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.


Now moved to http://pupillageandhowtogetit.wordpress.com/ for reasons of convenience and ease. Come and see.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

The Chance of Success

Pupillages and tenancies are being hurled around like confetti for those lucky few - to whom we (all of us being nice enough to rejoice in the joys of others) extend our congratulations: and the Bar is drawing its feelers in for the unlucky many.

These are interesting times - as most of you know, this is an ancient Chinese curse. Numbers of pupillages are down - it looks to be by about 50 when non-Olpas Chambers are factored in. Thus, there may be 450+ pupillages on offer, but it won't be many more and could well be many less - perhaps as few as 410. This is a drop of about 140 in 3 years. Meanwhile, the Wood report suggests that there were about 3,700 applicants for the last year in which figures were available.

The difficulty is that existing practices have more of a voice than practices-to-be. Theoretically, everyone can agree that people not doing so well ought not to hold back brilliant and worthy new arrivals. It's dog eat dog and the weak go to the wall. In reality, it's hard to say that to your room-mate. So, when the pressure is on - as it is at present with criminal and family fees down and the credit-crunch starting to bite - it's easy to decide that the best course is to let the current junior tenant consolidate their practice for a year. Net result, as Mr Micawber would say, misery.

This means you have to even better and luckier than previously. It is important not to think that you can't do it, just because you didn't get a pupillage this year. As usual there will be brilliant people who got in, brilliant people who didn't get in (fewer, but still there), good people who got in and who didn't (roughly even numbers) and some appalling choices which Chambers will come to regret, but it seemed good at the time.

There will also be a lot of people whose expectations were hugely inflated and who, frankly, were never going to get a pupillage even from their Mother. These people form a large proportion of applicants for any Chambers that I have ever heard from. They have indifferent academic qualifications for no good reason, they have done nothing of particular interest, they are often not terribly good at expressing themselves in writing or orally and display the range of vocabulary of a gnat. They are always terribly enthusiastic. I am afraid that they are wasting their time.

I have been banging on about this for a while now but the Wood report agrees, so it can be said again. The point is important because there is a risk that the no-hopers drag down the standard of teaching and discussion at the BVC, and they definitely screw up the statistics. In reality I reckon the chance of pupillage is not - as it appears to be statistically - about 1 in 8. Rather it is about 1 in 5 and maybe 4. These are still not great odds but they are a damn sight better than might be the case at first blush.

Before you go to the BVC, put your ambition aside and take a long, hard look at your abilities. Have you got really good results? If not, why not? Can you name a single achievement - of any kind - that stands out? When you measure yourself against the person you think is bound to succeed are you up there with that person? If not, think hard. You are about to spend a lot of money and it may be without any prospect of return. Alternatively, find a barrister and ask them to tell you truthfully whether they can see you succeeding.

Then go to work on your English. Learn a word a day. Practice actually writing; learn where to put an apostrophe; eliminate exclamation marks. Express yourself as simply as possible consistent with what you wish to say - contrary to what seems to be the view of many, it is not impressive use of English to adopt an orotund and prolix manner of expression. Such methods tend to put you in the pompous and boring bracket of a discriminating reader.

I am not trying to discourage people unduly. But the BVC is becoming cluttered - and I use the word advisedly - with those who will not succeed, ever. For those who are not in the market for a UK pupillage that is not a problem. For everyone else it is and a bit of realism would not go amiss.


Swiss Tony said...


Welcome back from your hols, suitably refreshed and raring to go.

Excellent advice as usual. I hope I fit into either of the first two categories, brilliant or good, and not the latter. (I am sure my Mother would give me a Pupillage if she could, so hopefully I am not in the losers group)

I am now off to learn a new word every day.


Mel said...

I once determined to read the dictionary. I don't think I made it past aardvark.

I also would like to think that I fit into the good category, rather than the woefully deluded. I'm missing something in interviews though, not quite able to 'sell myself effectively'.

Just on the basis of anecdotal evidence, it seems that an ounce of confidence can be worth a pound of ability when it comes to the Bar, or rather it seems that candidates who are strong, able, and dedicated seem to hamper themselves with over thinking and lack of confidence.

I'm not sure how you'd go about deflating the big egos and pumping up the good candidates at the same time though.

Matt said...

Welcome back Simon - good advice as per usual.

At present I can't really comment on the BVC, as my induction session is not for several weeks yet, but I will be very interested in how many students really stand no chance.

I like to think that I've got adequate academics and experiences (plus a scholarship) to put me in the 'good' category - but I'm still terrified that I'm just not 'good' enough!

Keep up the good work, it's very much appreciated.

Anonymous said...


What do you think Chambers use as a benchmark for brilliant? I've been looking at current tenants at top sets, and it is terrifying how many of them won Gibbs prizes/were proxime accessit in finals!

Many were my friends at Oxford (I'm behind the curve in getting to the Bar) and I know they didn't do anything extra-curricular, except perhaps more study!

I worked throughout my degree to fund it (nights, weekends, vacations); I ran the College Ball; debated for my university; and I was elected to the student union. I got a first, but no prizes for any of my papers.

Am I in trouble? Is there anything I can do to rectify the situation on the GDL?

Bar Boy said...

With the baby boomer generation now heading for retirement, senility, whatever, is there a view over whether the need for new entrants will increase over the next decade ? Only 400 per annum hardly seems worth the effort and will such a small number sustain the Bar in the years ahead when, I presume, there will be a peak in the number of retirements etc.

Anonymous said...

Surely 'practise actually writing' ;)

Simon Myerson said...

On the basis that practice is the verb (rather than writing), yes. I shall leave it uncorrected to aid humility...

Mr Pineapples said...

Folks need to read more - to get used to seeing words, sentences and paragraphs. To digest them so they become a part of the very fibre of being.

Hey Simone...

why not give a list of books every aspiring pupil must read - so that the good grammar, vocabluary and creative verbal dexterity comes bubbling out like a mountain stream.

Tell them to watch "Big Brother" - and remind them that this is what they are really like - then give them the big list of books next to a picture of yourself - with the caption "Read these books and this is what you will become".


Julia said...

Anonymous - your CV is fine. If I were you I'd be more worried about my judgement.

Pupil Bean said...

Hi Simon. Good to have you back. I realise Mr P's probably being a bit tongue in cheek, but I would really appreciate a recommended reading list. A bit 6th former ish I know....


Anonymous said...

I don't know if one can ever be entirely clear cut with pupillage and the bar, but my instinctive reaction is that this post runs the danger of dispiriting genuinely well qualified candidates such as anonymous above.

A nice positive note to end, would be to state that if you have the desire and perseverance, you will make it in the end.

"...a bit of realism would not go amiss". That's a fair starting point, in that it helps you properly define the reality of what you may lack, and what you may have to do, or give up, to compensate for that weakness. But one must remember that you can still define that reality by your own actions.

It's not like the weather - its within your own sphere of influence.

nin said...

Of course it is within a candidate’s sphere of influence to improve his or her prospects; however I've met an awful lot of aspiring barristers with the 'desire and perseverance' who have not made the grade. I don't think that Simon would be doing anyone a favour in sugar coating this fact. Doesn’t everyone embarking on the BVC believe that they have the 'desire and perseverance' to succeed?

The danger is that many candidates delude themselves that they will secure pupillage if they are determined enough, when they simply are not suited to the bar.

I remember going to an introductory evening at my Inn – we were told to look around the room, less than 1/4 of us would make it into practice. I can only imagine that every single person in the room was sitting there in the belief that they were one of that magic number.

If I’m honest I embarked upon the BVC confident that I would secure pupillage at a decent set without too much difficulty – first class degree, post-graduate qualifications, previous academic prizes, a merit based scholarship from my Inn, substantial legal work experience and a current career as a lecturer. I did secure pupillage, however I had grossly underestimated how difficult it would be and was offered far less interviews than I had anticipated. The harsh reality is that there were simply many other candidates who had qualifications to match or to better mine.

Many of my peers at bar school (and many of my students) have had a nasty, nasty shock when it came to OLPAS – most are reasonably able and are eager to succeed. Two or three rounds of OLPAS later, many of them are forced to accept that they are amongst the 3/4 of candidates who are perhaps not going to make it into practice.

The best advice I can give to a prospective candidate is not to start the BVC without entering the OLPAS season before the course begins. If you are not getting short-listed for interview, then I'd suggest having a very long hard think before punting £14k on the BVC - you'd have better odds at the bookies.

The 50-Year-Old Pupil said...

I trust that Bar Boy will not win a pupillage until he has attended some diversity training.

The 50-Year-Old Pupil said...

"Practice actually writing; learn where to put an apostrophe; eliminate exclamation marks" ... and semicolons!

Simon Myerson said...

I'm afraid I think the post has the tone correct. There is no right to succeed simply because you persevere and desire success. I have met a lot of people who have the desire and persevere almost depressingly hard, but a skin like a rhino is no substitute for talent. Per contra (apologies for pre-Woolf talk) people of real ability who are put off by this are probably too fragile to make it.

I think the first Anon will be ok. Part of the difficulty is that questions such as this one relate to about 8 set of Chambers in London. As I genuinely had no desire to join them I cannot help save to say 2 things. Firstly, some of the nicest people I have met at the Bar come from those sets. Secondly, although many of them are very bright I have never yet met one whose advocacy made me think I wasn't good enough, or that such Chambers produced exceptional advocates (although there are certainly exceptional advocates amongst their number. The first time I saw Sumption was a revelation). So my advice is to look for law where the advocacy and practical advice skills make the difference, rather than pure intellect.

I have actually posted about books before - http://pupillageandhowtogetit.blogspot.com/2007/09/miscellany-at-law.html. In terms of books which will improve your use of English etc I'm afraid you need to think classics. But, even if you don't enjoy Dickens and Trollope it needn't be dull - PG Wodehouse wrote beautifully. So did Graham Greene. So, for that matter, did Richmal Crompton (William). Or get something published by Persephone who include literary merit in their criteria.

A semi-colon is perfectly legitimate when independent clauses are not conjoined with a coordinating conjunction. Gosh, that's interesting.

Lost said...

I always thought going to the bar was about being the best and brightest.

This was not always the case though. I have heard from other barristers that the best advocates from their chambers would barely make it today, if it was all about results, prizes and what degree they received.

What was actually said was that these amazing advocates would have "barely made it past the shop floor at tescos".

Thanks Simon though for the information, it seems that obtaining a pupillage is going to be a lot harder, the profession is going to get smaller and therefore before applying we are going to have to make ourselves out as though we don't need any training.

Julia said...

Simon is spot on as ever. Anonymous (the last one to post...) it is idiotic to tell Simon what a "nice positive note to end on" would be. The whole point of his post is that there are (patently, given the statistics), a LOT of people out there who think that if they believe in themselves, they WILL achieve their dreams, regardless of their talent or lack of it...the problem is that although this might be a nice comforting thought it doesn't reflect reality. Although I can hold a tune I would be ill-advised to invest thousands in a pop career when there are many more people after a pop career than there are opportunities, and most of those people are a lot better than I am...this is reality and I just have to accept it, people telling me to "REACH FOR THE STARS!" and encouraging me to shell out £20,000on recording equipment etc would be doing me the worst disservice imaginable.

Andy Stone said...

Excellent stuff as ever. I'd be interested to hear Simon's view on the recent Wood report: although rather underwhelming in its vision I thought that the pre-BVC aptitude test recommendation would go some way to addressing the key problems highlighted here.

During mini-pupillages this summer I did have a couple of relevant observations. Firstly a seasoned pro suggested that he'd seen two traits present in every barrister he'd ever met: high intelligence, and self-delusion. I guess the point he was trying to make was that the odds of getting to the Bar are so slim you have to be delusional to give it a shot in the first place, however good you are. This combined with Simon's position gives us an interesting predicament: not only must we attempt the logically impossible by trying to work out whether we are delusional or not, we must then decide whether we are the 'right kind' of delusional. Hmm.

Secondly, it strikes me that the unenthusiastic, terrible or not, stand absolutely no chance whatsoever of making it and therefore the one question I have with respect to the article is this: why mention 'terribly enthusiastic' when it isn't really a differentiator?

Julia said...


I really think you could do with a post on the differences between different pupillages and the relative difficulty of attaining them, or "the importance of pitching yourself correctly". I think your blog is brilliant but the one tweak I would make is that you refer to "pupillage" as if a pupillage is a pupillage is a pupillage. The reality, of course, is that it is easier to get into some sets than others, and many people every year who could quite easily have got a pupillage SOMEWHERE fail simply because they have assumed they will get into a top London set and confined their applications to these sets. I think the difficulty of getting "a pupillage", i.e. ANY pupillage, is overstated...people start saying they will never get into a regional criminal set because they don't have a starred first from Oxbridge etc...and then when someone not from Oxbridge with a 2.1 gets a pupillage, ANYWHERE, he/she is hero-worshipped to a slightly ridiculous degree! The word "pupillage" needs to be broken down in my view...

Simon Myerson said...


Good thought. On the assumption that you are the same person as on TSR (minus the grandmotherly bit) - or even if you aren't - write me a post. You can send it to me via a false name if you like (although I will keep your identity confidential anyway).

Julia said...

I am, spouting off as ever :)

Well I guess I talked myself into that, though I think you can speak with a hell of a lot more authority than I can! I will see what I can do by the end of the week!

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