The question of whether a mature entrant has an equal chance of obtaining a pupillage has been a fairly frequently asked question, so I thought I would address it in a post.
That answer applies generally to the three main classes of people who ask it – those who have done a non-law first degree and worry about falling behind those who read law; those who have taken a number of years out and those who have actually had a different job first.
By and large Chambers are not terribly bothered about your previous history (although if it involves an extended stay at HM Pleasure then that generalisation may not apply to you). They are certainly not worried about a non-law degree and some specialist Bars (such as the Patent Bar) almost require it. However, the same guidelines apply to non-law degrees as to law degrees – the result has to be good and the University has to be good. Moreover, just as some sets are starting to look at your chosen options within a law degree, so it may assist you to stress the use to which your first degree can be put. If it is Management Studies and you are applying to common-law or commercial sets, this may be simple. If it is the Aromatherapy and Therapeutic Bodywork course offered by the University of Greenwich, then you may need to be little more inventive. Perhaps this course has taught you the aromatic preparation required to ensure that witnesses tell the truth?
If you have taken a number of years out, you will have to be prepared to say why. Needing to find your inner child or taking time to chill are not necessarily going to recommend you. Becoming an Olympic Bobsleigher might. Voluntary work, Student Union sabbaticals, sailing the world all seem not to damage prospects. The only point to which attention should be drawn is that these are supposed to be maturing experiences. So more may be expected of you.
Changing job is more difficult. There are people who simply had to go out and earn a living at a time when the Bar was a risk. Now, in a much improved financial position, they are returning to what they always wanted to do. There are also people who just wanted a change and, having been successful in one career, now desire success in another. Both categories have the capacity to obtain a pupillage, but it is normally necessary to show exactly why now is the time. Wide eyed enthusiasm is not as convincing a reason as it is in the recently qualified, because people who have already succeeded in something know that the world is not always an oyster, and even if it is, what’s inside is often just sand.
The other reason why a job change can often be difficult is the category of applicant broadly defined by the following statement: “I was doing really well in human resources and had just been promoted to vice-deputy assistant in charge of cleaning staff. I thought, ‘that’s just the push I need’ and everyone always said to me that I could talk the hind-leg off a donkey so when I told my boss that the promotion gave me the confidence I needed to be a barrister, she said she thought I’d be brilliant so I decided to go for it. I am the person you need to enthuse all your clients with the desire to get out there and win that case”. I exaggerate, but you get the point. You do have to demonstrate why previous success means that you will succeed at the Bar.
Finally, professional advancement, although not terribly age-dependant, is an issue. You have to be at the Bar 10 years to take silk or to sit. In practice that is closer to 20. That means that, if you come to the Bar in your 30s you won’t be sitting until your late 40s and silk may be unattainable because, at 50+, you may not feel like the risk. Normally, Chambers are unconcerned by these matters – but it may bother you.
As for applications, I would suggest asking the basic questions without frills (why be a barrister; why here; why now). When you’ve got the answers straight in your mind you can ask what your previous experience allows you to offer which others may not offer. But it is that way round. As the Bar has just discovered, being a successful TV Producer does not mean you will be a successful barrister. The Bar allows plenty of individual scope – but it is still about serving the public.