I was called to the Bar in 1989. I sometimes think that I joined the legal profession but will retire from the legal services industry. Through political, cultural and regulatory pressures, the practice of law has become heavily commercialised. This has eroded some of the cherished traditions of our independent profession. Now another is under threat: pupillage.
Barristers in independent practice are self-employed and they are in competition with each other. But, subject to some exceptions, to become a practising barrister you must first undergo a twelve month apprenticeship known as pupillage. For the first six months the pupil simply follows an established barrister, his or her pupil supervisor, learning the ropes. During the second six months, pupils remain under close supervision but they are "on their feet" and can represent clients in return for a fee.
I benefited from having a superb pupil supervisor. I have supervised seven pupils myself and greatly enjoyed doing so. When operated properly the pupillage system can work very well, but it depends on the generosity of established barristers and their chambers. Pupil supervisors are not paid for their supervision. Indeed they usually pay their pupil's incidental expenses. The cost to chambers of recruitment and training is considerable. My chambers typically receives 300 to 400 pupillage applications each year. Barristers spend many hours of unpaid time sifting applications and interviewing candidates. Then, during pupillage, as well as the unpaid time spent on instructing and training pupils, chambers' members make a pupillage grant or award (typically in the region of £20,000 or more for each pupil). All in all, I imagine it must cost a chambers at least £40,000 in cash and in unpaid time to recruit and train each pupil.
Once a pupil becomes a fully fledged barrister they will become more experienced and ultimately will be in competition with all other barristers, including those who gave them their pupillage. Of course there may be benefits to the chambers concerned, but essentially the provision of pupillage is altruistic.
Commercial pressures will continue to bring this reliance on the generosity of the Bar into sharp focus. There are already signs that the number of pupillages may be falling. Over the next ten years that number could well drop further. Uncertainty about the future of the criminal and family bars is liable to contribute to the downturn. There will be increasing pressures to cut overheads as fees are reduced. The ties that bind a barrister and his chambers together have weakened in this more competitive environment. More and more barristers move chambers to seek to improve their lot - I did so myself ten years ago.
The more successful and powerful chambers will always be able to attract recruits from less successful sets. Commercial pressures might therefore lead those chambers to reduce the number of pupillages they offer, and to seek to maintain the inflow of members by recruiting established barristers.
At present, as I understand it, there is no obligation on chambers to offer pupillages. Accordingly there is no barrier to a chambers adopting the business model I have described. One can even imagine a successful chambers choosing to recruit only established practitioners and not to offer any pupillages at all. It might make commercial sense for that set, but other chambers, feeling exploited, may then decide to reduce or avoid their own spending on pupillages. The end result would be a significant reduction in the number of pupillages on offer. And it seems that if the overall number of pupillages diminishes, so does the diversity of new entrants to the profession.
The system of pupillage is reliant for its successful operation not only on individual chambers and barristers giving generously of their time and money, but also on all chambers agreeing to adopt the same practice of recruitment. If only some chambers offer pupillages, then the pupillage system will fade away.
As the number of pupillages falls, those seeking to become barristers will find other ways of entering the profession, perhaps becoming solicitors first and then making a sideways move to the Bar. That route to becoming a barrister has become increasingly common in recent years.
It is a great privilege to help someone begin their career. For the pupil, the experience is of an immersion into life at the Bar. You learn more about legal practice in your first week of pupillage than a year reading a book. The system of pupillage has been of considerable value to the Bar. It would be a shame if it were allowed to become a thing of the past.