Becoming a Barrister: My experience of the court GDL scholarship

The GDL Interview

What’s the worst thing that could happen?

Before my interview for an Inns of Court Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) scholarship, I decided that the worst thing that could happen would be for me to throw up. The grotesque absurdity! Oh, it would be too horrible to bear! Never mind that at no point in my life had I ever vomited during an interview, exam or similar situation; that didn’t stop me from worrying that I would on this occasion. There’s a first time for everything, I told myself grimly, rehearsing my apology to the Hon. Mr Justice Sternfrown for ruining the Inn’s lovely carpet.

Some explanation is perhaps required. I want to be a barrister. To become a barrister, I must undertake three consecutive stages of training: a “qualifying law degree”, followed by the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) and then pupillage, a one-year apprenticeship with an approved organisation. Most barristers will have an LLB as their qualifying law degree; non-law graduates like me must study the GDL, a year-long course comprising the essential elements of the study of law.


Getting funding

At the time of writing, UK or EU students planning on studying the GDL full-time could expect to be charged course fees of £5,000-£11,000, depending on the provider. The BPTC is more expensive: course fees for that range from around £13,000 to around £19,000.

I am in the immensely fortunate position of being debt-free and having parents who are willing and able to help me fund the GDL. I’ve also managed to accrue some (modest) savings. However, there’s no way that I’ll be able to pay for the BPTC without a scholarship.

The main sources of funding for the GDL and BPTC are the various course providers, and the four Inns of Court: Gray’s Inn, Inner Temple, Lincoln’s Inn, and Middle Temple.

The Inns are the fount of the profession – they and they alone may call a barrister to the Bar (ie grant them the right to represent a client in the courts). All students must join one of the Inns before enrolling on the BPTC, but it’s a really good idea to investigate them before you reach that stage. You can apply to only one Inn for membership. The same goes for scholarships.

Each Inn has a generous fund for scholarships to subsidise the GDL and/or BPTC. All Inns scholarships are based on merit, with a means-test then applied to determine the financial value of the award (with the exception of some of the top awards, which have a set minimum value). An Inns scholarship is probably not going to cover your course fees and living expenses for the GDL or BPTC, but if you can demonstrate financial need, you may be granted a sum of several thousand pounds – and a commensurate sense of relief.

What’s more, you will have been officially vetted, your potential recognised by senior members of your professional association. That’s why I applied for a GDL scholarship. The result would give me some idea of how I came across to those well placed to consider my prospects as a barrister. And it might also give me a leg up when it came to applying for pupillage.

When I was a child, I suffered an irrational fear of being caught in a volcanic eruption. I had this ritual involving my sister’s old red-tinted ski goggles, which I had appropriated and kept in the top drawer of my bedside table. Every day for a period of around a month, I would don the glasses, stare out of my bedroom window and imagine a mass of boiling ash hurtling towards the house. I think the idea was to inure myself to the image of that which I feared the most. Actually, I just ended up thoroughly terrifying myself.

At the age of 28, I find myself doing pretty much the same thing, only now I’m looking at pupillage statistics and imagining my future careening towards me like the boulder from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Competition for pupillages is fierce, with around 3,000 hopefuls looking to obtain one every year – and only around 430 on offer.

If you, like me, have a compulsion to read the comments sections of legal blogs and pore over ossified The Student Room threads, you will repeatedly come across the assertion that without an Inns of Court scholarship, your chances of pupillage are nil. I was fairly sure that not one of the people behind those assertions had ever been involved in the pupil selection process. And yet I chose to believe them.

I have always attempted to fortify myself against disappointment and other kinds of pain by doggedly expecting the worst. Obviously, I don’t tell people that’s what I’m doing: I tell them that I’m “preparing”. As well as torturing myself with the stentorian monitions of StewieGriffinBarrister1992 and BAR_bieGIRLxoxo, my interview preparation involved attempting to determine the worth of a GDL scholarship. I had no doubt that a GDL scholarship would be A Good Thing, but I wanted to find out just how good – in order to ascertain just how worried I should be if I did not receive one. My research proved fruitless. There is no universal rubric for assessing pupillage applications; it’s up to the assessors to decide how much weight they will place on a particular achievement. A cursory glance at the barrister profiles listed on the website of my local chambers revealed a few recent pupils who do not hold Inns scholarships for either the GDL or the BPTC. But all that told me was that an Inns scholarship wasn’t a make-or-break thing for those individuals.

Faced with this uncertainty, I decided to conduct some futile research into the proportion of GDL students with scholarships from the Inns of Court. That would at least give me an idea of my chances of receiving one. By applying advanced name-counting techniques to The Times’ annual register of Inns scholarship winners, I found out that 84 individuals received a GDL scholarship from one of the Inns of Court in 2016. According to the latest available data from the Bar Standards Board, 275, 268 and 307 GDL graduates were studying the BPTC (full-time or part-time) in 2016, 2015 and 2014 respectively. Taking the mean of these figures (283) to be the number of prospective barristers who embark on the GDL each year, I was able to reach the wobbly conclusion that around 70% do not hold an Inns of Court GDL scholarship.

Did this mean I had a 30% chance of getting one? No. My chances depended on the quality of my application and how I came across at the interview. About a million intangible factors would be at play, especially during the face-to-face bit. Not vomiting would definitely help.

Reader, I didn’t vomit. And that’s all I’m going to say about my interview. Preparation is one thing, but it so easily becomes useless speculation: “What’s the worst that could happen?” “What would this mean?” “What are my chances?” Your interview will not be mine. It will be yours and yours alone. A blow-by-blow account would serve no purpose, and might even prove counterproductive. The words would embed themselves in your brain. You’d come away with an expectation, and that expectation would probably be false.

Your Inn will hopefully send you a list of the sort of questions you might be asked at your interview. If it doesn’t, the best way you can prepare is to review your application and keep an eye on items of legal interest in the news. And then, when you sit down in that waiting room, put your notes away and talk to the people waiting with you. That’s what I did. It wasn’t a conscious decision; I’m just a very talkative person. But it turned out to be a good move – I entered my interview buoyed by a sense of camaraderie, and with a new awareness of my own individuality. My fellow interviewees, I realised, are not degree classifications and professional experience and extra-curricular activities – they are people; they are different; and so am I.

I got a scholarship. I’m both proud and grateful to have received one. It’s a good start: no more, no less. The deadline for Inns BPTC scholarship applications is in November. I’ll try to leave the goggles off this time round.