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