Wednesday, 2 February 2011

From Bar to Bar

The following is the story of my experience of college, university, trying to break into the legal field and life as a graduate in 2010/11. I have tried to stick to the facts proper and not become too 'woe is me'. I'm aware that a lot of people are worse off than I am, but this post is something that has been preying on my mind for a while, and I'd like to share it. If you'd like to share your story too, either post it in the comments, or get in touch with me on Facebook or Twitter.

Around the age of 14, I decided that I wanted to be a criminal barrister. I don't know what inspired me originally, although if you ask anyone who knows me, they will probably say that the idea of being paid to argue was what appealed to me. I think it was partly to do with that, but also the desire to right injustice and the chance to make a difference (I may have been an overly-idealistic 14 year old).

Anyway, at the age of 16, I went to sixth-form college, still with the singular ambition to be a criminal barrister planted firmly in my mind. During my time there, I was constantly told by my teachers how difficult it would be for me to achieve my aims, but I was undeterred, and certain that if I worked hard enough, it would pay off. In time, I applied to study Law at the University of Leeds, and was offered a place with the condition that I achieved A grades in my three subjects. I knuckled down and left college in 2007 with A grades in Law, Politics and Psychology.

I began my degree at the University of Leeds at the end of 2007, continuing, as I had done with college, to commute from my home and balancing my education with working approximately 25 hours a week at my local pub.

As in college, in my first year at university I was repeatedly warned about how difficult it would be to become a criminal barrister. As in college, I naively assumed that as long as I worked hard enough, I could achieve anything I wanted.

It struck me in my first year that as a law undergraduate with a job, I was in an extreme minority. I thought nothing of it at the time, and merely envied those who were being supported by their parents because of their free time. That's not to say I didn't have any, but there would be many a time to come in the next three years where I would be desperately trying to juggle revising for an exam or writing an essay at the end of the bar in between pulling pints.

Before I discuss my experience any further, it would be useful at this time to talk about how one goes about becoming a barrister. After taking a Qualifying Law Degree (which basically means a law degree, but with seven essential modules covered - I'd say 99% of people do them), you take the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) and register with one of the four Inns of Court. During your time, you must also attend at least 12 Qualifying Sessions at your Inn. These take the form of education days, dinners and other events. After this, you apply for a pupillage, which lasts two years. Once you have completed this, you are called to the bar and may begin practicing.

In my second year, shit started to get real. We were advised that our chances to be accepted to study for the BPTC and to gain a pupillage would only be maximised by having completed around three mini-pupillages by the time we graduated.

Mini-pupillages are essentially glorified work experience in a barristers chambers, usually lasting 2-4 weeks. However, they're seen as vital to gaining experience and knowledge of how life in a chambers works. There were a few interconnected problems with this for me. Firstly, there were very, very few criminal chambers in Leeds that would take on students for mini-pupillages. Secondly, having a job meant that I couldn't just take two weeks off to work 9-5 for free, nor could I afford to even contemplate travelling further afield in order to do one.  Finally, due to commuting to Leeds and having a job, I found it very difficult to attend any of the networking events organised by the university - in fact, I didn't manage to attend a single one. Because of this, I was at another disadvantage - if there's only one mini-pupillage place going, who are you going to give it to, the person you've met, or the person you haven't? There were also many, many instances of people who were given mini-pupillages either by their parents, or friends of their parents.

I did one mini-pupillage, at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in Leeds, towards the end of my second year. It was judged entirely on merit, not who you knew, and I was the only one of a hundred applicants to get it. Unfortunately, they were only able to offer me a place for a week.

I entered my third year somewhat disillusioned with the notion of ever managing to become a barrister. The facts that the fees for the BPTC were around £12,200, the Inns of Court all located in London, that I would have to work extra jobs throughout my time, and there would only be roughly a 20% chance of me managing to get a pupillage to finish my training* all conspired to put me off it. I knew that I would be forever trailing in the dust of those with parents who were more well off than mine.

I was still absolutley dedicated to and passionate about going into criminal law though, so I decided that my best course of action would be to join the CPS in any position I could get, either to save the money to complete my barrister training, or in the hope that they would put me through the Associate Prosecutor training.

(*this statistic is somewhat flawed in my case, given that a) there are a lot less pupillage vacancies for prospective criminal barristers, b) I had far less work experience and connections than others and c) I wasn't willing to move to London for a pupillage)

My third year went by, and I found myself about to graduate with a QLD, specialising in criminal law. In my time at university, I had studied Constitutional Law, Land Law, Equity and Trusts, Criminology, Victimology, Criminal Law, Tort Law, Contract Law, Legal Research Skills, Advanced Legal Review and Law Reform, Jurisprudence, Judicial Review, the Jurisprudence of Judicial Review and Democracy, Feminist Theories of Jurisprudence, Evidence Law, Forensic Evidence Law, the Modern English Legal System, Policing, EU Law and written a 12,000 word dissertation on the merits of the introduction of a hypothetical criminal offence.

I graduated in July 2010 with a 2.1. The plan was to take a couple of months off for the summer, and begin applying for anything I could get my hands on in the three West Yorkshire offices of the CPS in September. However, thanks to budget cuts and the reduction of the public sector, this is all I've seen since about April last year:

So, since then I've been reconsidering what I want to do with my life, now that I can't do what I've spent five years working for. I've hit a bit of a brick wall. Not only do I not know what I want to do, without experience in internships or the voluntary sector (not that this will be around for much longer), I can't get a job that would use my degree effectively. I can't afford to do these though, because I have these horribly inconvenient things called 'bills' and 'rent' to pay. So instead, I'm just pootling along in my bar job, trying to avoid having to take a 9-5 job that I will hate, just for the sake of having a 'real job'. Whether I will end up in law eventually, I don't know. I'd like to, of course I would, but I have to be realistic. I've also toyed with the idea of doing a masters, or a second undergraduate degree, but there's no way on earth I could ever afford to. I could write for ages about how unfair it all is, the fact that as a member of the working class, it's almost impossible to go into the field of law and all the other horrible things that I had to go through during my time at university, but I would hope that the facts as they are speak for themselves. Really, I'm lucky to have a job at all.

This is the experience of a History Graduate I spoke to:

I graduated from Durham with a BA in History in 2007, moving to London soon after.

An MA was never on the cards because, despite loving the subject and wanting to carry on, there was no way I could afford to pay for it.

I started to look for work in the public and third sectors - just basic administrative roles really - to get my foot in the door. I was told I had no experience, despite having just graduated. I didn't have three years of being a student journalist or anything like that to fall back on, when I worked at uni it was in a little shop.

So, I did some unpaid work to bump up my CV. I did a couple of months editing things online (which was good because I could do it from home whenever, but didn't get me any office hours) and then three months working in the HR department of a homelessness charity where they paid for travel and lunch. The work was basic admin: editing, photocopying, responding to enquiries etc. I found it through a friend who was already working there.

A couple of months after I finished the semi-internship, one of the recruitment agencies I had reluctantly signed up to finally found me a few jobs for which i got interviews. I had resorted to agencies after a stream of time-consuming applications for well-suited jobs I found in places like the Guardian (graduate, third/public sector, officework) went off with some small measure of expectation on my part, only to receive no replies. I got the second or third job (public sector office admin - has developed slightly into some work with databases and editing) that the agency turned me on to.

Two things I would most recommend to new graduates whose degrees don't lead straight into a specific job are a) getting experience as a volunteer or a intern as early as you can, because even having spent three/four years as a full time student you're expected to have some experience and b) sign up to recruitment agencies - most of them are shit but you should at least get some temp work, even if it's just data-entry, which means you don't starve/get evicted.


  1. When I graduated I ended up selling mobile phones for several years, but through lack of job opportunities rather than lack of voluntary experience. I'm fortunate that my industry (computing) does not generally require unpaid experience as a condition of employment. My wife, on the other hand, is a teacher and recently was turned down for a job at a Pupil Referral Unit (working with excluded pupils, something she is good at) because she could not volunteer for several weeks first.
    The trend to require working as unpaid intern or voluntary experience as a prerequisite for employment is disturbing and is spreading. It seems to affect the jobs that come with power and influence, and a requirement of unpaid work experience introduces discrimination based on social background. That will result in reinforcing the class system.

  2. Some years ago, I was out of work and skint. I signed up for a Visual Basic evening course at the local college for the sake of something to bung on my CV. I didn't actually need to as I was way ahead of the course material.

    I was sat next to a lad who was doing quite well with the course, but struggling with a project that his boss had given him. He saw that I knew what I was doing and could I help him out? I knocked up the small amount of code that he needed before the next week's session and he then presented this to his boss, confessing where he'd got it from.

    Two weeks later I was in his boss's office negotiating a deal which saw me charging £35 per hour, paid weekly on submission of an invoice. Nice work if you can get it and I'll admit I've only once had one other gig like it.

    I think the moral of the story is, "if you've got it, flaunt it."

  3. Your experiences (so far)properly reflect the cessation, and then reversal, of social mobility in the UK since 1979.Thatcher,'the grocer's daughter', was touted as leading a meritocratic revolution where ability and hard work would sweep aside the barriers of privilege.Like every Tory claim since 1711 it was a cynical lie. It left out the bit where Maggie married money.In reality 'connection', and 'network', shorthand for Class power,led to Thatcher (in her prime, a woman of formidable talent, allied to an insatiable appetite for hard work) not only breaking down the toffs' door, but punching a hole in their glass ceiling as well.She was tolerated by the establishment for as long as she served their narrow interest ('smash the Unions, privatise for profit,end full employment, cut taxes on the rich,win elections'), and then she was unceremoniously dumped.

    'The Thatcher Revolution' was, in fact, a classic counter-revolution, which sought to reverse the limited social, economic, and political gains made by the working class in the post war period to 1979.Those far off days when there was full employment and folk earned a 'living wage',having no recourse to indebtedness. When their children, if able, where given a free education to degree level, and beyond.When a progressive tax system took on unjust, and unjustifiable,reward differentials by levying up to 90% from the highest band.When workers, just like the Lawyers,and the Doctors enjoy today, had effective Unions which stoutly defended their interests.When Energy Utilities were a key element of national economic strategy, and not a gang of licensed highwayman.And so on..I'm not misty eyed for the 70's, it was mostly shit,but it was a turning point, and we took a (so far) irreversible gallop back to the 'Old Corruption' of Ruling Class hegemony.

    As an old git, I am genuinely ashamed about the shite my toxic, graceless, generation has left you young people in.Please shame us further by cleaning the place up, and making it decent for your children, in a way we never did for you.

    Oh,and on the evidence of this scintillating blog, you will not be the first talented Lawyer to take up the pen for a living, if that's what you decide....

  4. I've only met you once (and don't take this the wrong way) but have you any hobbies you can turn into a stable job/income?

    I left school with f'all (well a D in maths and F in double science but I don't think they count!) I didn't go to uni obviously.

    I love working with animals, well aquatics mainly so did a btec in small animal care (which I passed because I actually wanted to be there) I worked at Chester zoo, a couple of aquatic shops and then finally Blue Planet Aquarium as a diver. The life was the one I wanted but the money wasn't, I left bpa on £3.66 p/h (1997) and tried my hand at a few other things before finally accepting my calling and joining the army at 21, I served 3.5yrs (with 2 sets of twins at home) before I broke my foot in 16 places and that was the end of that.

    I divided on a change of tact and went into sales where I found I was quite good so opened my own company after a year or so, unfortunately I wasn't very good at spotting my fellow director (and ex friend) wander off with the 15k that we had in the bank while I was on holiday, so that was the end of that.

    What next?? I'd picked up a few IT skills along the way so applied for a helpdesk role at Fujitsu in Manchester, stayed for a year or so then did several contracts over the next few years.....

    Now: I have got my own company, been trading for almost 4yrs and haven't looked back since. IT is my earner, but aquatics are my soul, one day I will have to have an aquatics shop but until then, I'll settle for a tank in the office.

    Basically what I'm trying to say is: where you start, isn't necessarily where you'll end up.