Chambers: Top tops on accessibility during the pupillage application process

We are approaching crunch time for the pupillage application process. Chambers and employed Bar organisations will be looking for talented and committed applicants, who will necessarily go on to have a hand in shaping the profession as it modernises and comes to reflect society as a whole.

It is important that disabled applicants are not inadvertently blocked off from the opportunity to show their potential. It is important because they have the right to be able to apply for such positions; it is important because the profession may otherwise be deprived of crucial representation and perspectives.

I’m a pupil at 9 St John Street Chambers in Manchester. I completed the GDL whilst suffering from health problems and then took a different career path before I received the treatment that enabled me to return to my journey to qualification: I first worked for a disability rights charity aiming to improve employment prospects for young disabled people. I then worked as Equality and Diversity manager at Matrix Chambers, where I was on the Research Reference Group for the academic study Legally Disabled, which provides research on the experiences of disabled legal professionals.

From a mixture of my personal and professional experience, I offer the following (albeit inevitably subjective) tips for chambers and employed Bar organisations wishing to attract and accommodate disabled applicants.

As disability is different for everyone, please do contact the Bar Council on Equality@BarCouncil.org.uk if you have other tips or suggestions or would like to share your own experiences.

1. Provide accessibility information about your chambers or employed Bar organisation and the interview process

It is time consuming and awkward for applicants to cold call everywhere on their application list to find out whether they will be able to access an interview (for example, whether they will be able to get into the building or receive written papers for tasks in alternative formats).

Pupillage providers should publish online information about the accessibility of their premises. This will also be of use to other visitors. If chambers or employed Bar organisations are unsure how accessible they are to people with a range of disabilities, the Bar Council provides an accessibility self-audit tool.

It is also useful to provide a contact name and number/email for applicants to discuss and request reasonable adjustments beforehand, alongside a clear message that requests are welcomed.

If the current restrictions relating to the coronavirus continue, some chambers or employed Bar organisations may not be holding face to face interviews. Information about the premises will still be relevant to applicants as they will need to know about how they will access the building in the future. Further, applicants may need to make reasonable adjustment requests relating to online processes. 

2. Publish the outline of your mark scheme for candidates, and find a way of allowing candidates to show their skills/background in less traditional ways

Applicants with disabilities are likely to have faced barriers on their route to the Bar. For example, someone may have had an undiagnosed condition and therefore some of their grades are lower from when they did not have necessary treatment. Certain advocacy events, mini pupillages and career opportunities may not be accessible to some disabled students. Recently, a number of students with reasonable adjustment agreements in place were unable to complete the BPTC or had to complete the BPTC without their reasonable adjustments due to the way the exams were delivered during the pandemic.

If chambers or employed Bar organisations publish the marks available for each section of the application form, it enables applicants to identify particular elements of potential disadvantage and either dedicate their time to applying somewhere else, or target any explanation of mitigating circumstances to the specific areas that may be affected.

Other ways of resolving this situation is to mark the forms using contextual recruitment (where experiences and qualifications are put into the context someone was in when they gained them) or to allow applicants who can demonstrate relevant experience in less traditional ways to gain points for this.  

3. Words are important but actions speak louder.

Many pupillage providers now publish statements expressing the desire to recruit from candidates with a wide range of experience and who come from a range of backgrounds. This is a welcome step and such a statement on a website can provide an applicant with much needed encouragement when applying.

However, it is much harder to actually set up the processes that deal with deep rooted issues, than it is to publish the statement. If chambers or employed Bar organisations can demonstrate their commitment as well as voicing it, this will provide still further assistance. This could be done in a number of ways, from demonstrating that the current barristers are from a range of backgrounds, to hosting or attending events relating to access/ diversity/disability at the Bar, to offering mentoring, mini pupillages or guaranteed interviews for disabled applicants. 

Isabel Baylis is a pupil at 9 St John Street, Manchester. Until recently, she was the Equality and Diversity Manager at Matrix Chambers, she sat on the Bar Council's disability panel and was part of the Research Reference Group for Legally Disabled, a research project into the career experience of disabled legal professionals. Isabel has a professional background in disability rights and has past personal experience of disability.