Access Denied

Last year, I was mostly angry. Not the sort of American-take-a-sniper-rifle-to-the-clock-tower angry; I get the impression that you can only pull that one off once in a lifetime. No, this was like a creeping itch of rage, manifesting itself in a cynical outlook and a hefty dose of class-envy.

What caused it was an extended epiphany I had over the course of several months, and the rage was squarely directed at the Bar.

During the course of my life, I have clung to the notion that I, one day, would be a barrister. From the age of seven I thought of little else (if you ignore the brief teen flirtation with politics) and this notion buoyed me up through years of raising children and watching my peers spread their wings. When I finally arrived at university, I was the ripe old age of 29 years and terrified at the thought of the effective 18-year-old synapses firing around me. Over the course of a few weeks the fear subsided and I realised that, not only was I passionate about law, I was really quite good at this.

Through the first year it seemed like a whole new world was opening up to me and at the start of the second year I began my evil plan to get to the Bar. I joined an Inn, I attended conferences, got the grades at uni, I observed barristers in the Crown Court, I hobnobbed, attended functions laid on by my Inn. I spent half of my time in London, travelling down six hours overnight on the awful, but cheerfully cheap, Megabus.

I did all this because isn’t the Bar now a meritocracy? Is not pupillage now paid? The Inns hand out a fortune in scholarships every year, you know.  If you are good enough, you will succeed.

What slowly began to dawn on me was that to a lesser or greater degree, all the above are true. The Bar is a meritocracy, to a point. I’ve met several barristers from my Northern patch who started from roots as ‘lowly’ as mine and who have ascended to dizzying heights of greatness. It was a challenging path, but they made it. Pupillage is now paid, albeit for the most part at a minimal level. The Inns do cough up an average of a million pounds every year in scholarship payments.

All this notwithstanding, other truths revealed themselves to me over the course of last year. For a start, you get nowhere without work experience. You can do a mini pupillage, marshal judges and the like, but then doesn’t every law student do that? Well, you need to do something a little different then. Do a Masters course. Perhaps you could teach English in Asia, or volunteer for an NGO in Africa. Maybe you could do an amazing internship in London, even Europe? To stand out, you must be different from the get-go. You need to have shown your dedication and that manifests itself in months of unpaid work. Oh hang on…

I spy a problem. The student loans that my partner and I receive do not support two, but five people. I can’t afford to work without remuneration for months of the year, or pay the fees for postgraduate courses. Ok, well how about those paid internships at the big law firms? Cripes, there’s another issue. It’s paid, but the online application forms seize up at the merest hint of a mature student without A-Levels. If you haven’t got 320 UCAS points, the forms will not let you progress. Even without this, internships anywhere beyond an hour’s commute from home leave me with potentially insurmountable childcare issues.

The BPTC? Impossible without a scholarship from the Inn. Even then, a scholarship would probably only extend to a partial satisfaction of the fees. Where do I find the rest of the money for the fees? What do we live on?

The point that I am slowly meandering to, and indeed the source of my rage toward an entire profession, boils down to this. With a few notable exceptions, the Bar is trying to exist in the same self-contained air pocket that it did one hundred years ago. Some things have changed and on the face of it, the Inns have worked commendably hard to create a level playing field. As a profession however, the Bar has not adapted well. It lacks the hunger evident in the solicitors’ profession, the unrelenting pushing forward to evolve and devour everything in its path. By allowing itself to become squeezed, the Bar has accidentally created unsustainable levels of contest that can only allow unmarried, childless, parental-funded, internship-wielding super-students to compete. “Age is no barrier to the law”, I was once informed by a Senior Clerk. For the reasons I have given, I have to disagree.

What of the barristers that I mentioned at the start, reaching and succeeding at the Bar? Quite simply, they were men. At least one that I know had a comparable domestic situation to myself, a spouse and children. I guarantee that during the time that he was submitting applications and attending the eighty-two interviews he had before securing pupillage, it was his wife who carried responsibility for the home and everyone in it. I am no militant feminist, but I find it difficult to pinpoint anything that is designed to facilitate the career of an intelligent and capable woman who has chosen to have children first.

As I begin the final year of my degree the rage has ebbed away, to be replaced with weary resignation. Reality has kicked in and, armed with my epiphany, I am coming to terms with the fact that my path, for now, may lie in a different direction. The desire remains, and perhaps a few years of working in a different role may equip me with more of the experience I need to stand out from the crowd.

Please feel free to let me know what you think.

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10 thoughts on “Access Denied

  1. Duaa says:

    I know exactly what you mean. Like you, I’m trying to build a legal career after having children and have come against many of the same frustrations with the solicitors profession.

    On my first day on the LPC, I encountered another ‘straight out of uni’ student who already had several summer placements under his belt who declared that he was only on the course because his family (who were all solicitors) wanted him to do it and he didn’t particularly want to be a solicitor. I felt so angry.

    You’re wrong to think the solicitor’s profession is any better than the Bar. I went for an interview recently at a supposedly, pro-mature student, large law firm who were proudly telling us how this year they were trialling a new interview process which uses objective criteria and will ask all the applicants the same questions. I was left wondering ‘what other selection method were you using until now?’

    I’ve had the same online application forms seizing up when I enter my (not un-respectable) A level grades even though I have a masters degree, 10 years experience teaching law and experience of running my own business. And I’ve had the same difficulties getting work placements, which almost always run in the holidays when the children are off school and I need to arrange childcare.

    To be fair I have managed to secure a placement at a smaller and very impressive firm who treated me (and their other staff who were parents) very well indeed, but I do get the distinct impression that they’re the exception rather than the rule.

  2. bob says:

    “woman who has chosen to have children first”

    This is perhaps the key. Life is expensive when you have a family, but that is your choice and presumably you knew that when you made that decision.

    Not sure why you think the legal profession should be paying for your student debts and childcare.

  3. Motherof5 says:

    If you always wanted to be a barrister why did not do A levels? It is extraordinary you did not. Any 3 minutes of research would have made it clear you should. If you always wanted this career why not obtain work experience? If I could work full time as a solicitor and have thre ebabies by age 26 there is nothing to stop anyone else doing it but you have to have what employers want and if you choose not to take A levels and not to obtain work experience then of course you’re going to pay the price,. Everyone knows that even teenagers who are determined to be lawyers.

    Is my IQ so much higher that at 13 and 14 I could be in libraries researching what is needed for this career and others posting here did not? Why would they not know? Why would they not take the steps you need to take and why would they be surprised at the consequences of failing to take the necessary steps?

  4. Dear Motherof5,

    I wonder whether you are able to focus your super-high IQ a little and consider for a second that not everybody has had the same chances in life that you have been fortunate enough to experience?

    Whilst you were in libraries researching at the ages of 13 and 14, ‘others’ were facing daily physical abuse, locked in their sparsely furnished bedrooms and nursing battered and bruised bodies. Along with nursing their wounds, they were dreaming of a legal career but had precisely no power to do anything about it.

    It is not a matter of intelligence – it is clear from your vitriolic posts that intelligence has little to do with it. It is simply the case that we each have different lives and for any number of reasons either choose or are required to follow different paths.

    Contrary to your assertions, there is not necessarily any stupidity connected to taking an alternative route and for some people it is undoubtedly more wise for them to come late to the profession. I will agree however that it is for the individual to understand what they are taking on sufficiently to commit to it (or not) based on the realities of the environment they seek to be a part of.

    To a degree, yes, of course we all make our own choices but there is no excuse for a self-proclaimed intelligent woman to so viciously attack another without even pausing to give consideration to whether there may be underlying causes and effects. I think your behaviour here does you an injustice and does little to prove your point.

  5. Bri says:

    I am very annoyed by this remark – “They were men [italics]”.

    Don’t try to paint your predicament as an inevitability of your gender! Genuinely sorry to hear you’re finding it tough but life isn’t a level playing field and you took an eccentric approach to career progression – you need to take responsibility for that. What exactly do you expect application forms to say? “Please give details of how you are qualified for this job or click here to confirm that you are a plucky, hard-working mum who deserves a chance”?

    Employers and pupilmasters might not say so openly but they are looking for evidence that an applicant (man or woman) will prioritise work over personal life. 3 young children is kind of a red flag that this may not happen and you need to find ways to work around that.

    Personally, I’d like to see a more human attitude in the law (we’re not performing life-saving surgery anytime soon and the long hours culture seems stupid and macho to me) but until that happens you need to know what you’re getting yourself into, particularly since you won’t have the protection of employment laws on your side when you qualify. If your pupilmaster asked you to finish work urgently for the next day would you be able to stay to do it or would you have to go home to catch the babysitter? If the latter, are you sure the practicalities of being a barrister can match up to your 7 year old self’s dreams?

    [Also, while we’re talking about militant feminism, why the heck can’t your bloke carry the childcare can for a few years?]

  6. LM says:

    I understand your frustration and hope that you get the career you want and are working for. The problem is that a legal career of any kind is extremely competitive at all levels (not just at the entry stage). I am from an extremely ordinary background where my parents left school with no/few qualifications, I went to state school etc so I know it is possible to get where you want but I have good A-levels and a degree that still stands out on the CV. There must be personal reasons why you did not do A-levels at the time, but A-levels are very standard educational background for lawyers as you say and to be fair to commenters, the lack of them is not explained in your post. Have you tried calling HR at firms directly to circumvent the strict rules of the online forms and explaining that you are a mature student? (this sometime works as they appreciate the initiative).

    It also seems the implication here is that you, your partner and kids would all be living on student loan etc. Again there may be some personal circumstances here but obviously the loans and financial support available are not designed to support a family of five and it wouldn’t make sense if they were.

    Getting a job in law is not always straightforward, you can’t always just hit the books and the online applications and hope for the best and that is particularly true where you have taken a non-traditional path. Networking, careers fairs, collaring any lawyers for their views and advice, contacting HR directly in the case of the law firms, etc are all things you can do. Also, don’t mean to be harsh but are you confident you will end up with a stellar degree that can compete with the best and put you in a good position? Many people do not get training contracts or pupillage – more people want these jobs than will get them and the numbers particularly for the bar are bleak – I don’t mean to be patronising but the maths is extremely stark and really good people who have ticked all the boxes are getting nowhere. The doors are not closed but obviously they are harder to get through when people have priorities other than their legal career… That’s just the reality of it. I trained at a major city law firm alongside a single mother who managed to find a way through and did really well (better than me as a woman with no kids!) I wish you lots of luck!! 🙂

  7. anna says:

    I really don’t believe this is a problem limited to those with young families. It is basically a problem for anyone who cannot afford to self fund their existence indefinitely. So anyone who will need a regular income to meet their mortgage payments, well, unless you have savings/a rich partner…good luck I guess?! I had read so many blogs like this before I decided to embark on a career at the bar, and was told not to do it by so many people, and blindly and stubbornly I thought that it must be achievable if others had broken into it so ignored them. I achieved excellent results at university, got all the usual work experience, voluntary work, scholarships, academic awards etc. however I did not have parental support (or at least, my single mothers enthusiastic but small contributions only went so far). But as I say, I did not think that my background should put me off and actually believed it was what would make me a good criminal barrister so I persevered thinking that I had spent my whole life being poor so what was another few years if it led to a career I loved? I therefore took out a loan to cover bar school, which in addition to my student loan, left me nearly £45k in debt. I was fortunate enough to get pupillage the first year that I applied at a good London set so thought everything would work out. However, the reality of my £11k pupillage award and just how little I was earning quickly dawned on me. Living in london on £11k a year, is just.not.possible. Especially combined with the expenses of being a barrister, wig/gown/travel expenses/blackstones etc. It is not that it is a bit grim, it is literally impossible. And this wasn’t because I was crap and not being instructed, I was working myself into the ground. I was working 7 days a week, doing a magistrates trial every day, if not two, I had solicitors asking specifically for my name and was building a good reputation. I could not have been working any harder, and yet was receiving less than £1000 per month in cheques (sometimes waiting three or four months from one cheque to the next), it just simply was not covering my travel expenses, let alone rent/bills/food etc. When my shoes wore thin or wheelie back gave in, I could not afford to replace them. It was bleak. I once could not afford a prescription at the chemist because I was so skint. Even if I had been prepared to live like that, in the vain hope that the situation would improve after tenancy (which appears not to be the case from what my friends who have stayed with it tell me), I had the ever looming loan repayments hanging over my head. So knowing that a year after my pupillage I was going to have to start paying back capital loan repayments of £500 per month. I realised the stark reality. No matter how good I was, no matter how much I cared, I simply could not stay. People said, ‘oh please don’t quit, wait for 5 years and it will improve’. Well great, but who was going to help me get through the next 5 months, let alone 5 years!? And to be honest, after working so hard to get there, the pure indignity of getting up at 5am and working until midnight for less than minimum wage soon sucked out any remnants of the passion that I originally had.

    The minute my 12 months were up, I took my qualification certificate and ran! People at my chambers told me I would have been in good stead to get tenancy, but by that stage my hand was forced. I simply could not see how I was going to afford to stay, and really had never had any interest in any other area but crime, so I left the bar entirely, took a job in a completely different role that was far better paid for far few hours work. And although I feel sad that I left, and often wonder if I could have done something different in order to have made it work, I can’t say that I have ever felt more happy or more pleased to have got out whilst I could….

    And if you think it is just crime that is unviable, think again. My partner is struggling to make a living at a top civil set. Yes he might bill good money, but how much of that does he see? Let me tell you, far less than I do now that I have left….

  8. thorneyisland says:

    I would argue that it is very easy to point the finger than suggest solutions.

    Yes, career development loans are drying up, but they are for everyone, not just those in your position. Many of reasonable means rely on these as well. Also, to draw a comparison with apparent low levels of bank lending to SMEs in the current climate, why would banks lend to individuals whose “order books” (i.e. chances of securing a position which will facilitate repayment: see Zoe Saunder’s figures on applicants per position) are high risk?

    If you were confronted with two applicants, one of whom had acquired other desirable demonstrable skills through extra curricular activities, would you prefer the other who hadn’t on the off chance they might? If so, you perhaps do not desire the meritocracy you profess to.

    Finally: “it was his wife who carried responsibility for the home and everyone in it”. Given that your issues up until this point were primarily financial: who was paying his bills, childcare costs etc. then? This was a poor, poor argument!

    I really want to hear the solutions to your issues, but please let them be such that they stand up to reasonable scrutiny.

  9. Zachery Calk says:

    I truly enjoy reading through on this internet site , it has got superb blog posts. “Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.” by Carl Sandburg.

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