I write from West London…

I write from The Bollo, Silk Cut lit, a glass of Rioja to my right, on this last day of legal smoking in enclosed public spaces.

The rain continues to fall and I have decided to spend my afternoon writing and catching up on the events of the week. And what a remarkable week it was.

First, we had Ruthie being interviewed on the Today programme about snobbery and exclusion at the Bar. Ruthie went to South Bank University, applied for pupillage, was told that she was competent to do pupillage but was rejected by Chambers because her university was not acceptable to Chambers – it would not fit with the ‘Chambers notepaper’. John Humphrys countered with the perfectly reasonable point that perhaps it was less a case of snobbery than a desire for Chambers to recruit the best from the best universities which, of course, include Oxford & Cambridge. It is difficult to counter such a point – although Ruthie did her best to. Listen to her interview with John Humphrys. Enjoyable interview. As a tribute to the good old days of the BBC… I wore a dinner jacket to listen to this wireless interview.

The practical reality is that there is a league table of universities, with Oxford & Cambridge at or near the top in pretty well every field of scholarship and research. Not unreasonably, recruiters to leading law firms and Chambers will seek to recruit from the top universities in preference to middle or lower order universities. That is the way of natural selection and competition.

Ruthie, however, has a point and it is this point which the legal profesion can do something about – if it is so minded. Many of those who are able to secure a place at a top order university come from privileged, middle class or wealthy backgrounds and have, more likely than not, enjoyed the very real benefit of private education. giving them a competitive advantage, over those less advantaged, in terms of getting into a top order university. The BBC covered this in an interesting news item.

The BBC reports than 70% of judges enjoyed the benefits of a private educationa t our leading public schools and 78% come from Oxford & Cambridge. I believe in competition but I also believe in socialism. The two are not, as some may feel, mutually exclusive. I shall return to this and the question of diversity and access – a theme I am working with others on in another guise.

And so… we have a new government of all the talents.

Cyclops, The Highwayman, Broon…whatever you care to call him, ascends to the role of Caesar: with no glowering Chancellor, or other power base, skulking in the sidelines to subvert, disrupt or be blackmailed by. Early days, but the inclusion of Admiral West as a Security Minister and retaining the services of the politically independent Lord Stephens is likely to prove a significant boon to bolster government in the field of security and counter terrorism. Less interested in the Business Council which is, to my eye, is a piece of ‘froth’. The government has always been in a position to draw on advice – presumably? Cameron is likely to be under some pressure now. The Independent, today, suggested that it was time for cameron ‘to do serious’ and give the ‘sunshine’ a bit of a rest. Osborne continues to be deluded into believing that The Tories will have a better chance of winning an election with Blair gone. The fact that Brown is unlikely to be a great orator at the Despatch Box may well prove to be a benefit. Do we see the beginnings of a return to government by Cabinet and power and prestige being returned to Parliament?

And now… that the Rioja is hitting the spot… to other matters…
First… advice from my brother Charon M.D.

Don’t urinate on a jelly fish sting. Urine has absolutely no effect on jelly fish stings and you will almost certainly find yourself getting some pretty strange looks from others nearby or receive unwelcome attention from the British Transport Police. Go immediately to a restaurant and ask for some vinegar. balsamic vinegar may also work, and you can order some bread and olive oil while you soothe your sting.

It came as no surprise to find that Charlie Falconer was dropped as Justice Minister and LC. Surprised only that he hung around waiting for the summons for directions – but as I am not privy to his thoughts or ways, I am not able to comment further. Jack Straw as LC without going into the Lords – a first working of the Constitutional Reform Act in this context… as a judge friend of mine pointed out to me. It was not, as it happens, necessary for him to do so – but he does enjoy giving me of his wisdom and on most occasions it is useful to receive it. Is the A-G role soon to be reviewed? is change in the wind, in terms of power?

And… if you would like to read an interesting review of Taking Liberties by Lawyer-2-be…here it is.

I had no idea it was the 200th anniversary of Garibaldi’s birthday. Thank God for The Independent for carrying this breaking news today.

7 thoughts on “I write from West London…

  1. Re Urine, vinegar and jellyfish stings. I came across a great product Safe Sea which is a repellant for jellyfish. Honestly, it does exist and better still it works. Apparently confuses the jellyfish by sending chemical messengers which make the predator think that you are another jellyfish. Works brilliantly and no sting. Downside, I guess is if it is the jellyfish mating season!!

  2. The BBC reports than 70% of judges enjoyed the benefits of a private educationa t our leading public schools and 78% come from Oxford & Cambridge.

    But they all went through the education system some 35 and more years ago, so so what? It’s a bit late now to wave a magic wand and do something about entry to the legal profession back then.

    So far as entry to the Bar, and indeed solicitors, are concerned, I fail to see why it should be the role of private professionals -and lay clients- to indulge in social engineering to remedy the pig’s ear that 40 years of successive governments have made of state education.

  3. But we could try and measure distance travelled in our applicants, rather than the point at which they are now stationary. Eton and Oxford (2.1) may not, in fact, be as impressive as Inner City Comp and Leeds Met (2.1). That is so particularly if Asian girls have traditional familes – who may well want them studying near to home regardless of academic attainment.

    That isn’t social engineering. It’s actually recruiting the best people – or rather the people who are quickest to learn and will be the best over the next 5 years. And very few barristers hit their stride fully before then. Oxford and Cambridge (which is where I went so I have no chip on my shoulder about this) get applicants who are near the best of those groups who have a sufficiently sophisticated academic view to appreciate what Oxbridge offers. That excludes quite a lot of minorities – something the universities themselves recognise and are trying to address.

  4. Simon Myerson makes a good point- there is a hierarchy whereby degrees from top institutions are more valued in the market place. However, and my blog contains a rather long pontification on this point, Eton and Oxbridge are not the be all and end all of the profession. There is such a thing as being so academically intellgent that one forgets how to relate to the real world, or to the clients who employ one’s services. I didn’t even apply for oxbridge as at the time I couldn’t afford to leave home. I don’t regret that and was happy with my university. My regret is that the professsion is not as meritocratic as it presents itself.

  5. I don’t deny that distance travelled is an important indicator, if you can properly assess it and weigh it up with the tools you have at application and interview stage. The difficulty is the time and effort required to assess that. In my view, with the number of available pupillages so small, and the pool of applicants so large, -at least as far as the end of things I know about, the Chancery Commercial bar, is concerned- every single place will have a number of applicants with Firsts from top universities who have the potential to develop into extremely good barristers and who are perfectly capable of relating to clients. I don’t accept that a First, or a higher degree is directly related to being over-academic: that phenomenon does exist but plenty of first-class degree holders are perfectly practical. Nor do I accept that Oxford, Cambridge, and the rest of the Russell Group, produce academic marvels with no grasp on the practical world. On the contrary, having knocked around academia for a while before going to the bar, they’re rather good at developing the necessary practical skills: problem solving, presentation, analysis of evidence etc. (Admittedly I would say that as I have a first and a higher degree from oxford, albeit not in law. For what it’s worth, I went to a small independent grammar school.)

    It’s important to remember that pupillage committees already spend vast amounts of time and effort on the exercise – which they could be applying either to actual chargeable work or, you know, having a life. It’s difficult to tell them not to use a tool which can get 50 applications for one place down to a pool of 15 to consider carefully for the one or two places: and in that 15, they will almost certainly still find exemplary candidates with all the required skills. And yes, you do look for practicality then, but frankly that’s easier to assess in pupillage: to a large part it needs learnt skills to bring it out and that, in part, is what pupillage is for. We’re coming up to our tenancy decisions now, and I deliberately gave our pupils opinions to write for me which required a practical approach -awareness of costs, litigation tactics etc, rather than an academic screed on an obscure point. They both produced exemplary work.

    Two final points: clients, lay clients that is, do often care about what university their barrister went to and how they did, though not school really (and personally I don’t know many Etonians). Secondly, at least in our set there are several, including among the current pupils and those lined up for the future who went to comprehensives and then went on to Oxford, Cambridge, or other Russell Group universities and got Firsts. They often rather strongly take the line: “if we could do it, why shouldn’t they?” Eton and Oxford (2.1) may indeed not be as impressive as Inner City Comp and Leeds Met (2.1). But what about Inner City Comp and Oxford (First)?

  6. Liadnan,

    Agreed – I know one person who has done that and they are a future member of the House of Lords.

    We could get controversial about this. I think a certain amount of street smarts is helpful in a barrister. Strategic awareness, tactics etc are important, but eventually litigation is about taking a witness apart…

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