An interesting debate has been going on and, since it is a topic which attracts much interest I thought I would redact the various comments and, using my privilege as blog owner, state my own views.
The points which came up for discussion were:

  • Whether the Bar give as much weight to degrees from universities other than Oxbridge (and perhaps a few others) as they undoubtedly do to Oxbridge degrees.
  • Whether Oxbridge candidates generally have an easier ride and are more likely to get pupillage nowadays.
  • If so, whether that is because Oxbridge demonstrates academic achievement, greater all-round skills (albeit possibly deriving from greater opportunity) or simply social acceptability.
  • Whether the Bar is doing enough to recognise these concerns, ascertain whether they are real or apparent, and if real, address them.
  • How the Bar measures academic ability and the value of A levels
  • Whether the Bar’s preoccupations are compatible with the government/society’s vision

I think that’s a fair summary…
Ok, my views: please note that these are personal only.
I think that the vast majority of Chambers give a 1st from anywhere a great deal of weight. I include ex-polys in that view. I’m not sure that Chambers have a process which weighs Oxbridge 1st against Leeds 1st against Reading 1st against John Moore’s 1st (examples picked at random) – mine certainly doesn’t. A 1st from anywhere says you are truly bright and will continue to do so, providing institutions do not start getting the reputation of making them easy.
As regards 2.1s I think that Oxbridge starts to count and it counts more the worse your degree is. That is firstly because it makes the job of selection simpler and people are attracted to that. But it also offers some support for the proposition that the final degree mark does not represent the best the candidate can do. At present, if you have a 2.2 from an ex-poly the chances of a pupillage are small enough to make the question of whether you should save your money and not do the BVC a real one.
There is no doubt that Oxbridge offers ‘added value’ when it comes to experiences and activities. They are big, rich institutions which have been ably led for a long time. And, employers (and Chambers) return year after year because the product is dependable. I think that means that if you want to get to the Bar via another university it may be necessary to try a little harder. And I also think that other universities should be establishing formal networks (the Oxbridge one is largely informal but that’s all that is required when so many people know each other or have mutual acquaintances).
In my view there is no doubt that there is a problem with the genuine advantage Oxbridge offers in terms of proof of a certain intellect and opportunity, being confused with the ‘done-deal’. It is only an advantage. For too many Chambers there is no need to look further – and that is really the social advantage that Oxbridge brings. In my view a positive effort is needed to eliminate that advantage. It is not based on rigorous analysis, but on sloppy thinking and a casual assumption that ‘people like us’ = ‘a good thing’. Wrong.
The Bar, in my far from humble opinion, is not doing anything like enough. The Speakers for Schools programme is an admirable initiative as I have previously said. But it is a slow burner. What I think is required is that Chambers should publish their criteria for pupillage and their bases of assessment. I believe that these should be expressed as competencies (which is an effing horrible word I accept, but one which has the benefit of clearly meaning what it says) and made available via OLPAS. There should also be a procedure by which scores can be obtained by the Bar Council (and perhaps by disappointed individuals) so that the workings of the system can be objectively assessed.
There are three objections to my proposal. Firstly, it is another layer of time and (less so) money heavy expenditure in a profession in which people do this voluntarily. I agree. But I see no other way of overcoming the problem and my own view is that the disadvantages are overcome by the advantages of a fair and transparent process which inspires public confidence. Particularly in times like these, when the Government is displaying itself at its most untrustworthy and devious (and I have been a Labour voter and member almost all my life) we could do with that.
Secondly, the selection of pupils is a private matter for Chambers. I agree. In principle I would be in favour of letting Chambers opt out – providing that the fact was clearly signified and that Chambers accepted that some organisations (perhaps Government and Local Authorities and the CPS) might legitimately chose to ignore people in those Chambers when it came to allocating work.
Thirdly, that competencies do not provide good advocates and lawyers. I largely, but not entirely, disagree. If that statement is true then it is only because no one has thought hard enough about what competencies are required – and if that is so how good is the current system? Competencies are only ways of describing what Chambers are looking for. It is right, of course, that some qualities can only be estimated (a much better word than ‘guessed at’). To that extent the wrong choices may be made. But so what? We have all met people who looked set for a bright future until they met Ms Chardonnay or Mr Glenfiddich. What this is about is setting a public standard which can be objectively assessed.
There would be no reason why Chambers could not define competencies that allowed a degree of ‘does s/he fit’ to be incorporated. But everyone would know, and if that factor was unduly weighed there would be some redress – even if only by publishing the fact. And people would need training, but again that is hardly an issue in a profession where 12 hours of continuing education a year is the maximum requirement for the majority of practitioners and where attending the Bar Conference (worthwhile as that is) gets you half way there.
In my view, some degree of ‘distance travelled’ should be incorporated into any competency requirements. I need to be careful to spare blushes here but I know two barristers. One went from a sink school to a good redbrick. The other went from a basic comp to Oxbridge. Both share the title of the quickest learners I have ever come across. The point is that educational attainment needs to be seen in context. At the moment we barely even try to do that.
I am suggesting no more than the system currently run for judicial appointment and silk. Those systems are often laughed at and I agree with that as well. But the reasons are not that the ideas behind the system are foolish. Rather they place too rigid a reliance on systems and less on actual assessment, and it takes too long – the silk application now seems to take over a year. I think, paradoxically, that is because the concerns with fairness manifest themselves in an exercise for referees that can take over an hour per applicant and a form that can easily take an applicant over 3 hours to fill in.
What I am advocating is a clear statement of what is required and criteria that force the interviewers’/assessors’ minds to those criteria. At that stage the ‘feel’ factor comes in. Properly applied I believe in feel. Chambers have recruited on it for a very long time and it has usually turned out decent barristers. There is no reason to think it won’t continue to do so. But the added factors should ensure, so far as it is possible, that the new recruits are also standing on a level track when the gun goes off. That’s the point.
This would require a degree of trust on the part of the potential recruits as well. It is unfashionable to trust these days. People feel it far better (fun?) to seek justification of everything to the nth degree. But, in reality, society cannot operate like that. Calls on an individual or a body to justify themselves should be made when there is real evidence of something wrong, not just because people don’t like the person, the profession or the decision. Or we will end up employing more people to check up on other people than to actually do the job – precisely the complaint now made about the NHS and the Education system of course. Those who can’t – make sure other people can’t either.
Feel free to comment. All barristers sound like their mind is made up whenever they say anything, but I am truly listening. I think the debate on the BVC was a pretty good one. Thank you – and keep going.