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The Oracle

How do I become a human rights barrister?

updated on 23 November 2021

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 capable of practising as a human rights (or any other) barrister, and graduates from several universities secure pupillage every year. However, Oxford and Cambridge remain overrepresented in the pupillage statistics.

The statistics

The Oxbridge bias among many chambers disproportionately disadvantages ethnic minority candidates, given that only around 3.7% of Oxford’s 2020 intake and 3.9% of Cambridge’s 2020 intake were Black. 

Read more about this in LCN’s Feature: ‘Black candidates share legal recruitment experiences’.

The Bar Standards Board’s (BSB) 2020 diversity data also highlighted that at the Bar just under 14% of practising barristers and only 9% of Queens Counsel (QC) are from ethnic minority backgrounds, with ethnic minority candidates making up only 23% of pupils. This is important because administrative and public law (which covers human rights law) is a common practice area for aspiring barristers.

Research by the BSB relating to students enrolled on the BPTC (the old vocational stage of training for the Bar) from 2011-12 to 2019-20, shows that 77% of White candidates with a first-class degree and an ‘outstanding’ BPTC grade secured pupillage, compared with 65% of candidates from an ethnic minority background with the same grades.

This research suggests that even when ethnic minorities have the same academic credentials as their White counterparts, they are still at a disadvantage in securing pupillage, and might find it more difficult to become a human rights barrister.

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, BPTC grade and degree class.

 In 2019 and 2020, higher proportions of White applicants secured pupillage offers when compared to other ethnic groups. Applicants from lower socio-economic backgrounds were less likely to receive pupillage offers.

The report highlights that pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds find it harder to secure pupillage than similarly qualified White British peers. The report states: “While [ethnic minorities] are not under-represented at the Bar when compared to the working age population, they are when compared to the pool of applicants.”

The legal profession continues to implement initiatives to create and promote a profession that is 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; and
  • 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 and this shows that if you are set on this path, the competition will be stiff.

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.

As you are still in your second year, we advise learning a little more about the UK legal landscape before deciding that human rights are the only option you will 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 (FRU). You can also volunteer for NGO organisations to showcase your social justice interests.

First, it could give you a better chance of securing pupillage, but second, we have lost count of the number of lawyers we have 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 had never considered during university.

Even a decision to try for the Bar represents a narrowing of your odds of gaining training. The BSB 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 is not just about big, headline-making cases – most of it is about helping powerless individuals being oppressed by everyday institutions such as their employers, landlords or the immigration authorities.

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

  1. Compared to your peers at school and university, are your academic grades among the best?
  2. Do you participate in mooting, pro bono and debating at the highest level available to you?
  3. Are you a good communicator? This doesn't mean 'are you quite opinionated?' – barristers must be eloquent speakers.
  4. Have you researched the legal profession and started looking for work experience/mini-pupillages?
  5. Are you a self-reliant person who's got determination and 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.

Find out more about social mobility in careers in law.

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