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Funding your law studies

law course fundsComing from a low income background creates many barriers when pursuing a career at the Bar. However, Hannah Stephenson describes how some of these hurdles are not as great as they may seem.

The Bar, and the legal profession as a whole, is crying out for individuals that reflect the society it represents. For too long the law has been dominated by white middle-class males. Progress is increasingly being made in overcoming this problem. However, the huge financial burden of pursuing a career as a barrister continues to deter bright and dedicated individuals from underprivileged backgrounds.

This problem has been recognised by many institutions, and is currently under review by the Bar Council. Until the time when a formal solution is made to encourage individuals from underprivileged backgrounds to enter the profession, there remains a degree of financial support available that can make that journey possible.

Undergraduate degree

In order to become a barrister, an applicant needs to obtain an undergraduate degree from university. Studying a qualifying law degree will always be less of a financial burden than a non-law degree. This is because a non-law degree must be followed by a conversion course, the Graduate Diploma in Law, which means more tuition fees and more studying.

When applying to university, there are three main sources of funding available:

  • Tuition fee loan and maintenance loan (from the Student Loans Company)
  • Bursary obtained through university or charitable organisations (see charities search below)
  • Through part-time work

Postgraduate degree

Although a postgraduate degree is not necessary to become a barrister, given the high level of competition in obtaining a pupillage, this further qualification may set you apart from other candidates. There is also a colourful variety of courses available, and you may be able to find a course that you will enjoy and which will provide a valuable learning experience. Such courses are expensive, but scholarships may be available through the university or the academic department. In addition, large scholarships based upon merit are available through the Arts and Humanities Research Council (see below for website).

Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC)

The GDL is a one year compulsory law course to be undertaken if you graduate from University with a non-qualifying law degree. The BPTC is a compulsory course for all candidates who wish to become barristers, and teaches the skills necessary for a career at the Bar. Unfortunately both courses are ridiculously expensive, at some institutions costing over £12,000. The vocational stage of the BPTC acts as a huge deterrent to aspiring barristers, especially those from low-income backgrounds.

There is funding available, and the main source of funding comes from the four Inns of Court, one of which you must be a member of before commencing the BPTC. The Inns operate different deadlines, and different criteria for awarding scholarships, therefore it is important to research the scholarships available before joining an Inn and applying for funding.

Further funding may be obtained from some of the BPTC providers (for example BPP and the Inns of Court School of Law). If pupillage is obtained before commencing or during the BPTC some chambers offer a ‘drawdown’ of the pupillage award. In addition, some local authorities also provide small grants, and it is worthwhile enquiring as to any support available.

Many students, however, from all backgrounds have to fund themselves partially or entirely with a high interest bank loan. However, HSBC will, from September 2008, be offering favourable loan schemes to individuals commencing the BPTC. This scheme is the result of an arrangement between HSBC and the Bar Council and Inns of Court. The interest rate on the loan is 1% above the bank’s base rate, and no repayment is required for the first three years. The criteria for receiving this loan includes acceptance on a BPTC course, and for the student to have applied to their Inn for a scholarship. All applications must be dealt with through HSBC’s London Barrister Commercial Centre in Fleet Street (see Bar Council website).

Pupillage

Upon completion of the BPTC, individuals are required to undertake a minimum of 12 months pupillage within chambers, places for which are highly competitive. Barristers’ chambers are now required to provide candidates with a minimum of £10,000 per year and to reimburse reasonable travel expenses. Although a very small sum, it is a huge improvement on the past practice of requiring pupils to pay chambers a fee for the privilege of undertaking pupillage.

Nonetheless, some may find pupillage the most trying period, particularly if required to undertake an extra six months (which people specialising in criminal law will have to do) where there is no guaranteed income. It is this period of training where the elitism of the Bar is most obvious and it is often only individuals from wealthy backgrounds who can survive this stage. Very little support is available from the Inns, and many pupils have to undertake separate part-time work in order to support themselves. Despite the competition to obtain a pupillage, it is still highly advisable to look closely at funding arrangements, and to be realistic about which barristers’ chambers to apply to. Some may also find is useful to save some money before pupillage if it is possible.

Final thoughts

Becoming a barrister is a great challenge no matter what your background. If you are from a low-income background it may seem impossible. However, if you are bright, motivated and informed, it is possible. Six years ago I lived in a Hull council estate with a single mother receiving income support. Today I am a pupil barrister at a chambers in London.

Knowing the right places to look for funding is your best weapon.

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