This blog represents my views and opinions. They are not necessarily those of any other member of my Chambers, none of whom contribute to the blog, or assist me with it.


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Sunday, 1 July 2007

M.A.s and Other Further Academic Degrees

This seems to be a big issue out there in the real world. I claim no real expertise - Cambridge gives you a free MA if you can stay alive for 3 years after you graduate. Maybe they feel that surviving the college food qualifies you for something. I went back with a group of my friends in gorgeous June weather (an ironic thought as my garden is currently 6 inches underwater and the dog's rubber duck is floating serenely under my study window). It was so nice by the river, drinking beer that there was a serious discussion as to whether the ceremony was worth going to.

However, in those far-off days the Bar was expanding. Nowadays people are looking for an edge and there is much debate about whether an MA provides it.

I have done some research on this and there are some clear conclusions. Unfortunately, they are the ones you could probably guess for yourself. Firstly, if you can do something like the BCL, or go to Harvard or the Sorbonne it helps. I suspect that is more because of what such qualifications say about your intellect than about what you learn on the degree course itself. If you want to go to one of the top commercial sets then you will either need such a degree or you need to have the top first in your year.

However, from there on down, there are no indications that having an MA is of material assistance. At middle ranking commercial sets, top criminal sets and top family sets the only MAs in sight are Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, The Sorbonne etc. And, even then, they are few and far between. The picture is the same at top provincial sets - if you get the chance to do the BCL etc then do it. Otherwise, given the number of people who do not have one, an MA does not seem to be an issue.

If one looks at poor sets (no names - it's more than my life is worth) then an MA is equally absent as a distinguishing mark.

Those findings match my own views and those of other people at the Bar to whom I have spoken. An MA, unless it speaks for you own intellectual prowess or (just possibly) it is bang on the money in terms of the area of law in which you wish to practice, is not going to get you a pupillage.

That isn't to say don't do it. The acquisition of knowledge for its own sake is one of humanity's noblest endeavours. If it helps you, interests you or answers a long felt need then by all means go ahead. Just don't expect it to give you an edge when you apply for pupillage.

I ought also to say that an MA - or any post-graduate degree - doesn't make you a better advocate either. Part of the problem today is that barristers are specialising too early. That means that those doing non-criminal and non-family work are not being trained in how to really get at a witness (unlike their Heads of Chambers, who almost invariably started off with a mixed practice). The net result is that whilst a lot of legal points are taken and Skeleton Arguments groan under the citation of authority for basic propositions, the actual business of extracting the facts and challenging the evidence is generally done better at the Criminal and Family bars than elsewhere. That, I am confident, will be a deeply unpopular view. Nevertheless, I hold it. Another post, another time...

As to what does give you an edge. It's still the usual (see below). A good degree; a good University; an interesting CV. In no particular order I list below some of the things that candidates did which made them stand out when I, or the people who I have consulted for this piece, interviewed them. These were things done after University, either because the people involved wanted a break or because they couldn't get a pupillage:

  • Worked for the guys in the USA who try and save death row prisoners
  • Qualified as a foreign lawyer
  • Spent a year working with earthquake victims in Armenia
  • Ran a Student Union
  • Lectured in law


Law Minx said...

I'd like to think that I have an interesting background which has given rise to a reasonably interesting CV - but the only trouble is that OLPAS doesn't give the wannabe such as myself the chance to demonstrate these matters, unless they have the great good fortune to demonstrate this at interview. Doing the things you suggest are very very interesting and desirable things to do but ultimately they cost money which the vast majority of us sorts from the university of the sticks dont have, groaning as we are under the weight of student debt. A masters therefore seems like the cheapest and most viable alternative......

Simon Myerson said...

I agree the Olpas form is dire - although if you can stick your blog on there (thus compromising your anonymity I accept) you will do yourself a bit of good. But I don't think an MA is fit for the purpose you want it to meet.


Law Minx said...

do you think, then, that there any alternatives on this front?-other than breaking an already broken bank to do the sort of things you suggest ??

Mr Pineapples said...

Did you say "lectured in law"? Is that what counts as interesting, dynamic, exciting and worthy?


Good grief - you are easily impressed.

Well - I know the chords to "WonderWall" - is that any good?

Oh - and the words - "Today is gonna be the day....."

Simon Myerson said...

Get a scholarship to do it - you can certainly do that for the earthquake thing and the death row thing. And if you lecture THEY will pay YOU.

Or work as a paralegal and aim for contacts. I just don't think the MA is worth it if it's only to help get a pupillage.

Simon Myerson said...

Depends what sort of lecturing. I would ask rather than guess. Anyway, dismissive comments about the people who produce lawyers are pretty thin stuff. Lecturing at a decent University demands skill, committment, professional knowledge and discipline - all of which are useful to a barrister. It's too easy to sneer. And too easy to dismiss people who fail to sneer as pompous.

Personally I would rather memorise Monty Python than Oasis. But both occupations tend to mark out their practitioners as sad and middle-aged. If so, that won't help you get a pupillage unless you have doen something else with your time. On the other hand - it does make you SOUND like a barrister...

Martin George said...

I'm glad to see Simon sticking up for academics.

I would tend to agree with your views on the perceived worth of an MA, although I do think it slightly tainted by the quaint Oxbridge notion of giving one for free if you wait a few years and pay 10 quid (and thus you think less of real ones). Those who go on to study for a specialised LLM at a top ten law school (and do well) should be given brownie points for doing so. I think it also rather simplistic to distinguish between a BCL and, for example, an LLM from the LSE simply because the former is studied at Oxford; it is a lazy distinction that tends only to be made by people who went to Oxford (and coincidentally sit on interview panels).

It's also interesting to note that people who lecture in law will invariably have a postgraduate degree, which is required by the university and one of the essential factors in gaining such a lectureship.

On to some questions then: if not an MA, what about a PhD? And what about being published (in the LQR, LMCLQ, whatever)? Are they factors above and beyond an MA that would lead you to offering someone pupillage?


Simon Myerson said...

A doctorate makes you an academic in my book. That certainly helps make you stand out. Whether it leads to pupillage depends on what we do compared to what you do.

A good LLM might (just) help. It would need to demonstrate exceptional academic ability though - too many MAs simply require you to have the money, which is why they aren't great currency.

Being published would help, providing it was on a topic that Chambers was interested in. Again, the journal would have to be a decent one.

Mr Pineapples said...

Middle aged? You what? Oasis are cutting edge youth culture.

Now ....where's me song-book

Simon Myerson said...

Isn't that spelled 'yoof'?

Union President said...

Which Students' Union, out of interest?

Anonymous said...

Having looked at the entry requirements for the BCL (a first class degree) and you are not getting interviews - then it would be your interview skills that need to be refined. I was not even aware that such a degree existed.

lawyer-2-be said...

Many of the things you suggest would indeed seem to be very worthy and would no doubt set individuals apart from the crowd. However, some of these opportunities will be very limited in number. Also, on a practical level, many students I know (and I imagine many of those who read and comment on your posts) are people with other commitments - family, mortgages, jobs, etc. It would no doubt be impossible for them to swan off to the USA to try and save death row prisoners or spend a year working with earthquake victims. What advice would you give to students who are not able to do many of these things, given that they may already be at a bit of a disadvantage due to their age? L2B :-)

Simon Myerson said...

Hmmm - more difficult. It may be that your previous life will have to speak for you. But I still don't think that an MA will help...

lawyer-2-be said...

I'd be interested to know how many of the pupils taken on by your chambers in the last 10 years have been truly 'unconventional' - ie those who are career changers later in life, or have families, etc. Do you have many applications from such people? Do they get interviews? Have applications of this type increased at all in recent years? L2B :-)

Simon Myerson said...

4 (out of 20). I think they are becoming more common and I favour it myself. I am happy to interview people who have done something else first. As you know, I think that it takes a certain emotional maturity to do the job well and people with previous careers are just as likely (perhaps more likely) to have what it takes.

Simon Myerson said...

4 (out of 20). I think they are becoming more common and I favour it myself. I am happy to interview people who have done something else first. As you know, I think that it takes a certain emotional maturity to do the job well and people with previous careers are just as likely (perhaps more likely) to have what it takes.

wayne jaggernauth said...

Maybe its my perception alone, but it appears to me that Chambers are expecting mautre applicants, who despite having a career before moving onto Law, to have completed a number of mini-pupillages, mooting, paralegal work, marshalling etc. I am not saying that mature applicants should be exempt from demonstrating a commitment to the Bar, but one ought to bear in mind that shifting careers mid-stream, especially into Law, in itself is evidence of commitment.

In my previous career I was a research engineer. I am about to complete a PhD in engineering that I pursued even whilst reading for the GDL and BVC. I have not had interviews as yet. Somewhere in between studying, and inventing, I should have done a mini-pupillage (I've just arranged a couple for later this year, and will be arranging marshalling etc, as time permits).

I've even considered doing a LLM degree, but at my age and financial debt, this is impractical. As I'm having an unusual whinge, I have even been applying for paralegal work. No joy on the legal related work front.

Do I need to hide my qualifications just so I could get basic legal work experience? Perhaps I have to. Whilst I have every confidence that I would eventually secure pupillage (no bets on when though), the financial pressures of having to repay my student loans are already here. What's a guy to do?

Prospects at the Employed Bar appear just as grim as the Independent Bar.

Simon Myerson said...


I don;t know what sort of law you're applying to do but if it's in the IT type field then try this guy - http://blog.geeklawyer.org/

wayne jaggernauth said...

Thank you Simon. I am interested in IP Law mainly, but contentious work involving technical subject matters (IT, construction,product liability, clinical negligence) also appeals to me. Having said that, there isn't an area of law that I would say is hands off. Its just a matter of liking one area of law more than another. I'm working on my own blog too, but I got to get my thesis done and submitted first [If you want to know all about replacing wires in cars with flexible printed circuits, I'm your guy!].

I'll add to the chorus of those reading your blog. Sometimes, all we need is a little encouragement and advice, and this blog certainly fills a void, or if I may indulge your honour, a lacuna. All the best.

The Chief said...


Thanks for your excellent blog, the sheer number of comments on each post show what a great resource this is. This post particularly set me thinking and I have come up with some belated stats which I have put up at http://publaw.blogspot.com/2007/08/pupillage-and-postgraduate.html

Any comments gratefully received. Sorry for this being such a late contribution, but it took a while to get round to gathering the info. I'm not sure that it really prooves anything, but do please let me know what you think.

Anonymous said...

'As to what does give you an edge. It's still the usual (see below). A good degree; a good University'

when you say a good university what unis would that include (like a top 10 list)

Aussie Girl said...

Hey Simon,

This blog is really useful, thanks.

Speaking of standing out, I completed the BVC in 2006 and the following October I moved to Queensland with my partner. After 4 months of searching unsuccessfully for legal work (they don't recognise the BVC here, or our law degree for that matter) I finally got a job in a legal committee of the Queensland Parliament. We (the committee) deal with any law reform in Queensland, constitutional and administrative law review (Information commissioner, Ombudsman, Judicial Review and FOI laws), as well as working to increase participation in democracy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Wow, this was a real steep learning curve, but it's great too, and after initially taking me on for 3 months to write a paper on the selection of Judges, they asked me to apply for a longer position, until Feb 2008, when I can apply again for the position to be extended.

I think my CV is ok as a circuit judge had vetted it for me (I have a min-pupillage, marshalled often with a circuit judge, solicitors, and I spent my spare time at, uni and beyond, with a local prosecutor in the Mags; all in the North East), I have a 2:1 (from Teesside Uni) and a VC from Northumbria, and I really believe that I can be a great barrister. I want to practice in the North East Circuit and I am focusing my applications to these sets, but I'm still getting rejections left, right and centre.

What more can I do? Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated!!

David said...

I've been reading this for a while and it really is an excellent resource. Just wondered, though, aside from the obvious 'top ten' masters (and I would dispute Sorbonne in that category), what about foreign institutions where you gain perhaps more than you would in the UK? Specifically, I am looking at the brand new LLM in International Legal Studies at the University of Vienna; in addition to obtaining an LLM, the chance for me to greatly improve my spoken languages would be invaluable. Is this a bad plan?

Many thanks for any suggestions!

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