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The Oracle

How do I become a human rights barrister?

updated on 04 June 2024

Dear Oracle

I want to become a human rights barrister but I keep hearing that only Oxbridge students get pupillages. Is this true?

The Oracle replies

Reading time: four minutes

You don't have to study at Oxbridge to be able to practise as a human rights (or any other) barrister. Graduates from many different universities secure pupillage every year. That said, Oxford and Cambridge students continue to be overrepresented in pupillage statistics.

To find out more about practising in this area of law, read this barrister practice area profile.

Human rights

Many flattering portrayals of lawyers in fiction centre on practice areas such as crime and human rights – these are issues that rightly get a lot of people fired up. In practice though, they represent just a fraction of the legal profession's activities and consequently only a small percentage of the available training opportunities. Therefore, we’d advise learning more about the UK legal landscape before deciding that human rights is the only option you’ll consider.

You can do this through your module choice or by carrying out some pro bono work at the National Pro Bono Centre or the Free Representation Unit. You can also volunteer for non-governmental organisations to showcase your social justice interests.

For more on the benefits of mooting, read this LCN Says: ‘Why you should get involved in mooting’.

First, it could give you a better chance of securing pupillage, but second, we’ve lost count of the number of lawyers we’ve spoken to who went into training contracts and pupillages with a firm idea of what they wanted to do, only to find that the reality was very different and that they loved practising in an area they’d not considered during university.

The Bar Standard’s Board statistics show that only around a quarter of Bar course students secure pupillage. To that end, be aware that if you’re interested in human rights, there are other ways to pursue this than solely trying to become a human rights barrister.

High-street solicitors who practice immigration or employment law deal with various human rights issues regularly, for example, so you could think about pursuing a career in one of these areas.

Remember that human rights work isn’t just about big, headline-making cases – most of it’s about helping powerless individuals being oppressed by everyday institutions such as their employers, landlords or the immigration authorities.

Read this commercial question by Womble Bond Dickinson to find out more about the abolishment of ‘no fault evictions’ and its affect on landlords and tenants.

But if you firmly believe that practising as a human rights barrister is what you want, asking yourself the following questions could help you to determine your chances of success:

  1. Do you participate in mootingpro bono and debating at the highest level available to you?
  2. Are you a good communicator? This doesn't mean 'are you quite opinionated?' – barristers must be eloquent speakers but also excellent listeners.
  3. Have you researched the legal profession and started looking for work experience/mini-pupillages?
  4. Are you a self-reliant, determined individual with thick skin? Whatever you decide, make an informed choice and good luck.

For more on what the Bar Council has to say on this subject, visit its ‘Becoming a barrister’ section.

The statistics

The Oxbridge bias among many chambers has disproportionately disadvantaged ethnic minority candidates for many years. However, more recently the number of British students from ethnic minority backgrounds admitted to these prestigious universities has been very slowly growing. Of Oxford’s 2022 intake, 27.8% were from a UK-domiciled Black and minority ethnic background and 33.6% of Cambridge’s 2022 intake reported that they were from an ethnic minority background. These numbers, while improving, don’t take away from the fact that the lack of diversity within the legal profession itself remains troubling.

The Bar Standards Board’s (BSB) 2023 diversity data also highlights that at the Bar only 16.9% of practising barristers and 10.7% of Kings Counsel (KC) are from ethnic minority backgrounds. Meanwhile, the percentage of pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds increased from 22.7% (2022) to 24.9%.

Research by the BSB relating to students enrolled on the Bar course highlighted that the proportion of Bar course students who’d attended Oxbridge was around 50% of UK-domiciled students. That said, around 48% of those who enrolled on the course in 2022/23 were from a minority ethnic background. When broken down, Asian/Asian British and mixed/multiple ethnic backgrounds made up the majority of this increase with the proportion of students from Black/Black British backgrounds actually decreasing. Previous BSB research has identified that “ethnicity and socio-economic status have a significant impact on students’ performance on the vocational Bar training courses and their ability to obtain pupillage”. The BSB has said that research into recruitment practices will provide “additional evidence” to improve the BSB’s knowledge “around factors contributing to the issues highlighted in previous research and statistics and to enable us to share good practice that meets the equality priority” in its strategic plan.

In addition, a Bar Council Race at the Bar report published in November 2021 concluded that candidates from ethnic minority backgrounds are less likely to obtain pupillage than candidates from white backgrounds, even when controlling educational attainment such as university ranking, grade obtained at the vocational stage of training and degree class.

In the BSB’s Diversity at the Bar 2023 report, higher proportions of white applicants secured pupillage offers when compared to other ethnic groups. Only 6.2% of pupils were from a Black/Black British background, compared with 75.1% of white pupils. Applicants from lower socio-economic backgrounds were less likely to receive pupillage offers.

The legal profession continues to implement initiatives to create and promote a profession that’s representative of the UK population, but what can candidates do in the meantime? As a non-Oxbridge student, you should try to do the following to have the best chance of success:

  • Achieve excellent academic results.
  • Gain mooting experience.
  • Get involved in pro bono work.
  • Have some legal work experience.
  • Be prepared to compete with Oxbridge candidates.

To answer your question asking whether only Oxbridge graduates get pupillages, the answer is no. However, Oxbridge graduates do get a lot of the pupillages.

Find out more about what the legal profession is doing to improve access for candidates from low socioeconomic backgrounds in The Oracle.