It’s not news to note that becoming a barrister now involves a significant financial risk, and usually a significant amount of debt – a situation likely to be exacerbated by the pending hike in undergraduate fees. Even at present, the GDL will cost up to £9,000 and chances are you’ll be paying for that up front out of your own pocket. Banks are understandably reluctant to loan money to those whose career plan involves spending £25,000 on course fees with a 1-in-8 shot at securing pupillage. So without a lottery win or having been born to wealth, what is the GDL student to do to pay for their diploma?
I wasn’t alone in working through the (full-time) GDL at City University, but I think I was the only person working full-time, getting a job in an editorial support role at a national newspaper.
It wasn’t the easiest of years – I had worked full-time through degrees before (I ran a wine shop as an undergraduate, and worked in supply chain through my MA), but the GDL year is somewhat different. City University prides itself on a fairly academic approach to the conversion course – there are about 20 hours of fixed class time per week, and at least 20 hours of reading and research required to participate in any meaningful way. It’s more intense than many students expect. Add 40 hours of work and that’s 80 hours a week. What really tipped the balance was the 20-plus hours a week required for mooting, debating, pro bono, FRU training, prize essays, chambers evenings, mini-pupillages, qualifying sessions, pupillage applications and interviews.
These three elements – the GDL itself, paid work, and the pupillage hunt – totted up 100 hours most weeks. Juggling these three elements may not have been advisable (I secured pupillage at my first choice commercial set, but only managed a middling Commendation in my GDL exams) but if you’re thinking of working (part-time or full-time) through your GDL/pupillage hunt, then these are my pieces of advice that might come in useful.
Be honest with your employer – The vast majority of employers talk a good game about supporting staff through training, but it’s fair to say that someone who is intending to leave in a year or two and has half a mind on a difficult post-grad course isn’t always going to be Employee of the Month. You need to have an honest conversation with your manager(s) about the demands of the course, and how you can schedule your work around it. Never assume that you can ring-fence the GDL and pupillage hunt as ‘personal life’ and keep them in the dark: it’s too big and unwieldy for that.
I was lucky in having a very understanding manager – I took lots of 5am starts (giving me the afternoon off for lectures), and swapped a Sat/Sun weekend for a Tue/Wed break from work, as those were full days at Tutorials/Lectures. As soon as you have your GDL timetable, work out a regular shift pattern that will allow you to attend all classes and agree it with your manager. Don’t agree a changeable or ad hoc shift pattern – the regularity is absolutely necessary to help you plan the variables (extra-curricular activities, mini-pupillages). Dealing with uncertainty is too tiring – it could be the straw that breaks your back.
Don’t assume that you can miss classes on a regular basis. It’s tempting to think that you can cut corners. You might be forced to towards the end, but start on the basis that you should never miss a single class. The GDL is too intense to say “I’m missing Tort lecture every other Wednesday”. You’ll never catch up. Even people who don’t have a job are forced to cut the occasional class for things like mini-pupillages – you need to start from the same basis as all other students: the presumption of attending every class.
Use paid leave sparingly – if you’re working because you need the money, then it stands to reason that you don’t want to take unpaid leave. I used my paid leave predominantly for mini-pupillages (about 10 days taken ad hoc) and for the exam period (15 working days in June, allowing for 2 clear revision days per subject, the exams themselves, and any first round pupillage interviews). Expect that you won’t get more than a day or so for Christmas etc, and if you can do Bank Holiday working, you’ll earn a day in lieu, which helps.
Extra-curricular has to be carefully chosen, and your should consider how time-consuming it will be versus what it adds. Does doing seven mooting competitions support your application more than doing two? If you do FRU, do you need to do Employment and Social Security, or will just one of them tick the pro bono box? Pick extra-curricular that takes place out of office hours where possible – prize essays and moots. Chambers evenings in the first term are unmissable, but obviously only go to the ones relevant to the area(s) for which you’re thinking of applying. Marshalling and mini-pupillages are full-day affairs, and kill your time.
To that end, I’d suggest you should be sparing with mini-pupillage applications – I thought they’d be really tough to get, applied to loads, got almost all of them, and then couldn’t turn them down as they were places I wanted to apply for full pupillage. Add to that the mandatory assessed mini-pupillages that many top-sets insist upon in the interview process, and I did around 12 mini-pupillages between January and July 2011. That’s stupid. You need 3-4 in the area(s) you intend to apply. Decide on your area(s) of law quickly based on the first month of the GDL, choose sets carefully, apply early, and negotiate for shorter mini-pupillages (1-2 days instead of 3-5 days). That said, my final round interviews correlated almost perfectly with places I had done mini-pupillage, so where you want to end up should still be the principle criterion. Just don’t apply for 15 mini-pupillages that then eat up all your paid leave.
Also, do your research. Some Chambers care about your GDL results (even about your procedural coursework marks that don’t count towards the final result, if those are mentioned in your academic references), others only judge you on your first degree(s). If you’re aiming for a set that demands a Distinction on the GDL and will ask for your results at interview, then be aware of that when balancing GDL with paid work. My approach, with full-time work, was that I needed to not embarrass myself on the GDL, but I was unlikely to perform as well has I had done in my first degree. In that respect, there were one or two pupillage applications that were probably wasted – it was important for them that their pupils had come top of their year in the GDL as well as their BA. Working full-time, that was never going to happen for me – use the brilliant chambers evenings that City arranges to ask the barristers whether your GDL is an important factor for them, or whether they rely on your previous degree results. That will help you choose sets and also to calibrate your work/study/extra-curricular balance.
Calendar management is everything – for most of this year, I knew what I was doing every day in the next month, and some days I knew what was planned every 15 minutes of my time awake. Have a central online calendar with everything – lectures, work schedule, and most importantly deadlines. Key ones are for BPTC scholarship applications from the Inns of Court (November), mini-pupillage applications (October/November), OLPAS (April), coursework deadlines (throughout the year), moot competitions, and FRU training days. Every day you need to look at your plans/deadlines for the next three days.
Regular sleep is non-negotiable – if you’re doing 80-plus hours per week, it might be capped at 5 or 6 hours a night, but it must be regular. Set a pattern and stick to it. If you can be as disciplined about your eating and exercise times, then even better, but those are less crucial. You’re not going to get much rest – make sure it’s as effective and restorative as possible.
Lastly, take the credit for being industrious. The majority of students either accept massive debt, or are subsidised by family members through the GDL. They have a tough-enough year handling the GDL and pupillage hunt alone. Don’t hide the fact you are working as well. Chambers will understand that it has (some) impact on your academic performance, and will appreciate both the time-management and professional skills obtained from having balanced work with study in such an intense year. It’s certainly not an excuse, but I think it dispels any suspicion that you’re not serious about being called to the Bar (which is especially useful if you’re a career change candidate). You are going to be working harder than many others in your cohort – don’t do it in secret.
Greg Callus is a freelance blogger/journalist, who studied for the GDL at City University 2010/2011. You can follow him on Twitter.