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Would it be better if pupillage was unpaid?

Would it be better if pupillage was unpaid? For anyone not concerned with the law the answer to that question is likely to be a big, fat ‘NO’. How would anyone be better off working for nothing? However, for those working hard to find their way into chambers the answer may not be so clear-cut.

This week the Legal Services Board gave the go-ahead to a ‘modest’ rise in the minimum sum payable to pupil barristers. As of September this year, the minimum pupil barristers can expect to earn will be £12,000, payable in all likelihood by way of twelve payments of £1,000. Not exactly a king’s ransom, but far better than a kick up the arse or, for that matter, the previous minimum of £10,000. Here are a few online comment responses to this development:

“Anonymous” commenting on an article in The Lawyer,

Good news, but will this perhaps lead to fewer pupillages being awarded as it will now be even less attractive for chambers to take on new pupils?

“Anonymous” commenting on an article in Lawyer2B,

This is all very well and good, but isn’t there a potential for the number of pupillages available to be adversely affected by those chambers only able to offer the old minimum of £10,000?

The thrust of these comments is important. Pupillage places are few and far between. That there are far too few places for far too many applicants is well-known. Paying pupils costs money. The higher that cost is, the more likely it is that chambers will at least consider more carefully how many pupillages they’re in a position to offer in any given year. Worst come to the worst, a set of chambers may simply lack the funds to pay a pupil altogether and suspend recruitment. When that happens the pool of available places in chambers shrinks with the result that the chance of securing a pupillage becomes even slimmer.

There were plenty of times on my own hunt for pupillage where I felt like saying to chambers that I’d be happy to undertake pupillage for nothing. On bad days I’d probably have been happy to pay them for the pleasure of getting my career moving. I’d imagine I’m not alone in that respect. The simple reality, however, is that even if chambers were minded to dish out unpaid pupillages, they are prohibited from doing so. The question is, should that be the case? Surely, there would be more pupillages on offer if the whole thing cost chambers zilch.

Once upon a time, not all that long ago, pupillage was unpaid. There was no OLPAS and there was no Pupillage Portal. Those seeking pupillage would trundle around the Inns of Court, and beyond, posting applications into chambers directly. Successful candidates wouldn’t get so much as a shilling. Speak to anyone recruited to the Bar during that period and they’re likely to say that whilst securing pupillage was by no means a walk in the park, there were probably more available. Indeed, it wasn’t uncommon for a pupil to complete her first six at one set and her second six at another.

Whatever the situation was in the past, the fact is that at present there are around 3,000 candidates applying for 400 pupillages. See this from Pupillage and How to Get It:

It costs about £15,000 to do the BPTC. There are about 3,000 people competing for about 400 pupillages. In my best estimate, half of those people have no chance and are deluding themselves. That makes everyone else’s chance about 1 in 4. That means that 3 out of every 4 decent candidates will not get a pupillage and will have spent their money for nothing.

That is a reason to think about your career. You are subject to the inexorable laws of supply and demand. It isn’t as if there are huge swathes of legal work being left undone because of a lack of person power. On the contrary, plenty of barristers (and solicitors too) are not working at full capacity. I hope all of you get a place in Chambers and I am always happy when I get an email to say you have. But even those who are well qualified to fulfil their dream of becoming a barrister and who would make a success of it are unlikely to make it.

Whether you subscribe to the arithmetic concerning ‘deluded’ candidates, the extract above says it all. Wouldn’t it be better if the financial strain placed on chambers under the present system was removed altogether? Wouldn’t it be better if chambers we permitted to recruit as many pupils as it could otherwise cope with? Without seeking to suggest that the present system of pupillage remuneration is ideal, my answer to both of those question is no: things would not be better if pupillage was unpaid.

Over the last few years the Bar has undoubtedly become more representative in terms of the diversity of students entering pupillage. That, in my view is a very good thing. According to a recent study by the Inner Temple, a third of those successful in obtaining pupillage attended Oxbridge. A fifth attended new, post-1992 universities. It may not be a statistic to write home about, by things are on the up for those not conforming to the typical profile. However, there is still a fair amount of disparity between those who happened to attended Oxbridge and those who attended ex-polytechnics – this isn’t about Oxbridge-bashing, that is the fact of the matter. Moreover, it would be disingenuous to say that every student coming of Oxford or Cambridge is loaded – many are not.

So, it comes down on to this: by the stage a student is about to start pupillage, their available resources are likely to be quite low in supply. Lets assume they’ve taken loans for maintenance and tuition fees as undergraduates, they could be looking at around £20,000 in debt (and more still since the recent rise in tuition fees). Then they’ve completed the BPTC at an average cost of £15,000. Even if their Inn of Court has assisted by way of a scholarship award, there’s every chance money has been borrowed to cover the cost of living. Before they’ve even stepped foot into chambers, a fair amount of pupils are likely to be completely skint. No assume that they’ve got to endure the following twelves month on pupillage living on squiddly dit. Unless they live at home (not an option for everyone), there will be rent and bills to pay. There will be mounting travels costs. Books. Wig and gown. Suits. And, of course, food! That money has to come from somewhere. If it doesn’t come from ‘mummy & daddy’, then the money will have to be borrowed from the bank. What if the bank won’t cough up?

The reality would be that pupillage would only be a viable venture for those who could afford it after all those years of study. You may well have had the brains to land yourself a place in chambers, but if you haven’t got the money you’re stuffed.

And even if the competition for pupillage became less fierce, the problem would only shift backwards to the stage of selection for tenancy. The lack of work at the lower end of the profession is well-known and it doesn’t look like that problem will improve much in the near future. Arguably, you’d be better of saving yourself the expense of an unpaid pupillage if you’re not going to find a place in chambers at the end of it. Removing the requirement that pupils be paid would, at best, create as many problems as it solved. At worst, it would cut those without the means out of the process totally.

Returning to the quote above from Pupillage and How to Get It, the problem (and the solution) is likely to lie in the number of those enrolling on the BPTC. It’s easy to suggest slashing the number of those permitted to enrol on the vocational course, but any such action would have to be done in a way that ensures the profession doesn’t return to the under-inclusive days of old.

Places at the Bar should be reserved for the brightest and the best. But, the ‘brightest and the best’ shouldn’t necessarily equate to those coming out of Oxbridge or a Russell Group institution. And it certainly shouldn’t equate to those with the fattest wallets.

Many thanks to Nazmin Akthar (@NazminAkthar) for raising this topic on Twitter.

Filed under: Pupillage, The Bar

About the Author

Posted by

I am a law reporter employed by the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for England & Wales. I write law reports for the Official Law Reports, the Weekly Law Reports and the Public and Third Sector Reports. I also write on a freelance basis for the Road Traffic Reports and the Times Reports.


  1. of course, a £12,000 pupillage doesn’t cost chambers 12k. all the minimum pupillages i know of offer a grant for the first six and then a minimum guarantee for the second six. after maybe 2-3 months of second six (depending on the general level of aged debt in chambers) receipts will be somewhere near guarantee level and thus cost chambers nothing (or a fairly small top up each month). if chambers even on a diet of mags court work can’t get their second sixers earning a grand a month perhaps they should really think whether they are the sort of place any entrant should be allowed to go.

    • Carrefax

      Excellent point there, simplywondered. All things going well, it may only be the grant for the first six months chambers ends up shelling out for.

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