Unpaid mini-pupillages could “indirectly discriminate” against would-be barristers from poorer backgrounds, a review by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) has found.
The review into the advertising and selection criteria used by chambers and other organisations training barristers found that 39% required a first or upper second-class degree as a minimum.
The BSB revealed in April last year that it was reviewing whether there were “unjustified and discriminatory barriers to pupillage” at the advertising and recruitment stage.
It found that 12% of pupillage training organisations (PTOs) either insisted on or “strongly encouraged” a mini-pupillage being undertaken before a pupillage could be started. A further 1% said it “may be required”.
The BSB said: “The proportion of PTOs requiring a mini-pupillage with them as part of the selection process could potentially be greater.
“It is not clear whether mini-pupillages form a part of the recruitment process for other organisations that did not provide information on the selection process in their advertisements.”
The BSB said the cost of undertaking an unpaid mini-pupillage could be one of the factors “potentially linked with indirect discrimination in recruitment for applicants from lower income backgrounds”.
Other factors cited were the cost of travelling to London for interviews and the remuneration received for the pupillage itself.
The proportion of PTOs demanding a first-class degree or at least a 2.1 varied widely according to practice area.
Two-thirds (67%) of PTOs operating mainly in the Business and Property Courts insisted on it, compared to only 22% of criminal PTOs.
The review is part of the Future Bar Training programme and reflects concerns that access to pupillage is one of the biggest barriers to increasing diversity at the Bar.
BSB researchers studied all 216 adverts for pupils on the Pupillage Gateway, and 73 chambers’ websites receiving applications outside the gateway, along with the selection criteria used by around 50 chambers.
They found that almost half of advertisers voiced their support for equality and diversity “in some way”, whether it was encouraging applicants “from a range of backgrounds” or highlighting their equality and diversity policies.
“Generally, there were relatively few practices detailed in the advertisements that could potentially actively discourage greater participation in the profession from the perspective of an applicant, as long as the applicant met criteria regarding degree classification and/or legal experience.”
The BSB said the findings on selection criteria highlighted the “predominance of degree classification” in selection, particularly for PTOs practising mainly in civil law – but there was no evidence of a PTO “overtly prescribing” a higher education institution.
Beyond academic qualifications, most PTOs did not include detailed information on their selection criteria for sifting applications for pupillage in their advertisements.
The BSB said a “surprisingly high” percentage of pupillages, 31%, offered would-be barristers the potential to “drawdown some pupillage remuneration” for the Bar professional training course (BPTC).
Researchers said that, while this could “lessen the financial burden” of the BPTC, it was not clear how many Bar students took up the offer.
Across pupillage adverts, they found a “quite notable” lack of reference to the BPTC, despite its importance in preparing Bar students to meet the requirements of the Professional Statement for barristers.
Ewen MacLeod, director of strategy and policy at the BSB, said: “When, subject to Legal Services Board approval, the new Bar training rules are introduced the current rule prescribing precisely what organisations must include in a pupillage recruitment advert will no longer apply.
“Removing this rule is designed to provide those recruiting pupils with more flexibility, but we want to make sure that we guide the Bar with regard to best practice.
“This review has helped us understand what currently happens and we expect to issue our guidance on recruitment advertising and selection criteria soon.”