In her ground-breaking part-memoir, part-call to action Women in Law, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC remembers the reaction of her relatives when told that she had joined ‘Gray’s Inn’ and was studying for ‘the Bar’: “They imagined I had gone in for hotel management or catering.”
Later, she explains one of the requisites of being ‘called to the Bar’ and allowed to practice as a barrister. A student must eat 12 dinners in the Inn’s Hall at the Inns of Court in London, the institutions that have controlled barrister training since the 14th century. “It was no wonder my relatives were bewildered. Their confusion was not helped by my father trying to explain to them that for some reason I had to eat all these dinners in order to qualify.”
Change is coming
Of course, much has changed since Kennedy’s experience in the 1960s – and much of that change has been driven by the law profession itself. (The 12 dinners are now ‘qualifying sessions’). But it’s probably fair to say that the legal profession can still seem intimidating: resistant to change, less accessible to those with no contacts, and sporting its own impenetrable traditions, jargon and costume.
In 2015, a Sutton Trust report found that 71 per cent of top barristers and three-quarter of senior judges were privately educated, as were 48 per cent in ‘magic circle’ law firms. (To put that into context, just seven per cent of the UK’s entire population went to private school.)
And a 2017 report for the Solicitors Regulation Authority found that ‘although the legal profession has become more broadly representative of the population over the last twenty years, with more women and minority ethnic groups entering it, the profession remains heavily stratified by class, gender and ethnicity.’
Transparency in hiring
But one firm is aiming to change that, one hire at a time, and using a very simple method: transparency. Since 2012, 5 Essex Chambers has been publishing its Pupillage Selection Report.
It’s the only Chambers to publish such a detailed report. Its aim is to demystify the application process for ‘pupillages’ – the year-long, final stage of training to be a barrister. It’s committed, it says, to increasing diversity and recruiting talented pupils, whatever their background.
Would-be barristers can’t get a ‘tenancy’ – a permanent position at a set of chambers – unless they’ve secured and completed these highly-prized pupillages.
The Pupillage Selection Report, the Chambers says, “offers a unique insight into Chambers’ process for selecting pupils and what impresses our Pupillage Committee. The feedback received is always extremely positive.”
“Chambers’ continued success relies on attracting high calibre people and our inclusive culture means that all barristers and staff have the opportunity to fulfil their potential.”
Don’t be a poet
The report takes potential candidates through every stage of the recruitment process, from application to final interview. All the members of the selection committee have attended the Bar Council’s training in fair selection, have completed Equality and Diversity training, and have studied the Bar Council’s Fair Recruitment Guide.
There’s a detailed description of what impressed the committee in the application forms – engaging and persuasive language, a high standard of spelling, grammar and punctuation, and relevant experience of advocacy, such as debating.
But the committee also makes it clear what they’re not looking for – poetry and humour, for example. “A number of forms were written in a chatty style: for example, they contained lots of abbreviations, and mis-judged humour, that were not really appropriate in a piece of formal writing,” it says.
“We were amused to receive our first application written almost entirely in rhyme, but we did not feel this was the best way for the candidate to convey their written advocacy skills.”
Laying out the questions
The report describes the four questions asked at first interview stage. One, designed to test legal reasoning, was based around an incident of a police officer deploying taser but mistakenly directing it towards an innocent bystander, and a police officer publicising details of suspected offenders on social media.
The responses to the non-legal question: ‘It is said that everyone has a book in them. What would yours be?’ surprised the committee – many candidates weren’t familiar with the expression. But the best answers ‘demonstrated breadth of interests and character.’
And each candidate was given the opportunity to demonstrate their own achievements with the question: ‘“Do you have any questions for us or, more importantly, are there any questions which you wish we had asked you?”
Taking the message further
The chambers is also aiming to reach a wider audience via social media and face-to-face. Its barristers regularly give talks at law schools and schools, and take part in social mobility programmes such as the Bar Mobility Scheme and Big Voice London.
Since 2013, it’s run a Twitter feed offering tips and advice, (@pupillages) and, this year, launched the first junior barrister-run Instagram account (@5essexcourt_pupillages).
Change may be slow to come to the legal profession – but 5 Essex Court is showing that more transparency in hiring is good for everyone.