortable reading for the 361 (23%) full time students who embarked upon the BPTC in 2009 -2010 who held a Lower Second Class degree.

Pupil Barristers by degree classification 2009/2010

First = 108 (23.5%)
Upper Second = 243 (52.8%)
Lower Second = 39 (8.5)
Third = 2 (0.4%)
Other = 9 (2%)
Missing data accounts for 55 (12.8%)

So does age really play its part in obtaining a pupillage and should I consider the Bar as a change of career especially if I have a family?

Another controversial issue that brings the profession into question is whether there is a ‘bar to the Bar’ with regards to age and whether age is a significant factor of consideration for pupillage.  From the statistics driven from the Pupillage Survey 2009 – 2010 the ages of the 460 pupils were made up as follows:

137 pupils aged under 25 (30%)
216 pupils aged 25-34 (47%)
35 pupils aged 35-44 (7.6%)
14 pupils aged 45-54 (3%)
4 pupils aged 55-64 (0.9%)
1 of pupil aged 65+ (0.2%)

(Note 53 equalling 11.5% of pupils failed to provide a response)

From the figures presented, it is my considered opinion that as 11% of the 460 pupils were over 35, it would suggest that the Bar is not a profession that would appear to fully embrace an easy transition as a choice for those embarking upon a second career. Interestingly it is recognised within industry that individuals who have reached their 30’s – 40’s are the stereotypical age group that seek to engage upon second career.  Another factor which should also be taken into consideration, are those individuals who often embark upon continuing a career or embrace a career change after raising children.  The latest figures identify that only 41 (9%) of pupils said that they had children, whilst 360 (78%) of pupils stated that they did not, (note 13% did not disclose any information).

The roll of the dice

Whilst the information presented here is just a snapshot of recent research, it is by no means exhaustive, however it does in my candid opinion draw some soul searching questions for any individual thinking of embarking upon a career at the Bar.  Key issues such as education, age, and realistic opportunities to join a set of chambers are incredibly relevant and are all matters of which an individual should seek to reach a considered opinion upon. Ultimately, the statistical figures speak for themselves and despite the measures by the Bar to engage upon the 57 recommendations for the promotion of social mobility at the Bar as outlined by Lord Neuberger, individuals who enter the path to pupillage will have to recognise both the rewards and shortcomings of this very much revered legal profession.

As always,

Stephen (AKA) Justin Time.

4 comments to The Roll Of The Pupillage Dice

  • Pat Kelly

    Dear Justin Time,
    Having read this it has me believing that I, as a 50 year old, non Russell Group graduate male (even with a Graduate Membership of ILEX, an upper 2:1 honours [law] degree, a VC at the Bar and a Mediation accreditation), have a slim chance of attaining pupillage.
    That is, in my humble submission, a disgrace.
    Where is equality of opportunity and the level playing field?

    I work between 50 and 70 hours per week for law enforcement and have done so since 2002 – having spent the previous 23 years in the Civil Service. I specialise in Proceeds Of Crime Act issues and am fully PACE, RIPA and CPIA trained and proficient. I can bring maturity, experience, expertise and work (in respect of POCA confiscation proceedings) with me and am mobile and prepared to travel.
    I completed all of my CLP, ILEX, L.LB, BVC and Mediation studies on a part time basis over 7 years either at night classes, lunchtimes or weekends thereby maintaining my full time employment. All of this (bar some help from my employer during my L.LB) was self funded.

    So, to now find that this level of commitment, drive and ability counts for very little by reason of my age and non Russell Group university education along with the apparent statistics being so heavily set against me makes me wonder – was it all (including sleeping in a camper van every 3rd weekend for 2 academic years when completing my BVC) really worth it?

    Perhaps those universities who supply the BVC training should advise new students (prospective Barristers) of these statistics at the outset – maybe then there wouldn’t be so many disappointed individuals wondering the same thing.
    Of course, if these course providers did make students aware then they wouldn’t, I suspect, have the level of take up they currently enjoy which could be financially damaging for them. Not that that should influence anything but sadly, so often does. Budgets are king at the end of the day.

    I intend to apply for pupillage via the portal and by direct contact with non-Olpas chambers but these findings make me think I may well be wasting my time……….Time will tell.

  • You would think chambers would want someone with a few grey hairs – someone with a bit of judgment and a proven work-rate record. I know as a solicitor, I want a safe pair of hands, and not some flibbergibit from the 6th form at Mallory Towers, to present my case in court or to give me their opinion on merits and quantum.

    I cannot tell you the number of bumpkin junior, junior barristers who I’ve instructed and sat behind who didn’t bother to get to grips with the facts of the simple case I’d sent to them weeks before. I worked out fast that I’d do it myself most of the time. I bring in senior juniors where I need a proper view or someone who’s going to out-manoeuvre the other side.

    I wonder – or it may be wishful thinking, that age is a benefit for tenancy – rather than the pupillage detriment.

    I suppose, Pat, the reason why they do not explicitly tell us to naff off is because that would be age-ist and against the law.

  • Revenge of the Claw

    Hi Stephen,

    I was simultaneously delighted and irritated when I saw you had published an analysis tying together the OLPAS and pupillage (successful pupils) data from the BSB.

    Delighted because it’s the first time I’ve seen someone, other than myself, do that (and mine is only ever read by work colleagues who, despite working for BPTC providers, don’t seem overly interested). Fair to say irritated because, as I said, I thought I was the only one and I would have put it all online when I wrote it up in October 2011 😉

    @Pat Kelly
    “Perhaps those universities who supply the BVC training should advise new students (prospective Barristers) of these statistics at the outset – maybe then there wouldn’t be so many disappointed individuals wondering the same thing.”

    We do. I’m responsible for a significant portion of the admissions side of the BPTC at one of the providers, and I’ve made sure we are very clear to students about their prospects and the bottleneck in admission to the profession.

    All the providers have a student cap, and we all receive considerably more applications than there are places. Every single BPTC applicant reads the “health warning”, we are always upfront with students about their prospects (and tend to be very emphatic with those students we know will really struggle). The students to whom we made offers for the BPTC for 2012-13, they were 85% 1st-class and 2:1 honours graduates, and they broadly matched the BSB statistics about which universities they attended.

    Even for a Russell Group 2:1 graduate with good minipupillages and marshalling under the belt would still have a 1 in 2 chance of getting pupillage. My most talented student this year, very impressive academic and work record, didn’t get a pupillage outright and is on waiting lists.

    I know it’s in vogue to bash the providers, but I would make three points;

    (a) The providers do not choose either the number of pupillages offered each year, or even the student cap we’re allocated from the BSB which dictates how many students we can take onto the programme

    (b) Any aspiring barrister should be doing their research conscientously and aware of all this prior to going in to the BPTC. If they’re not, even after everything we and the BSB do to give a realistic appraisal of an applicant’s prospects, we cannot be held responsible

    (c) The English bar is the most elite profession in the world; there will always be more applicants than successful pupils. Even knowing the odds are stacked against them, hundreds and hundreds of BPTC students with less-than-stellar academic profiles opt to proceed and take their chances. Some of them are successful, many not, but that’s simply the way it is and the way it must be in a profession characterised by a intellectual rigour, social prestige and a great deal of power (when considering the source of almost the entire judiciary).

    I would point out an interesting figure that Justin missed; there were about half a dozen Open University graduates who got pupillages in that last period for which we have statistics. This shows that hard work, determination, a natural talent for law and personal charm will pay off, and students with OU degrees take pupillages where some Oxbridge grads miss out!

    That is all for now

  • Baby Barrister


    I know, as a “young” junior barrister, that there are many solicitors with years of experience that regularly fail to enclose the requisite papers (despite having listed them in the instructions), plead the wrong cause of action and then make a last minute application to amend the pleadings a week before trial and regularly encourage clients to pursue hopeless cases. Youth does not necessarily equate to incompetence, just as age clearly does not necessarily equate to competence.

    Yes it is more likely that a graduate of a year or two will gain pupillage at the vast majority of sets over someone of 50 who has had a career prior to the Bar where the academic records are identical. This is because sets invest in each individual they take on, in the hope that they will develop their practice over a number of years and bring ever increasing amounts of work and money into Chambers. They are therefore often more likely to take on a candidate who they expect to see a greater return from over a longer period, than someone who may work for half the time, but have achieved little more when they retire than a relatively junior tenant.

    Of course there are, as there should be, exceptions. And those people will always manage to attain pupillage and flourish at the Bar even if they choose to come to it later, as they are exceptional candidates. But do not write off all of those younger members as ‘flibbergibits from the 6th form at Mallory Towers’. I myself had a very normal, state school education and I worked hard to get where I am today, as every person who attains pupillage has; that is the nature of the profession in which we work.

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