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In this post I talk about what I learned about 'playing the game' after applying for pupillage for the first time and reflecting upon the experience

I really REALLY hate playing the pupillage game

Applying for pupillage was a strange experience to say the least. Over the course of about 12 months I prepared to write the biggest applications yet. But the thing was, I never really felt all that mentally “checked-in” whilst completing them. As I explained in my post ‘Why I’m stopped pressuring myself over pupillage, gaining pupillage is just one step in a much longer journey. Also, when I applied for pupillage I wanted to be ready.

There are two main things I learned from my first pupillage application experience: firstly, I hate playing the ‘game’ to get ahead. Secondly, there comes a point where you have to back yourself and say “f*ck it” and just stand behind who you are. In this post I talk about how it felt applying for the first time, knowing that pupillage applications are a game and one that I was statistically less likely to win.

“Just play the game Blessing…”

I can’t keep count of how many times I have been told to just play the game to get ahead at the Bar. My immediate follow-up question is why? Why is it that a profession that supposedly prides itself on being comprised of fearless, independent advocates asks those attempting to enter the profession to fit and conform into something they aren’t just to be successful? Why is it that despite barristers being described as self-employed advocates, we are essentially applying to join chambers who, at the end of the day, want you to fit into their ‘brand’ so that they can get a return on their investment?

When chambers such as Garden Court became the first to pay their pupils, it wasn’t a lucrative sum aimed to lure top talent, it was recognition that 12 months of unpaid vocational training is too great of a cost for many to shoulder and therefore this mandatory training period ought to be funded. The discrepancy between pupillage awards nearing £60 – 70k at Commercial and Public sets to the measly amounts of around £10 – 12k available at Criminal and Immigration sets shows you that pupillage awards are emblematic of the disproportionate salary attainment within the Bar across practice areas. There’s something deeply uncomfortable about joining a profession where my friends and colleagues could be making a fraction of what I make for the same, if not more work.

What kind of community am I joining anyway?

On some days I’m not even sure what it is I am applying for. I don’t want to be part of a ‘brand’, I want to be part of a community. Beyond the shiny websites and large pupillage awards how many chambers can I really look at and feel as if there is a community that I belong to in there? I have had enough personal experiences that have shown me that many people consider the Bar to be some sort of ‘hierarchy’ of which I am placed at the bottom. I’m hardly jumping at the chance to get myself involved with a chambers that I can’t even guarantee sees any value in me. After all, I was told by a member of one ‘top’ Public set that I was a “bog standard 2:1 from Warwick” and therefore would have to work harder to impress. So how is it that I convince chambers that do not even have one black female member that I am ‘top’ talent worthy of joining their ranks?

The latest BSB statistics show that where white students and black students attain the same grades, white students are still two times more likely to gain pupillage. I talked about this before in my post ‘I am a black aspiring barrister, but the statistics say I might not make it‘. I wrote that blog post in 2017 and the numbers still haven’t changed. So again, I am entering into a community with the knowledge that white students with the exact same grades, experience and accolades as me are more likely to get a pupillage than I am.

Am I playing the game or playing myself?

With that in mind, you can see why I find playing the game stupid and exhausting. Why should I break myself in half trying to make up for whatever it is that makes my white friends and colleagues two times as likely to make it than I am? It’s crazy to me that race is relevant in all of this. What is even crazier is that noone seems to want to shake things up and change the system. Despite statistics showing the Bar has a deeply engrained issue with racial attainment gaps, nothing is done. I’m just told to play the game. But how do I play when I know the odds are stacked against me? How do I know that I am on an equal playing field in comparison to my friends and colleagues?

For so long I’d sit and think: am I playing the game or playing myself? It left me feeling a mixture of apathetic and frustrated. How do I cross to the next stage without feeling as if I have lost something of myself in the process?

12 rejections later, I get it now

When I received 12 rejections without interview, I was somewhat apathetic towards it. There were only about five chambers that I felt kind of sad to have not been able to secure an interview with, but for the rest of them I charged it to the game and kept it moving. I didn’t need to get myself stressed out about not getting interviews. Why should I? Nothing is guaranteed! I know of many people who interviewed everywhere but it didn’t translate to a spot. Think of all that time they poured into interviews, travel, assessed work…

There was something else I realised when I got those 12 rejections: I need to stop focusing on feeling comfortable. There are few spaces in the Bar that fully accommodate me. The majority of the Bar is built to accommodate a culture that has been built without me in mind. Down to the wigs barristers wear in court as Mike Etienne brilliantly pointed out:

Proving my worth

It was a realisation I was always going to come to, but found hard to accept. I’ve wanted to become a barrister for nearly my whole life. I was so convinced that I would find myself embraced by this institution that I had worked and sacrificed to be a part of. That was naive of me. I understand now that it is going to take me forever to find a place that sees value in me. Instead, I have to advocate for why I am valuable. I have to work twice as hard as some of my peers to prove this value and worthiness.

Now I have accepted this, I am going to re-focus my energy for the next round of applications. But I have also decided something else. I am going to make it my business to challenge the ways in which the Bar alienates people. I am going to help make it a community that recognises difference and individuality as innately valuable. For the sake of my sanity I can’t just play the game and hope to win.

Until next time,