Neither posh, nor white? Try the X-Factor

The Bar Council has set up a website for those interested in a career at the Bar. The press release puts it in these terms:

“The Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, along with the four Inns of Court, has today launched a new careers website to provide a range of accessible information to school and university students. ‘Become a barrister’ ( is a new portal for anyone interested in a career at the Bar and includes a series of films and case studies aimed at demystifying entry to the profession.”

Having watched two of the films (both aimed at undergraduates) the message is reasonably plain. Barristers have fun, they make a lot of money (sic) and they are not predominantly white, middle class or male (er, double sic). If there is a theme it is, if deep down, in your bones, you feel you have got what it takes, you should go for it. It’s the X-Factor approach to entry into the profession. I resist the urge to make a joke about the decision-makers having man-boobs. Well, I nearly resist.

Partly prompted by a twitter conversation with Adam Wagner and given current concerns about entry into the profession I was interested to see how prominently the issue of numbers figured in the promotional material. Does this new site tell would be entrants unequivocally the difficult odds they face? The issue becomes doubly interesting given the immediate past Bar Chairman’s indication that the mismatch between BPTC places and pupillages was a moral issue. It’s a hot topic. It’s a moral issue. Surely, the numbers will be up there in lights?

I should state in fairness that my due diligence has only been able to extend so far. I have scanned the main pages of the site, looked at the FAQs and watched two of the films aimed at undergraduates. The first of these, as far as I could see, made no mention at all of the ‘numbers problem’. The second film I watched (the route to the Bar) said these things:

  • Less than half of those trying to succeed will get in.
  • It is possible but very difficult to get in with a 2:2

That seemed to be it. The 2:2 point is undoubtedly right, but the ‘less than half’ point is, on any figures that I am aware of wrong, unless one takes the rather narrow point that 1 in 6 (my best guesstimate of those seeking to pass from BPTC to tenancy) is indeed less than 1 in 2.

To present such minimal, one might say misleading, information is hardly putting the ‘moral problem’ of entry into the profession front and centre. Nor do the FAQs mention the numbers issue. They do quote figures suggesting ethnic minorities are well represented at the Bar, but interestingly do not disclose the figures on women or socio-economic grouping. Funny that.  Some of this data is, however,  published by the Bar Council and available elsewhere (see here for a summary).  It presents a less favourable view of the Bar’s diversity record.

One justification for the site is that it is aimed at promoting the bar as a diverse profession. By encouraging those from diverse backgrounds to believe they have a decent chance of entry the Bar hopes to improve its diversity record. It is a laudable aim, and there is some good stuff on the site, but the site is aimed at all entrants to the profession and encouraging diversity is not a reason for papering over the difficulties that all groups (particularly the groups apparently targeted by the main content of the site) face in seeking entry into the profession.

A site aimed at “demystifying entry to the profession” should, particularly when it comes from the profession, present with reasonable prominence, information on how easy or hard it is to get into the profession. Any student seeking to join the legal profession will be asking themselves, What are my chances? In my view, the answer to that question should be reasonably prominent and it should be accurate. Rather than answer the question, the Bar asks candidates a question, do you have the X-Factor? Cher Lloyd, she’s filling her form in right now.


Postscript: the Bar Council have now put a link to some entry statistics under the FAQs section of the site.

8 thoughts on “Neither posh, nor white? Try the X-Factor

  1. I blame the X factor for applicants for pupillage boring on about their “passion”. The skills needed for a successful career at the Bar cannot be acquired by simply wanting them very hard. I am increasingly sceptical about whether some of them can be taught at all.

    Getting tenancy is now an almost absurdly competitive process. Like many grey-hairs, I have no doubt I would not meet my Chambers’ present high standards. It pains me to see educational establishments raking in the millions from people who really have very little prospect of making it at the Bar.

  2. There are two issues of “access” at the Bar.

    The first, and the one which effects all prospective barristers, is that there is only a very small chance (I think about 1 in 10, it may be a bit higher) of becoming a practising barrister if you do the Bar course.

    It is therefore very difficult to access the profession, no matter where you come from. Realistically you will need a 2:1 at least and probably lots of other baubles too.

    The second “access” issue relates to diversity. It is harder to get into the Bar if you are from a disadvantaged background probably for the same or similar reasons as it is difficult to get into most professions: less access to education, funding of studies, professional contacts etc. It may not actually be harder to get into the Bar if you are from a disadvantaged background than it is to become a doctor, architect etc.

    I think the profession has a responsibility to explain to the first group (which includes the second) that the odds of getting in are very low indeed.

    I also think it has a responsibility to the second group to explain that even if you are from a disadvantaged background, you may have an equal (or equally bad) chance of getting in as anyone else, since the profession isn’t as plutocratic and snobbish as it used to be. This may involve a bit of selling the Bar, as otherwise they may think the profession is stuffy and weird based on their preconceptions.

    Problems arise when you confuse the two groups, and start selling the profession to everyone. I can’t see that as a particularly useful thing for the professional bodies to be doing, since there appear to be no shortage of applicants: in fact, there is an enormous surplus. I think the new Bar Council website does confuse the two groups slightly, because, as Richard Moorhead points out, it is aimed at and will be viewed by everyone considering the profession. And it doesn’t mention, except vaguely, the statistics.

    This may lead, as Richard says, to an X Factor-style free for all, where students think that “it is their time” so they will ultimately get into the profession. But unlike the X Factor, which costs a few pounds to enter (it may even be free), the Bar costs tens of thousands. The fact is that they probably won’t get in, and in my opinion any information for students should give this dirty secret top billing.

  3. There are issues beyond recruitment for female barristers as well – the (sometimes) complete lack of maternity provision and (always) total disinterest of the Bar Council in providing support for young female barristers giving birth makes it economically untenable for some barristers to return to work after having children. And while the rest of the country has at least some degree of anti-discrimination provision, I personally know of two close friends who are (or were) barristers and who were called upon to convince recruiters at their chambers in interviews that they had no plans to have children at all when being interviewed for pupillage or tenancy. I know of several others who were unable to keep working when pregnant, with clerks who ceased to funnel work to them as soon as their pregnancy was revealed resulting in a year or more with little or no work, while they only had a couple of months off from chambers rent. I get that barristers are self-employed and that chambers are self-governing (and that some are far behind the equality curve) but surely the Bar Council should be doing more? The problem seems to be that it represents, in practice, both individual barristers and their chambers, and can’t mediate between the two.

  4. The issue for diversifying the Bar is not just at entry level, but also for the rate of attrition from the profession for those from under-represented groups, eg women and those of BME identities. Certainly the number of women at the self-employed Bar as a whole (31.5%) is much smaller than the entry level figures (44% for the self-employed and employed Bar together). So the evidence backs up what experience tells me – that the Bar loses many more women from practice than men. This indicates a structural problem for the profession which needs to be addressed.

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