Earlier this year, the decision by three barristers' chambers specialising in publicly funded work to withdraw their 2014 pupillages sent shockwaves through the legal profession. Would the government's legal aid reforms threaten the future of the Bar, lawyers began to wonder. Indeed, a director of one of the sets in question, Charter Chambers, went so far as to warn that funding cuts could ‘ destroy the whole notion of pupillage'.
Such concerns prompted soul searching at the Inns of Court about how the profession could support those starting a career at the publicly-funded branch of the Bar, and ensure that this socially very important area of the law is sustained during a difficult time.
The result, announced last month, is a radical new scheme to subsidise the creation of more pupillages. The 'Pupillage Matched Funding Scheme' – which will come into effect for the next round of pupillage applications in the spring – will see the Inns of Court cover 50% of the cost of some pupillage awards at publicly funded chambers.
Under the scheme the Inns will match the amount of first six pupillage funding provided by a chambers with a grant to cover the cost of an additional first six pupillage. If the set offers two pupillages which it funds itself, it will be eligible for a grant to enable it to offer two more pupillages, and so on. Where a chambers offers no pupillages, it can apply for a smaller grant of £3,000 towards taking on a pupil.
According to Council of the Inns of Court head James Wakefield, the 'Pupillage Matched Funding Scheme' could create ‘dozens’ of new pupillages. Wakefield commented: ‘We are really pleased to announce a scheme which will hopefully help more people advance their careers’, adding that it is the first time the Bar has tried such a measure.
As you would expect, future barristers have greeted the scheme warmly. ‘I'm very excited at the prospect of there being more pupillages – for my fellow Bar hopefuls and I it is a great boost’, said University of Law Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) graduate Lorraine Kudom, who is currently working for the Royal College of Surgeons while she looks for a pupillage.
Kudom, who had resolved to pursue a career in clinical negligence work after becoming concerned about the future of the criminal Bar over the last year, added that the scheme may tempt her to apply for pupillages in legal aid funded areas like crime and family in the next round of applications.
BPTC student Edmund Jackson echoed the sentiment expressed by Kudom: ‘It is an exciting prospect and motivational. We are constantly reminded of the distinct lack of pupillages during study, which can be very demoralising.’
Young barristers, too, have shown support for the scheme. Christopher McKee, a pupil barrister at Dere Street Chambers, commented: ‘Any initiative which assists bright, talented and committed lawyers who wish to practise at the publicly funded Bar must undoubtedly be welcomed. Notwithstanding an anticipated reduction in available work post purported reform, an increase in qualified practitioners will inevitably occasion an increase in the quality of service provided. It is surely right that those most vulnerable in society are provided with the very best.’
Others volunteered similar views online, with 2 Dr Johnson's Buildings barrister Dan Bunting describing the scheme as ‘welcome’ and praising the Inns for ‘doing something’.
Some, however, have raised concerns about whether the subsidising of pupillages could cause problems at the tenancy stage, leading to a potential glut of pupils fighting it out for a limited number of full-time positions in chambers.
‘I'm not sure if the scheme is addressing the real problem: it may be a case of simply pushing the problem further down the line’, said BPTC graduate Thomas Connelly.
Indeed, even the Inns of Court's Wakefield, the scheme's architect, concedes that the creation of a new bottleneck could be ‘a risk’.
Yet recent statistics from the Bar Barometer which show a growth in tenancy numbers – for example, between 2009-2011 the number of tenancies increased by 15.8% – suggest that there is a danger of overplaying the risk of creating a glut of pupil barristers.
And even if there are not enough tenancies to go round, the overwhelming consensus among students and barristers seems to be that BPTC graduates will be in a better position with a completed pupillage on their CVs than without.
As Kudom puts it: ‘The main issue is getting pupillage, something which in itself will hopefully open doors. That is what most Bar students are thinking about at the graduation stage.’
In a recovering economy, where law students’ confidence in their career prospects is growing, the hope is that a scheme that sees graduates through to the next stage of their careers will help set them up for a future in the law – whatever changes await the profession over the coming years.