Reading – for the dull? Pupillage – for the privileged?

OK, the website LegalCheek isn’t what I might call a high-level information website; it’s there for fun. And possibly as a subtle reminder for lawyers, and aspiring lawyers, to watch themselves on social media. (“Be nice or they’ll write an article about you on LegalCheek…”) But an article came up the other day, entitled “11 Things Not to Do in a Pupillage Interview”. Which I read (being an inveterate reader of everything including toffee papers) despite it not having anything to do with me.

Imagine my surprise to read the following:

7. List your hobbies as “reading”, “walking” or “going to the cinema”.

Unless you consider normal day-to-day activities such as “blinking” and “breathing” are also hobbies, these things are not hobbies for most sentient and/or mobile individuals.

Hobbies are racing swans or building models out of scrap metal or land yachting. Oh, and while we’re on the subject; things like “visiting mausoleums” or “attending séances” are not hobbies either, they are just downright weird.

And:

11. And finally…you know that bit where we ask you if you’ve any questions? The correct answer to that question is almost universally…

No.

Unless of course it’s an interesting question we’ve not heard 200 times already. Which it won’t be. That’s actually our signal that the interview is over and it’s time to exit. “So make like a tree, and leave.”

To take the second point first, I’ve always thought that they call interviews “interviews” because the process goes both ways. As a person considering joining the company, firm, or chambers, you are trying to evaluate them just as much as they are trying to evaluate you. After all, do you really want to be stuck in a working environment with whose philosophy and workplace culture you don’t agree? “Any questions?” asked by the interviewer is there to help you figure out whether you want to work with them. Its secondary purpose is to enable them figure out whether you have enough practical common sense to ask practical questions, and enough interest in the job to ask them – at least, it has been when I’ve been interviewing. Of course, if this article is to be believed, barristers’ Chambers (or, at least, the author’s chambers) don’t like their pupils asking questions – which tells me something right there.

And for the first point… reading and walking not hobbies? Then, of course, you carry on and read the comments, and further suggested hobbies are ‘land yachting’… ‘playing the contra-bassoon’… ‘ice-climbing’…. there is a whole list of hobbies which are united by one common factor: they are expensive.

The argument given is that ice-climbing and land-yachting make you an interesting, well-rounded person, while reading and walking do not. This shows a distressing lack of appreciation of what makes a person interesting. How many of us have been trapped in a room with a person who has but one interest in life (ice-climbing, for instance) and will not shut up about it? Or several, equally exciting interests, but will not let anyone else get a word in edgewise? Are these people interesting and well-rounded?

On the other hand, take the inveterate reader. I’ve sailed round the world with Clare Francis, and circumnavigated it by divers means with Phileas Fogg. I’ve flown with Douglas Bader. I’ve bicycled to India with Dervla Murphy. All without leaving my own home, and for the price of a book (or for free in some cases). My parents, when I left school, didn’t have the money to send me on some expensive gap year to build orphanages in Tanzania. I don’t have the money now to go sailing.

Instead, I read. Philosophy, ethics, theology, metallurgy, fashion, baking… pretty much anything. I may not be able to fly a plane, but I know more or less how the controls work. I can discuss comparative theology and the nature of belief with a Islamic scholar and come out the other side not looking a complete idiot, and with both of us having had an enjoyable conversation.

Reading opens the whole world to me – and not just the world of things to do. It introduces me to people and societies I would never have encountered otherwise. I’m not confined to the people who share my interests (and my background) – I can meet anyone, anywhere, any time, and take a look into their lives. A good book, too, allows you to get inside people’s heads – you can learn why people do what they do. What makes people tick? And what does that mean for society?

To devalue reading is to devalue a pursuit that can enable you to talk to anyone, about anything. You may not be the world’s expert on quantum physics but at least you know enough to maintain a conversation with someone who is. Which would you rather be on a long train journey with: someone who can only talk about their own interests – or someone who knows enough to talk about yours?

Then we come to disregarding ‘walking’ as a hobby. This is just as bizarre. Yes, most of us can do it, and yes, taking an amble down to the corner shop to get a pint of milk doesn’t really make it as a leisure pursuit. But ‘walking’ as a hobby is not about walking-for-utility. It’s about walking for walking’s sake, and also for seeing the countryside. I’m not a keen walker myself, but most of my husband’s childhood holidays were walking holidays, and it seems to have stuck. ‘Walking’ as a hobby includes such things as doing the Pennine Way – a 270 mile walk, generally done in three weeks (or, if you’re feeling particularly gung ho, two). My husband did it when he was fifteen, and wants to do it again.

Walking is not flashy, but it can be pretty physically demanding. I wonder if this contempt for walking stems from the fact that it’s not ‘exciting’. Walking is a hobby that requires you to slow down. You get from A to B at a top speed of about 4m.p.h.. This is much underrated, because it gives you time to notice things around you. Flowers. The way grass grows when it’s kept short by sheep (very short and fine, almost like a bowling green, but with more dung). The feel of the sun on your face (or, more usually in the UK, the feel of the rain down the back of your neck). Water. For me, one of the best parts of walking is encountering streams and rivers. I just like them. I could watch them for hours. Walking also gives you time to think. Your body is occupied doing something fairly repetitive, and that gives your mind time to mull over things that need mulling – or just to relax and do nothing for a while.

However, an even more worrying aspect of the ignoring of hobbies such as reading and walking in favour of ‘flashy’ pursuits and achievements is who has access to what. Reading and walking are inherently cheap – or even free. Exciting gap years, yachting, ice-climbing, etc – all cost significant amounts of money. My husband is a teacher, and one of his students (the first in his family to apply to university), said “Gap years? They’re for middle-class rich kids.”

Not only does a gap year cost money during the year itself, but that’s one more year in which the gap year student is not earning their own living. One more year in which their parents have to support them – even more difficult if there are younger siblings to be supported too, especially with university fees to factor in.

In selecting for pupils who have ‘exciting’ hobbies on their application form, this indirectly selects for pupils with money. Or, rather, puts an additional barrier in the way of pupils without money.

Look at the numbers in this document: http://www.barcouncil.org.uk/media/177469/bar_barometer_nov_2012_web_upload_higher_res.pdf

Chapter 13 (starting on page 42) is the bit you want.

Page 48: Level of debt amongst pupils. 22.5% have no debt. Now, how do you think that happens, with at least three years of university fees and the BPTC (which can cost up to £17,000 for the year) on top? A further 2.5% have less than £1,000 debt. Where does all that money come from? If the student isn’t paying for it (and some are likely to be mature students with savings), then that will be parents. I know my parents didn’t have a spare few thousand when I finished my undergraduate degree.

Page 49: Most frequently attended universities. The most frequently attended is Oxford (20.2% of pupils) and the second-most frequently attended is Cambridge (14.3%). So more than a third of pupils are Oxbridge graduates. Looking at Oxbridge and social class, there is some data (admittedly from 2010) indicating that Oxford and Cambridge were the two universities with the lowest proportion of undergraduates from manual occupational backgrounds. The same figures give the total number of undergraduates in the UK; Oxford and Cambridge together account for 1.63% of all undergraduates. So a pupil barrister is 21.1 times more likely to have done their undergraduate degree at Oxford or Cambridge than the general population.

Page 50: Schools attended by pupils. 39.6% of pupils stated that they attended fee-paying schools (as opposed to 11.2% – in 2009/10 – of the general population). So pupil barristers are over 3.5 times more likely to have gone to a fee-paying school than the general population.

On page 51 (Chapter 14), it states that 64% of pupils attended a Russell Group university, and 81% came from a professional background.

One could, of course, argue that working class people are inherently not clever enough to be capable of being barristers. That the Oxbridge-and-fee-paying-school educated applicant is simply the demographic of the ‘best person for the job’. But it is rather difficult to believe that this is the whole story. Do we really believe that Oxbridge graduates are 21 times more likely to make good barristers than graduates of other universities? Or that on average, people who went to fee-paying schools are 3.5 times better than the state-educated?

Interestingly, some solicitors’ firms (e.g. Clifford Chance) are starting to acknowledge openly the concept of ‘CV bias’ – that the selection process gives a significant advantage to applicants with ‘the right background’ (i.e., Oxbridge, fee-paying school) that goes beyond any objective factors such as the known fact that Oxbridge takes a much higher proportion of the very brightest students than other universities – so to get into Oxbridge, you have to be pretty bright, and the very brightest are encouraged to apply there. This policy has, apparently, made a difference, with many more applicants from different backgrounds gaining places.

So students who did not go to a fee-paying school, and did not go to Oxbridge, are already at a severe disadvantage when applying for pupillage. By adding a requirement to have expensive hobbies, the disadvantage is increased. Attending Oxbridge is clearly more important than attending a fee-paying school (21x rather than 3.5x) – and is technically within the reach of those who are not wealthy (although the number of manual-class students going to Oxbridge is low). However, by adding ‘flashy’ hobbies to the list of requirements, this effectively eliminates anyone who doesn’t have the spare cash to spend on such things – and, since you can be a boring ice-climber just as easily as you can be an interesting walker, does nothing to achieve the stated purpose, which is to choose ‘interesting, well-rounded’ people.

It’s quite natural, of course. People want to work with people who are ‘our sort’ – people who share a common educational and social background. It cuts down on those awkward moments when a casual conversation about whether or not it’s necessary to wear a crash helmet while skiing reveals that one member of the group has never, in fact, been skiing. But nowadays, there is more appreciation that this is a barrier to social mobility, and that people should be judged primarily on their ability to do the job, not on their social background. The attitude that ‘people should stick with their own class’ is gone – at least, officially.

Of course, one shouldn’t take the LegalCheek article too seriously. After all, it’s meant to be a bit of a joke. But it’s a joke that has a grain of truth to it. The numbers support the assertion that if you are a non-Oxbridge state-educated applicant, your chances of getting a pupillage are likely to be significantly lower than otherwise. If Chambers are also penalising applicants who do not have ‘exciting’ [expensive] hobbies, then this is likely to further reinforce the Bar as one of the last bastions of social privilege in the country.

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