Thank you to those who have reached out to me when I was writing this post to share their insights. I have anonymised certain individuals who did not want to be named and refer to them by pseudonyms where appropriate. I was incredibly moved that so many were willing to contact me, a virtual stranger, to help put this piece together because they felt so strongly about challenging the taboo around mental health in the legal profession. Thank you again for speaking to me.
Trigger warning: discussion of eating disorder, discussion of suicide attempt.
This is a bit of a mammoth post.
To set the scene, by and large, my experience of applying for pupillage was better than most. And even then, it was pretty soul-destroying.
I only applied in one cycle so my (already quite fragile) sense of self-esteem didn’t have to take a repeated battering over a number of years. I have enormous admiration for those who apply a number of times before securing pupillage; I simply don’t think I would have had it in me to pick myself up after rejection.
I struggled with balancing interviews in different cities alongside relentless BPTC exams. I was overworked and barely sleeping (or oversleeping when I felt really anxious). I had no idea how I was doing in the interviews and felt like I was being constantly, intellectually bludgeoned by people who are far cleverer than me. I had been struggling with paranoid anxiety for a number of years by that stage and it was becoming worse with stress. I would fixate on certain things and catastrophise to the umpteenth degree; friends and family must have grown tired of rationalising my worries to me. I could feel myself becoming less interesting and more self-centred; every conversation revolved around pupillage applications. I was struggling to juggle interviews with my studies but couldn’t really talk about that to anyone without sounding like the worst person ever because some people were struggling to get interviews at all. I would look suspiciously at other candidates in interview waiting rooms and drive myself around the bend wondering if they had the edge. A lot of my free time was spent comparing my LinkedIn profile to those of barristers and beating myself up for just not being as impressive.
As dramatic as it sounds, the year I applied for pupillage had to be one of the worst years of my life to date in terms of my mental health. Yes, I got pupillage. But I also got rejected by a lot of places. It was really just a heavy dose of luck which meant that I got pupillage ahead of some of the other very impressive candidates who applied. Once you get to final rounds, the margins between applicants are incredibly narrow and the selection process starts to become arbitrary.
The year I applied for pupillage was a year of being scrutinised constantly by total strangers; of constant self-marketing; and of mostly being rebuffed. It’s a year of not feeling quite good enough. I’m absolutely not shocked to learn that that has been the case for many others. I am, however, taken aback by the sheer breadth of issues of which I’ve been made aware while I was writing this post.
I’ve tried to identify some overarching themes which I found most concerning. But I don’t want the conversation to end there. With the help of those who got in touch with me, I’ve also set out proposals for the way forward. I’ve tried to consider what we, as a profession, can try to do to make things a little better for pupillage applicants.
1. The impact of unsuccessful pupillage applications on self-esteem
We really can’t underestimate the trauma of applying for pupillage unsuccessfully, year after year. Candidates who – most likely – have been relatively high-achieving thus far, are forced to come to terms with failure in pretty brutal fashion. They are being told: no, you’re not quite good enough; no, we don’t want you. That must be devastating. It takes a lot to be able to pick yourself up year after year and to soldier on.
One current pupil, who I’ll call Alison*, told me that she interviewed for a scholarship at her Inn of Court for three years and was not awarded a scholarship on any occasion. Alison went on to study the BPTC part-time as this was her only option; she couldn’t afford to pay for the course full-time or to live without working. This allowed her to gain practical legal experience as a paralegal alongside the course, which she found invaluable, but it didn’t come without its stresses. Alison would go to the library for 2-3 hours after work at least 3 times a week; her BPTC teaching was from 9am-5pm on Saturday and Sunday every 2 or 3 weeks so at least once a month, she would work 12 days in a row. Alison’s efforts eventually paid off and she did get pupillage, but not without knocks to her self-confidence along the way.
I sought the scholarship to not only relieve the financial burden of the BPTC but for validation. I wanted someone to believe in me and my ability to become a barrister. This may sound silly but I think a lot of people will agree. Before doing the BPTC and embarking on a career at the Bar, I thought receiving a scholarship is one of the only early indications that you fit in, that a panel of four senior members of the profession think you have the skills and the ability which are worth investing in and developing. For me – it was a sign that I could do this not only for myself but for others as well. – Alison*, current pupil
By and large, there is little to no support for pupillage candidates in managing their mental health around the application period. There is plenty of support around crafting paper applications and honing interview technique, but many pupillage applicants are woefully unprepared for the shock of failure. I could tell you a whole load of relatively useless information that I learned on the BPTC about the Civil Procedure Rules which I will probably never use again in my practice as a family barrister. I can’t say that any time was spent during the BPTC teaching me about how to build emotional resilience (a skill that, pupillage applications aside, is always useful!)
“The problem is, there is no direct support for applicants. It is a highly emotive and exhausting process, and if you don’t get the ‘golden buzzer’ at a set of chambers, you do feel as if you’re in a boat without a paddle, coping with the mental health consequences it has on you… There is plenty of talk about wellbeing at the Bar, but I see nothing but talk. There is plenty of support in terms of the physical process, e.g. mock interviews but once you come out of a real interview, you know it’s gone badly, there is nowhere to turn unless you speak out yourself.” – Katie Baker, pupillage applicant
Aliyah*, currently a pupil, applied over three years before managing to secure pupillage (with not one, but three offers.) She told me that the second unsuccessful year was the most difficult for her to cope with mentally. On the recommendation of a friend who had secured pupillage in her fourth year of trying, Aliyah saw a ‘confidence coach’ for two sessions and this helped her immeasurably. The coach recommended The Happiness Project and this TED talk on body language by Amy Cuddy. He didn’t just work with legal professionals but had also worked with Marines around preparing them for big missions. In previous years, Aliyah had been so focussed on getting pupillage that “it became an obsession“. In her third, successful year, she changed her mindset. Rather than being fixated on simply getting pupillage, she asked herself: “do I like this chambers?“; “would I like it here?” Aliyah told me that while she had a careers coach at her BPTC provider, their support centred on written applications. Soft skills such as building confidence or focussing on oneself as a person were largely ignored.
An elephant in the room that we sometimes try to swerve is that many applicants simply won’t get pupillage. I have a personal bug bear when other barristers say ‘just keep going, you’ll get there eventually‘, and that’s not what this post is about. Those sorts of meaningless platitudes are not true. Some very deserving candidates might not make it to the Bar and that’s because the pupillage application process (and society!) can be deeply unfair. Some candidates, sadly, are probably just not suited to the Bar.
Whether it takes a few tries for a candidate to get pupillage, or whether they end up not being able to get pupillage at all, we should be equipping pupillage candidates with the tools they need to manage failure: coping with rejection; having a life outside pupillage applications; becoming accustomed to the possibility of not coming to the Bar; building an identity which is independent of obtaining pupillage and becoming a barrister. We need to drill into them that not getting a pupillage isn’t any reflection on their ability to contribute in a meaningful way to society. We need to help them to divorce their sense of self from getting one particular job in one particular profession. We are doing prospective pupils an enormous disservice by not putting this emotional support in place. As things are, we risk leaving them to fend for themselves in a cut-throat environment which will chew them up and spit them out with very little of their self-esteem still intact.
“It took pretty much a complete breakdown one afternoon for me to realise that I felt like, without having obtained pupillage, nothing else seemed good enough. That was such a horrible thought that my entire happiness was balancing on those pupillage applications and the interview process.” – Anonymous pupillage applicant
2. Pupillage applications in a time of corona
One aspiring barrister, told me that she’s worried about feeling “left behind” during lockdown. While chambers will be aware that most candidates have been unable to bolster their CVs with the government restrictions in place – and all pupillage candidates this year are in the same boat – the anxiety remains. She added that it is easier to overthink things in lockdown when we have constant exposure to social media, with post after post on LinkedIn of others obtaining scholarships and pupillage.
More than one person told me that it has been a real blow that multiple chambers have cancelled their recruitment cycles this year because of COVID-19. This anxiety is exacerbated by the 5-year deadline for obtaining pupillage.
A lot of sets just didn’t contact applicants until the very last second, allowing us to believe interviews would go ahead, and when advised of the decision to postpone/withdraw this was often not done very sensitively at all. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say it was pretty heartbreaking news to receive, and so should have been delivered much more sensitively. – Anonymous pupillage applicant
A Bar Council survey found that some 30% of chambers are changing their plans for pupillage starting in 2020 and 2021 and may not take pupils on as planned for the next two years. Carolyn Entwistle, Head of Services at The Bar Council, has very helpfully given me some initial data about the number of Authorised Education and Training Organisations that have pulled out of this recruitment cycle. 9 (or 8.7%) of chambers who recruit through Gateway) have cancelled their recruitment processes; of those 9, 3 are criminal sets. The figures only relate to those chambers who recruit through Pupillage Gateway (roughly around 50% of pupillage providers). Anecdotally, Carolyn tells me that some sets will be reducing the number of offers they make this year, but The Bar Council won’t have the specific stats in respect of that until the end of the month, after offer and acceptance processes through Gateway have been closed.
While I’m conscious this isn’t the full picture, the number from The Bar Council is lower than I anticipated. But it’s not negligible. Individual chambers get hundreds of applications a year. It wouldn’t be too much of a wild guess to suggest that there could have been overlap between sets, for instance the three criminal sets (dependent on other factors of course such as which Circuit those sets are based in). It’s still quite a significant chunk of candidates who have been affected by cancellations within Gateway alone.
I confess to being a bit puzzled by why many chambers have cancelled recruitment this year. I don’t personally see the difficulty with video interviews (in fact, it would have been a great help to me back in 2017 to attend a couple via video-link, rather than trekking from Leicester to London to Leeds in one day for the sake of interviews. In terms of accessibility, video link is definitely something that should be explored more readily). One barrister commented in this tweet that he was “amazed, when interviewing prospective pupils, to be told that many sets aren’t recruiting this year.” His experience was that video link interviews weren’t too problematic and he anticipated that there would be plenty of work floating around for second-sixers in 2021.
However, I’m conscious that some sets don’t even know whether they will survive this period so I’m hesitant to criticise chambers who have cancelled their recruitment cycles. The same Bar Council survey mentioned above found that some 90% of criminal sets predict they will fold after 12 months without more financial support. 55% of all chambers reported that they cannot survive 6 months without financial aid if the current circumstances continue, and 81% cannot survive 12 months. As one person very rightly challenged me – surely it would be better for chambers not to recruit at all, than to recruit and risk withdrawing their offers a year or so down the line.
The reasons underlying the cancellations aside, there are two real issues here. One seems to be poor communication between chambers and candidates about what is going on; the second is that finding pupillage within the 5-year limit is hard enough without the added anxiety of effectively losing one year.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most common piece of feedback I received was about… er… feedback. I don’t think the Bar is going to win any prizes for giving feedback to candidates. The reality is that most chambers don’t have a separate HR team so it’s a team of barristers with their own practices to juggle who are conducting the pupillage application process. It is often not possible for groups of barristers (side note: what is the collective noun for a bunch of barristers? A wig? A gavel? A ribbon?) to manage pupillage applications with the same degree of professionalism as a slick recruitment team at a City firm.
While I don’t want to diminish the work being done by pupillage committees and I’m conscious of how much they already have on their plate in a notoriously overworked profession, we have got to do better on feedback. The position we have at the moment is that many prospective pupils rely on the goodwill of other barristers to take a look at their applications. If they are unable to identify any help, they’re left at sea. They will analyse and over-analyse what they could be doing wrong, and they might make little progress in subsequent years because they still haven’t quite worked out what’s lacking.
“I think another thing that can affect your mental health is the fact that if you do not get any interviews your first round of applying, you can get stuck wondering what it is that you did wrong and how to improve for the following year. It is understandable that giving feedback based on the amount of applications chambers get is not possible but it can leave you feeling lost.” – Anonymous pupillage applicant
Aliyah* told me that of all the chambers she applied to during the course of three years, she only received feedback from two. She said she became “numb” to the fact that she often didn’t find out the outcome of her applications, and there are still chambers to which she applied on Gateway where her status remains ‘Applied’ rather than ‘Unsuccessful’.
Quite frankly, this is just not good enough. Alison* hits the nail on the head by observing that:
“In dating – ghosting is frowned upon and reasons for the break up always make it easier to overcome. It is the same for pupillage.”
4. Not being forthcoming about mental health conditions on pupillage application forms and during pupillage
Caitlin*, a current pupil, told me that she struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Caitlin has been on and off medication for a number of years and has frequent appointments with her psychologist. Her chambers remains unaware of this.
Belle* applied unsuccessfully for pupillage this year. When I was looking over a draft application form, she told me that an eating disorder had impacted her grades. There was no mention of this in her mitigating circumstances section. When I asked her why, she told me that she had received mixed feedback on declaring this to chambers; she had been advised not to draw attention to the “weaknesses” in her application or to put anything in the “excuses box”.
Katie Baker, a pupillage applicant, ticks ‘yes’ when asked if she suffers from a disability on her application forms. She is open about her mental health but is acutely aware that many are not because of the stigma around mental health. I asked her how she thinks chambers perceive her openness about her mental health. She told me that her gut feeling when she writes ‘anxiety’ on her form is that chambers are going to perceive her as incapable. If she doesn’t get an interview, this feeds into that gut feeling and she feels that she has to prove herself more. She knows many friends and colleagues who don’t declare a disability for mental health reasons so they come across as the “perfectly well-rounded candidate.“
This particular issue is close to my heart. Shortly after my overdose last Spring, I reached out to The Bar Council. I had decided not to remain in London at the set of chambers where I was doing pupillage and I wanted to move closer to home. I needed some advice around how to share information about my suicide attempt in applications for a third six. The advice I received was disheartening.
While it was ultimately a matter for me, I was advised not to mention any health issue on my application or to perhaps say something very briefly in my covering letter explaining that the extension of my pupillage was due to illness. They suggested that, at interview, I could say that I realised I wanted to be geographically closer to home. The advice concluded by saying that generally details are best provided after I have accepted an offer rather than before.
I went back and forth for a long time about whether to follow this advice… and I eventually didn’t follow it. I felt that it would be dishonest or misleading to say that I wanted to move to the Midlands for purely geographical reasons. I didn’t think it would endear me to chambers if I revealed information post-offer that I had deliberately hidden pre-offer. This could be the place that I end up for the rest of my professional career and it wouldn’t be a fantastic start if I came across as evasive. I also didn’t want to feed into the stigma around mental health by behaving in a way that made it seem like I should be ashamed.
I ended up applying to three sets of chambers for third six. Although I was wildly anxious about doing so, I told all three at interview that I had been on leave for a month during pupillage following a suicide attempt. All three sets, to their credit, responded sensitively. All three made me feel supported. All three gave me offers. My current set went further than I could ever have expected and offered me tenancy rather than a third six.
However, having reflected on the episode, I’m not criticising The Bar Council for having given me that advice. I learned subsequently that that was advice provided to them by an employment barrister. While I was very lucky with the chambers to whom I applied, they are not necessarily representative of the wider Bar. The Bar Council, understandably, didn’t want to give a candidate advice that could end up scuppering their chances of securing a third six or tenancy. Their advice was grounded in pragmatism and an understanding of the situation on the ground.
There’s a lot to unpick in this section and there’s no easy answer.
Do I think anyone should have to hide mental health difficulties on an application? No. Do I think they are justified in doing so? Probably, yes. Is there a possibility that declaring a mental health difficulty could result in a chambers viewing you in a negative light? Yes. Do I know what to do about this? Nope. But I’ve made some suggestions further down.
5. On privilege and pupillage applications
I’m glad that the Bar is increasingly having uncomfortable conversations that we need to be having about representation. The latest diversity data from the BSB shows we still have a long way to go.
Keeping in mind a low response rate on this question of just 52%, the data suggests that a disproportionate number of barristers attended a UK independent school between the ages of 11 to 18 (full disclosure, including me!)
While, in 2019, the data showed the greatest proportion of BAME pupils seen since the BSB commenced reporting in 2015, the picture is a little more complicated than that. Within the BAME category, there was a slightly greater proportion of Asian/Asian British practitioners at the Bar compared with our representation within the wider population (7.2%/6.2%). The same could be said for those with Mixed/Multiple ethnic backgrounds (3.2%/1.3%). The opposite pattern was found for those from Black/Black British backgrounds. (3.2%/3.7%).
While the response rate (53.7%), again, was too low to draw reliable conclusions, there may be a lower proportion of disabled practitioners at the Bar compared to the wider UK population.
There is an intersection between various underrepresented backgrounds and the impact on mental health. Whether we like it or not, the Bar does have a reputation for being an exclusive old boys’ club. The pupillage application process is intimidating enough without the added anxiety of wondering: ‘do I fit in?‘ ‘Is it because I’m not good enough or because of who I am?‘ ‘Why does no one here look like me?‘ ‘Which cutlery do I use at this Inn dinner!?‘
I can tell you as someone now at the Bar, that anxiety doesn’t go away. Imposter syndrome is rife. I have become hyper-aware of my skin colour in a way that, raised in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country, I had never been before.
Natasha Shotunde, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers, wrote in Counsel magazine about her experiences of imposter syndrome, which are very much tied up with her being a young, black woman from a single-parent family and a non-Oxbridge university. She says:
The Inns of Court are a great source of training and support. For someone like me, they can also make you feel like an outsider. A black male BPTC graduate, who is due to start pupillage in autumn 2019, told me: ‘During qualifying sessions I had the tendency to be over polite to Inn members of staff because I didn’t feel like I belonged there. This was probably reinforced by all the paintings and sculptures of old white men on the walls.’ For me, the biggest moment of ‘otherness’ was at an advocacy weekend when a retired judge asked if I was going to ‘go back to my country’ after I completed the BPTC (FYI, I am a born and bred Londoner).
There’s also another aspect to the privilege dimension that I hadn’t really thought about but which came to light during my research for this piece. I put out a plea on Twitter for men to get in touch with me to share their experiences given that most of the feedback I had received was from women. One man reached out to me, and I thank him for doing so. His insight threw light on a point of view that I hadn’t considered and which, admittedly, I wouldn’t have had much sympathy towards if I hadn’t had the opportunity to discuss the issue with him properly. For the purposes of this post, I’ll call him Ben*. For context, Ben is white and Oxbridge-educated.
Ben told me that there seems to be an expectation, unspoken or otherwise, that men – in a privileged position by virtue of being men – are somehow less affected by the stresses of the application process. Ben acknowledges that the pupillage system has its fundamental flaws. There are certain candidates who have an advantage because of various structural privileges. But because the system is weighted in favour of candidates with profiles like his, there seems to be a perception that men should not complain. “The reality is that you feel the same stress and anxiety,” he tells me. “But by virtue of a bent system, it is more taboo to speak to those pressures or even acknowledge them with the same force.”
Ben points out that what follows from this line of thinking is that if he does fail, the failure feels more crippling because he has tried to succeed in a system which is weighted in his favour. I can’t disagree with this. A candidate who has overcome various obstacles to reach the Bar would rightly be called exceptional. A candidate who has had every opportunity afforded to them but doesn’t succeed would be considered average or mediocre in comparison.
The relationship between privilege and mental health is an interesting one. As a society, I think we are starting to learn that mental health issues can affect absolutely anyone, irrespective of their circumstances or their material wealth. Of course, inequalities arise in other senses; someone without the money to access private therapy is hit harder than someone with the resources to take care of themselves. Someone who can afford to take time out of work to recover at home does not have the same experience as someone who is forced to continue working because they have mouths to feed.
I’m not trying to create a false equivalence here between privilege and underprivilege. They aren’t the same. For instance, there is a demonstrable relationship between poverty and mental ill-health. I’m not trying to diminish the particular struggles of those with mental ill-health who are also at the intersection of different structures of oppressions such as race and class. I’m not saying Ben has it worse than those who don’t benefit from the privilege that he has (and I don’t think he is either). But if we aren’t aware that mental health could be suffered by anyone, we risk feeding into a damaging narrative about the ‘deserving’ mentally unwell. How often have we heard: “what do you have to be anxious/depressed about?” And how often has that pushed someone, already reluctant to talk about their struggles, further into the shadows?
I can only speculate on the reasons why more men haven’t contacted me for this piece. But if the reasons are that they feel pressure to be particularly stoic or that they will face criticism or backlash for expressing worry or anxiety, I hope that they read this and know that certainly I don’t think that’s true.
It seems to me that some part of Ben feels bad for even saying what he is to me. But he shouldn’t feel bad. Of course he would feel anxious about the pupillage application process. Of course he shares the same fear as so many others that his future is hanging in the balance. He’s only human.
“There’s no privileged pain. Only pain. No privileged death. No privileged depression. No privileged suicide. Your schooling and gender and class don’t make pain less. Sure, privilege can help you get help for your mental (and physical) state, but pain is pain. We are humans.” – Matt Haig, author and mental health advocate
WHAT CAN WE DO BETTER?
Don’t reject by silence
I’m saying this really loudly for the people at the back: there is no excuse for rejecting by silence. Busy schedules aside, it does not take a great deal to set aside an hour or so to put together a sensitive rejection email and send it out en masse to unsuccessful candidates. Applicants should not be waiting around to hear from chambers. They should not be finding out they were unsuccessful on online forums when others get their offers.
“I… applied to many Manchester and Liverpool Chambers and wasn’t offered one interview, but equally didn’t receive one rejection either. This caused me so much anxiety because I was on egg shells for weeks and still haven’t had any feedback to help me improve.” – Anonymous pupillage applicant
Offer general feedback which can be published on chambers’ website to all candidates
I’m trying to be pragmatic. Offering personalised feedback to every single candidate is likely to be a pipe dream. But there are other solutions here.
Shout out to 5 Essex Court; since 2012, they have published yearly reports on their process for selecting pupils. These aren’t just a few generic comments which aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. They break down the first round ‘paper sift’ and explain the criteria against which the paper applications are judged. In 2019, for the first time, they removed details of the applicant’s university before the form was marked. The 2019 report then analyses first and second round interviews, including the questions that candidates were asked; what the pupillage committee was looking for in the responses; and what weaker responses looked like. Impressive, huh?
Transparency around what chambers are looking for
One person told me that she has been told after applying that she just doesn’t “fit” what the chambers is looking for. Nebulous comments like this really aren’t helpful and chambers should make an effort to explain to candidates what a good “fit” would look like.
I’ll give an honourable mention here to St Mary’s Chambers in Nottingham: the year I applied for pupillage, St Mary’s published a Pupillage Policy with a clear breakdown of what it is that they’re looking for in their candidates at the Pupillage Gateway stage: a points-based system with different points awarded for different criteria such as academic excellence, work ethic and commitment to the Bar. (St Mary’s is not recruiting this year but this is the most up-to-date policy I was able to find). Certainly for me, that transparency was very helpful so that I could identify any gaps in my application and plug them.
Pre- and post-application mental health support
There needs to be some element of emotional support/skill-building for pupillage candidates. This could be offered through the Inns of Court or through BPTC providers. We need to teach applicants how to cope with failure and how to mitigate the impact on their sense of self-worth of not getting pupillage.
The specialist Bar associations and other organisations (e.g. Women in Family Law, Young Barristers’ Committee, Association of Disabled Lawyers, Young Legal Aid Lawyers etc) should consider hosting small groups or ‘safe space’ meetings where pupillage applicants can ‘debrief’ during pupillage application season. Being able to share negative experiences of the application process with others would allow applicants to build a sense of solidarity and to combat isolation during an incredibly difficult period.
Extension to 5-year deadline
My tentative view is that there should be a blanket 1-year extension to the 5-year deadline. This isn’t a flawless solution. Inevitably, some candidates will be more affected than others, but I think it would simply be too messy and inconsistent to consider individuals on a case-by-case basis to see whether their circumstances merit a year’s grace.
I acknowledge that 9 sets within Gateway isn’t an enormous figure. But these are unprecedented times. Applying for pupillage is difficult enough without the world being in the grip of a pandemic which has completely transformed our day to day lives. Let’s give pupillage applicants a break.
Some people have pointed out to me that the BSB can grant an extension in appropriate cases anyway. While it’s right that candidates can seek a dispensation from the Bar Standards Board if they’re coming up to the 5-year limit, I think it is far less anxiety-inducing to know that the year’s leeway exists rather than relying on the possibility (but not guarantee) of a dispensation being granted.
As an aside, I’m not convinced of the need for a 5-year limit anyway. The BPTC is wildly, shamefully expensive. Pupillage candidates have often made significant financial sacrifices to be able to do the BPTC. The prospect of the 5 years lapsing and that money going to waste is not a pleasant one. The stress of an impending deadline will not be doing prospective pupils or their mental health any favours.
This could be the subject of a whole different post but I found it interesting that someone commented on Twitter that a similar time limit for aspiring solicitors between completion of the LPC and obtaining a training contact was scrapped. That person had had a trainee with a significant time period between LPC and training contract and this was the advice given to them by the SRA. I was told that the reason for the time limit being scrapped was because of indirect sex discrimination (e.g. women taking time out of work to have children). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a source for this and the SRA call centres are currently closed, so please do treat this with a pinch of salt (or write to me/comment if you can direct me to a source!)
I think the indirect discrimination point is a very interesting one and I wrote a mini-rant on Twitter about it. Ultimately, the people who are disadvantaged by a 5-year limit are not going to be the very privileged. Those with enough money to retake the BPTC aren’t going to be affected by the rule. The sorts of people who will be affected, as I point out in my Twitter comments, would be: women who want to take time out to have children; those who find themselves with unexpected caring responsibilities; those from underprivileged backgrounds without the benefit of robust careers advice who didn’t know about the scholarship application process or the difficulty of getting pupillage so they went straight into the BPTC and might need some time to get their ducks in a row; those who can’t do long stretches of unpaid legal work that would look good on their CV because they actually have to support themselves.
In brief, my point is this: the BSB is assuming a huge amount of privilege on the part of pupillage applicants that they can apply for 5 straight years without the pressure of other factors.
Encouraging candidates to be forthcoming about any conditions or circumstances which may be relevant to their application
This is a tricky one and I don’t have a solution. The onus is ultimately on chambers to ensure that their candidates feel empowered to be entirely forthcoming to them. If applicants are unable to be forthcoming, those chambers need to take a hard look at themselves and ask: why?
Even if in a hypothetical utopia, all candidates felt safe and able to declare any mental health conditions on an application form, how can we be confident that chambers will respond appropriately? I’ve written previously about the pressure on lawyers to be perfect. To some members of the Bar, barristers are supposed to be emotionally invulnerable and any suggestion of mental health difficulties might be an indication that they are simply not robust enough for the Bar (which is just not true). Applicants need to feel confident that chambers do not dismiss them out of hand because of any mental health difficulties. Pupillage committees need robust training on supporting candidates with disabilities (I’m unclear what training exists at the moment); on responding sensitively to issues being raised in application forms; and on striking the right balance between encouraging someone to speak and pressuring them.
Any thoughts on this particular issue would be very welcome. Without a wholesale transformation of the way in which society perceives mental health, I can’t see obvious solutions.
Please don’t invite candidates to interview by accident and then revoke their interview offer.
This is careless and it is really not on. You’ve probably read the horror stories on the internet (see here, here and here). I can’t imagine the devastating impact of being told that oops, chambers made a mistake and we actually don’t want you.
It could be because of issues with the notoriously user-unfriendly Pupillage Gateway, but whatever the reason – extra care needs to be taken to make sure this does not happen. How can we demand excellence in our candidates or keep banging on about the importance of barristers having a meticulous eye for detail when we can’t demonstrate it ourselves?
“Some Chambers have issued both rejections and invitations to interview emails, followed by an email to retract the interview which was sent out mistakenly. I can appreciate that this is usually due to a problem with Chambers navigating Pupillage Gateway however, it can negatively affect your mental health because you’re provided with a ray of hope which is taken away from you, leaving you with the initial impression being you’re not good enough.” – Anonymous pupillage applicant
As I said, this has been a mammoth post and I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of an incredibly broad set of issues. I haven’t been able to include absolutely everything that was shared with me. But I hope that this prompts conversations about the duties we owe to those entering the profession.
There are so many little things that we can do as a profession to make prospective pupils’ lives a little easier. To pupillage committees, I would ask: put yourself in your candidates’ shoes. What would make you anxious in their position? What support would you have appreciated? What do you wish others would have done when you were trying to become a barrister?
Then try and do it.
*not their real name
One thought on “We need to talk about mental health and pupillage applications (Guest Post)”
This is a really great piece and an important, sobering read – thank you for sharing it. Although different as noted, lots of parallels to reflect on in relation to training contract applicants too.