Guest Blog: Barriers remain for non-traditional students wishing to become barristers

5 May 2016

Struan Campbell (Inner)

The first detailed study into the role of the Inns of Court in increasing social mobility finds that students from non-traditional backgrounds continue to face serious challenges to access the profession, despite the efforts of the profession, universities and other organisations. 

The study, funded by Keele University and the Honourable Society of the Inner suggests these challenges stem from a number of sources, including gaps in understanding of the profession amongst the students themselves, universities and the profession, the career advice given to students interested in the Bar and financial constraints which make it difficult for students to undertake work experience.

It highlights the difficulties that some universities may experience in negotiating the line between providing balanced, realistic and accurate careers advice and reinforcing stereotypically perceived constraints about the profession. 

But what is the solution? 

The report recommends that the Bar build a dialogue with universities to make it clear that recruitment is based on merit rather than educational establishment or background, while, at the same time, exploring strategies to address the ways in which educational establishment and background continue to shape opportunities for access to the profession.

It calls on those in the profession to do more to help non-traditional students, by offering expenses to students on mini-pupillages, for example. It also finds that more should be done to ensure that those in the profession who have the responsibility for administering mini-pupillage schemes gain a better understanding of social mobility, educational disadvantage and the alternative paths that students from non-traditional backgrounds may have taken before applying to the Bar. 

The study draws on the experience of students who participated in the Inner Temple's Pegasus Access and Support Scheme (PASS) (www.pegasus.me), a programme designed to support students from underrepresented backgrounds into the profession, in part by helping them to find a mini-pupillage and covering the associated expenses to allow them to complete it. The report shows that PASS works very well in increasing mutual exposure between non-traditional aspirant entrants and chambers.

As Dr Elaine Freer, who authored the report, says what is clear is that we need more mutual understanding between potential students, higher education, and the Bar to ensure that gifted students from non-traditional backgrounds do not slip through the net.  Inner Temple's work goes some way to addressing this by administering a scheme which offers mini-pupillages on the basis of potential and achievement wider than academic qualifications. Such experience of the profession provides a forum in which stereotypical views held by both non-traditional aspirant entrants and the profession can be challenged. 

Traditional thoughts on work experience might prevent those sitting on interview panels from recognising the depth and breadth of experience that underrepresented students might have gained through other means.  Our understanding of what merit is and how it is applied is often ill-defined. Interview and selection panels must be clear on what they are looking for. Otherwise the experiences of underrepresented groups can often be overlooked. 

As gatekeepers to the profession and the only bodies that can call students to the Bar of England and Wales, the Inns of Court play an important role in creating access to the profession and educating future barristers. Since 2009, the Inner Temple has established a wide range of outreach initiatives to work towards a more diverse profession and this report shows that our programmes are transformational for individual students. The report is also challenging reading about what more can be done and we will not shy away from these challenges. 

Read the full report here https://issuu.com/theinnertemple/docs/22113_innertemple_final_report__2_/1 

Struan Campbell, Outreach Manager at The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple