Barrister’s experiment finds chambers value academics over experience


Jenns: Does profession understand diversity and disadvantage?

The results of a practising barrister’s experiment of applying for pupillage in a different area of law indicates that a lack of academic achievement remains a huge barrier even then.

Anneka Jenns asked: “If a practising barrister with over one year of daily courtroom advocacy and drafting experience can’t get an interview let alone a pupillage, then who exactly are we recruiting?”

Mr Jenns – who represents young barristers on the Bar Council – is a criminal law practitioner but wrote on her blog that public law was her primary interest.

“However, early in my budding legal career I was told there was no way I was getting pupillage! No way without A-levels, a lower second in photography (from 10 years ago) and no way would the distinctions on the GDL [graduate diploma in law] change that.”

Ms Jenns said there were a “myriad of reasons” for her poor academic achievements, including an abusive household, disability and not being a UK citizen.

She managed to obtain pupillage at the Crown Prosecution Service because of its blind recruitment system before moving to private practice.

“But last year someone suggested that academics are not the thing they once were for pupillage recruitment. So I conducted a little experiment. This last round I applied for public law pupillages.”

In every application, she made clear that she was practising barrister with actual advocacy experience “and had to humiliatingly lay bare my extenuating circumstances”.

Ms Jenns explained that she applied to retrain, rather than transfer her practice, given the challenge of moving to another area of law.

She went on to outline the responses from Blackstone Chambers, Cornerstone Chambers, Matrix Chambers, 4-5 Gray’s Inn, 39 Essex, Garden Court Chambers, 36 Public and Doughty Street Chambers.

All rejected her without an interview – Doughty Street did not respond at all – and most did not provide feedback.

Blackstone, where she was applying for a mini-pupillage, used the Rare contextual recruitment system, but Ms Jenns said the Rare form “was so geared to someone born, raised and educated in the UK that I ended up answering n/a on most of the options. Pages were dedicated to yearly university breakdown, which my art degree simply didn’t have”.

In its feedback, Blackstone said that, although the information provided through Rare gave her an additional mark, her score was still inadequate given the lack of academic achievement.

Matrix provided its scorecard. While up to eight marks could be awarded for academics – the highest of any category – the maximum score for extenuating circumstances was two. She fell just short of the overall mark required.

Ms Jenns commended the feedback from Cornerstone Chambers – which she described as “kind and encouraging” – in explaining that her overall mark was not quite high enough to place her in the top 25 out of over 160 applicants, but that “we would not wish applicants such as you to think your performance was a bad one”.

She added that she had been “the most optimistic” for 4-5 Gray’s Inn, as it had interviewed her for a third six.

Ms Jenns concluded: “Well, the reality is if a practising barrister with over one year of daily courtroom advocacy and drafting experience can’t get an interview let alone a pupillage, then who exactly are we recruiting?

“Do we as a profession really have an understanding of diversity and disadvantage? Do we have a real understanding, not one that simply asks you to tick the box about free school meals? And what room do we really make for those candidates? Does our priority of academia, in a country where schools and universities are so closely associated to class, say more than it should about us?”

She observed that it appeared that, by the time her life had stabilised and her academic achievements improved significantly, it was too late.

“Ultimately it feels like I was written off years ago, in which case what was the point in the GDL, the distinctions? What was the point in trying? That is the truly heartbreaking bit.”

Ms Jenns added on Twitter that, “if little weight is given to practical experience, then why is so much weight given to the unpaid experience”, such as mini-pupillages, volunteering or internships?

She said she took her findings to the Bar Council’s education and training committee. “I was told my concerns would be raised and I would receive a response. Sadly much like above, a response never came.”




    Readers Comments

  • Sheena Parry says:

    It is hugely disappointing that a profession who should understand that Equity is not the same as Equality, and it is Equity we should be striving for, takes the easy way out by awarding pints for stuff they value, with on understanding of anything else.

    Using your current Equality marks you will only keep recruiting potatoes for your chambers when everyone knows a balanced diet is more healthy and you should be looking for other vegetables to enhance your mix not more of the same.

    I went through Bar School with a girl who had been the only child in her school to achieve GSCE passes, although not many, but she got all the exams which were offered. she was the only person in sixth form at the school and then went off to University close to home as she was the carer for her two sick and aged parents.
    Bar School was hugely difficult for her given her circumstances but she still kept going and achieving. She did not get a First Class degree, or an Outstanding on the BVC but considering the hurdles she had to overcome she was streets ahead of the rest. However, equality prevailed and she was never considered for pupillage, rather the marks went to the privileged person with no other issues to contend with but who did get the points. Equality in action.
    We have a legal system which prides itself on Equity and we have a legal recruitment policy which ignores it.


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