How do I become a human rights barrister?
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I’ve just started the second year of my law degree and want to become a human rights barrister. I keep hearing people say that only Oxbridge students get pupillages. Is this true?
The Oracle replies
You don't have to study at Oxbridge to be capable of practising as a human rights (or any other) barrister, but sadly there remains a clear Oxbridge bias in the barristers’ profession that shows the persistence of elitist attitudes at the Bar. Research by Legal Cheek shows that 45% of new tenants at the 54 leading sets in 2017-18 were Oxford or Cambridge graduates. In 2016-17 the figure was almost 60%, even though Oxbridge students accounted for just 400 of the 24,000 students nationwide to start a law course that year. That almost half of pupillages go to graduates of just two universities clearly demonstrates an ongoing bias.
This is made worse when you consider research by the Sutton Trust, which shows that from 2015-17, 52% of Oxbridge places went to students from just eight elite schools, six of which are private (only 7% of children in the UK attend private schools), leaving the remaining 48% of Oxbridge places for almost 3,000 other schools in the UK.
LawCareers.Net has been criticised by some barristers for pointing this out in the past, but the statistics show the truth. As a non-Oxbridge student, for your dream job to be a realistic ambition, you will need to achieve excellent academic results, gain mooting and legal work experience - and generally 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.
We should also address the human rights element of your question. As you know, many of the flattering portrayals of lawyers in fiction and the media centre on practice areas such as crime and human rights - these are issues which 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. 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 actually 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 on gaining training. Bar Standards Board statistics show that only around a quarter of BPTC students actually find pupillage. To that end, be aware that if you are 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 on a regular basis, for example, so you could think about pursuing a career in one of these areas. Remember that human rights is not just about big, headline-making cases - the majority of it is about helping powerless individuals being oppressed by everyday institutions such as their employers, landlords or the immigration authorities.
But if you absolutely 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:
- Compared to your peers at school and university, are your academic grades among the best?
- Do you participate in mooting and debating at the highest level available to you?
- Are you a good communicator? (NB this doesn't mean 'are you quite opinionated?')
- Have you researched the legal profession and started looking for work experience/mini pupillages?
- Are you a self-reliant person who's got determination and a fairly thick skin?
For more on what the Bar Council has to say on this subject, visit its ‘Becoming a barrister’ section and read the "No bar to the Bar" guide. Whatever you decide, make an informed choice, and good luck.
Find out more about social mobility in careers in law.