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Covid-19 and exam chaos: How chambers can help the next generation

With the pandemic, A-level results, and BPTC exam nightmares impacting aspiring barristers, just how are chambers adapting their pupillage assessment and recruitment policies to obtain the best talent in the years ahead?

To say that aspiring barristers have had a hard time of it in 2020 would be something of an understatement. The Covid-19 virus has led to some financially hit chambers – some struggling even before to the pandemic hit – pausing their pupillage intakes for this year and, potentially, even next year, too.

The government’s mishandling of students’ A-level grades led to an approximately 40% of final results being downgraded after the exams regulator used an algorithm to determine grades based on schools’ previous years’ results. This has resulted in some law students, including those from state schools, failing to obtaining places in their preferred universities.

Law graduates haven’t got off lightly in 2020 either. The recent BPTC exam chaos saw Bar students unable to access their online assessments or even go to the toilet if they were taking their tests remotely rather than in an assessment centre.

All in all, 2020 has been the perfect storm for the Bar’s next generation of advocates, with the impact likely to be be felt for years to come. The impact  may be especially acute for those from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds. So just how are chambers reacting to the impact of the pandemic and various exam debacles on their recruitment of future talent, especially when so many sets are trying to improve the diversity of their member?

To answer this question, fivehundred spoke with representatives from the publicly-funded and commercial Bars to ascertain how sets are adapting their pupillage assessment and recruitment policies and also provide some top tips on obtaining pupillage in the months and years ahead.

Genevieve Reed, Red Lion Chambers
Access to this profession can seem prohibitively expensive to many and although being self-employed has its benefits it can also feel financially precarious and uncertain. This has always been the case, but the current pandemic has put those issues under the microscope. There was already a concern that the pandemic would negatively affect access to the profession but the current BPTC and A-level debacles will have further compounded those issues. It is no coincidence that there was a rise in applications for teacher training this summer, as young people look for a stable profession.

Aspiring barristers already do so much in preparation for their pupillage applications and there is no reason why their chances of obtaining pupillage should be negatively impacted by the current issues. The real concern is that the pandemic and exam debacle will deter good candidates and further erode access to the profession. The onus is on us to ensure that this does not happen. As a profession we have done some recent introspection about the lack of diversity in our profession and what we can do to change this but we need to double our efforts to counteract the effects of the most recent issues.
Chambers can look at their recruitment policies and consider whether, for example, it is necessary to require candidates to supply their A-level results.

My chambers no longer ask for A-level results on pupillage applications. It was a small change but made a big difference to our paper sift and helped us to interview a more representative pool of candidates. We also have an extenuating circumstances box on every form which candidates can use to explain why they have not, for example, achieved a particular mark in an assessment. This could be used by candidates who, in the years to come, want to explain their BPTC results or other associated issues.

This goes someway to assisting those negatively affected by the pandemic and the A-level and BPTC debacle, but this is not enough, and we need to continue to find creative ways to support aspiring barristers access the profession.

My chambers are in the process of organising a virtual seminar on pupillage applications. This will be open to anyone who wishes to join, and its aim is to assist aspiring barristers with tips and tricks for their applications and the interview process. It is an attempt to demystify the process and create a more level playing field for candidates. This will, we hope, help to improve access to the profession.

To aspiring barristers: it sounds trite to say but this is a very supportive profession. Many barristers have already been actively involved in challenging the poor conditions and other issues facing BPTC students with their online assessments.

If you ask for help, you will always find at least one barrister who will offer their support and guidance: contact one of the Inns of Court who can match you with a mentor or reach out on Twitter, you will be surprised at the amount of support you will get.

Lots of chambers are running online events now which allows more people to attend and engage and learn. These are good opportunities to get an insight into chambers ahead of any applications.

Sanaz Saifolahi, Goldsmith Chambers
I am a tenant at Goldsmith Chambers and I specialise in immigration, asylum, and human rights law. The pandemic has had a severe effect on the justice system. Financial pressures and court closures have had a significant impact upon chambers, the Bar and, as a consequence, on the future of the Bar; those hoping to secure pupillage. I have, therefore, put together my top tips for applicants aiming to secure pupillage:

Check in with your mindset: Work ethic
Work hard academically and supplement your academic success with work experience; whether it is unpaid, voluntary work, internships, work within a solicitors’ firm, paralegal work, mini-pupillages, marshalling or other jobs/paid work that you can use to demonstrate that you have a ‘can-do’ attitude and leadership skills. All of this experience can help develop your confidence and stamina. Your experience is valid no matter how limited you may think it is. Value it. There is bound to be something within a role that enhanced your communication, leadership, and social skills.

Some opportunities will be dramatically reduced due to the pandemic. Use your research skills base to check what is being offered via home working/remote means.

Confidence, determination, persistence, and self care
Aside from being incredibly rewarding and, in my opinion, the best job that there is, this career is very demanding and is very hard work. Obtaining pupillage is the start of this journey. You may need a few tries before you obtain pupillage. I had one pupillage offer out of 12 applications. Try to keep going and fill in any gaps in time with more work experience. There is no rush: the additional skills that you acquire will help you in the future and experience is normally always a good thing. Your time will come. Be determined, be confident, and keep going. Look after yourself along the way. Your wellbeing is central.

Network, be social, and try to keep developing your communication skills
The Inns offer a lot of socials and events where you can meet barristers and enter competitions and there are various debating and mooting opportunities. Join a relevant committee focusing on an area of law you are interested in, for example the Bar Human Rights Committee is open to law students. Some universities offer mentoring schemes. If they don’t, why don’t you set one up? I am a mentor for the University of Warwick Bar Society.

These schemes and events can be helpful as a means of inspiring you and offering you guidance. In addition, these events can offer you an opportunity to work on your communication skills. Some events are still taking place via remote means at the moment. Take the opportunities you find and if you don’t find them create them for yourself and others.

As far as you can, surround yourself with those who inspire you, believe in you, and nourish your dreams
Positivity creates positivity. But most of all, believe in yourself, who you are, and what you can do and offer.

Rosalind Phelps QC, Fountain Court Chambers
Securing a pupillage is as fiercely competitive as ever. But many of the top sets, including Fountain Court, are acutely conscious of the need to ensure diversity among new tenants and are therefore taking steps to broaden the pool of potential applicants. This includes the new Mentoring Scheme for Underrepresented Groups at the Commercial Bar, an exciting new programme in which those interested in a career as a commercial barrister are paired with an individual mentor at a commercial set. Fountain Court will also be participating in Bridging the Bar, another mentoring scheme set up by a new charity to encourage greater diversity across the bar.

One of the important qualities we look for in a prospective pupillage applicant is an understanding of, and interest in, our work. We understand that those without existing connections in the law may well have had less opportunity than others to build up this sort of knowledge base. That is why arrangements such as the mentoring schemes are so important in levelling the playing field for future applicants.

My advice to anyone considering becoming a commercial barrister is to take advantage of mentoring and mini-pupillage schemes in order to better understand what commercial law really involves. That can only improve the credibility of any subsequent pupillage application but, just as importantly, it will give you sense of what work you might enjoy doing in the future.

2020 has of course been a very disrupted year for A-level and GCSE exam results. We have yet to see quite how this disruption will play out but I currently do not expect that we will need to change our pupillage selection criteria. Chambers requires evidence of academic and intellectual ability but we tend to look to university examination results rather than A-levels or GCSEs in the first instance.

Almost all of our successful applicants are able to demonstrate that they have achieved first class results at some stage of their university career; below par A-level results in 2020 are most unlikely to hamper a candidate who is otherwise able to meet this standard.

Paul Fisher, 4 New Square
As a barrister from what might be regarded as a non-traditional background, I can personally vouch for and am proud of the fact that at 4 New Square our objective is to recruit the best talent regardless of background and with an acute focus on merit. I was educated at a comprehensive school in South Wales and had no one in my family with experience of the legal profession. Much like my colleagues, I am very aware of the need for the commercial Bar to do more to reach out to future talent by breaking down some of the barriers to entry (perceived or real) in our profession.

If your starting point when considering the commercial Bar is to say to yourself ‘I don’t “look” like a barrister’, then you need to think again. The phrase ‘non-traditional background’ is somewhat misleading, in my opinion. The commercial Bar is changing at pace and ‘traditions’ are fast being disrupted – which is a good thing. There is no single ‘type’ of individual that renders them ideal for our kind of work. Successful barristers come in all shapes and sizes, from all sorts of backgrounds.

At 4 New Square, our recruitment committee is focused on doing all it can to improve social mobility at the Bar at all stages of a potential tenant’s decision-making, from school right through to pupillage.

Firstly, before a potential applicant even applies to chambers, we are supporting a number of social mobility schemes that seek to provide greater insight into work at the commercial Bar for those from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds. These include the Bar Placement Week, Inner Temple Pegasus Access Scheme, and Oxford Pathways to Law.

Secondly, chambers is keen to ensure that students have the opportunity to undertake quality work experience with our barristers despite the obstacles 2020 has created. Since the onset of Covid-19, we have provided a number of two-day remote mini-pupillages which allow those interested in the Bar and our work to speak with members of chambers and to undertake work on real cases. This way students can get a taste of what life is like at the Bar despite the current circumstances and make sure that they get those all-important mini-pupillages down on their future applications.

Chambers is also a founding member of Bridging the Bar, which seeks to provide future talent from a diverse range of backgrounds with experience of the profession, particularly through mini pupillages. It is exactly this sort of contact with the profession that helps to improve access: giving potential candidates from a diverse range of backgrounds the opportunity to envisage what their working day will be like, in the absence of family networks in the law. We are also keen to promote our pupillage podcasts which are designed specifically for the purpose of making our profession more accessible to those without family contacts or prior networks in legal London.

Thirdly, we want to make sure that when students apply to us we are effectively identifying future practitioners through our application process. Chambers uses the Rare contextual recruitment system, which allows us to see students’ achievements in context by using various indices so that at the recruitment stage we do not overlook the particular quality of an applicants’ achievements when set in the context of their specific circumstances. Rare have also recently added a feature that flags any A-level, GCSE, or university results that may have been impacted by Covid. In addition, to make sure that it is not focusing too much on CVs, chambers undertakes a blind written assessment on top of interviews, which consists of a piece of work that does not require any pre-existing legal knowledge.

Finally, once a student finds themselves in the position of obtaining pupillage with us, we continue our general approach which is to ensure flexibility and fairness having regard to the specific circumstances of the pupil. Chambers is particularly concerned to ensure that wellbeing of all members, including our pupils, is given proper attention. We are also very keen to make sure that new pupils are introduced to the modern Bar, which is absolutely committed to adjusting to childcare and caring responsibilities and we will provide adjustments to assessment processes where that is required.

Obviously, we have had to respond to events since March by ensuring that remote working is facilitated, giving each pupil support with IT set-up, resourcing and regular video reviews/meetings with clerks and members of chambers. The key thing for any potential applicant is to know that support is there. Life at the Bar is demanding, but the support networks exist to reach down and give you a helping hand if and when you need it.

In short, 4 New Square invests a great deal of time considering how best to advance social mobility at the commercial Bar because we want to recruit the best and brightest regardless of background. In any event, diversity and social mobility will only help to promote the wider objectives of our profession: objectives that we are absolutely committed to playing our part in fulfilling.

You can learn more about social mobility at the Bar at The Legal 500 Podcast