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Careers Centre

Barrister

Sector Overview

This page has been written by Shona Mach, the relevant Careers Adviser for this occupational area. To see how you can meet Shona, or any of our advisers, visit our website.

In Scotland, lawyers can specialise as an advocate after having first qualified as a lawyer (see Solicitor). In England and Wales, individuals train as either solicitors or barristers from the outset. The work of a barrister or advocate is attractive to the many who would like a highly challenging, rewarding and independent life. It is not a choice of career to be entered into lightly, since the competition and lifestyle are so intense; more than almost any other, you need to research this option thoroughly before committing yourself.

There are more than 12,000 independently practising barristers working from over 700 sets of Chambers around England and Wales, of whom about two thirds work in London, and about a third are women. A further 3,000 barristers work (a growing number) in an employed capacity for various organisations. The gender balance for new pupils and tenants has been remarkably even in recent years but the profession, for historical reasons, is still predominantly male in its upper ranks.

The Independent Bar is under increasing pressure both from solicitors' rights of audience and from government reforms and budget pressures. The commercial areas of the Bar are the most flourishing, with the criminal and matrimonial areas under particular pressure, being more dependent on Public Funding administered through the Legal Services Commission (Legal Aid).

These factors, and the inherent risks involved in pursuing the self-employed career of independent practice, are leading increasing numbers of able, interested applicants to consider joining commercial firms of solicitors in order to pursue advocacy training within that profession. This has led the Bar to review its funding arrangements to prevent the brain drain to solicitors and, in particular, to oblige chambers to offer guaranteed funding for pupillage (the one year period of practical training. At present this minimum salary stands at £12,000 pa though many commercial sets will offer considerably more (up to £60,000 pa).

Nature of sector or roles

The great majority of barristers train and work in independent practice, i.e. in chambers all over the country. However there are a number of employers, including many government departments, some of whom train but more of whom employ qualified barristers.

There can be considerable differences in the nature of a barrister’s work: family or criminal barristers may be appearing in court most days, while many specialising in commercial work spend the majority of their time drafting pleadings and opinions. There is pressure from the government to reduce court work by encouraging settlement out of court; this means that in general there is a drift towards more paper based work and away from advocacy in court. Sometimes Barristers may be involved earlier in more complicated and demanding commercial matters, becoming part of the legal team.

Barrister attributes profile

Key attributes needed for the roleWhere you could develop these skills or attributes
The analytical skills to solve complex problems These are most likely to be developed and evidenced from your academic studies, especially any dissertation or research project. Challenging Mooting experience may also develop the needed skills in a relevant context. See the University of St Andrews Law Society - mooting
The ability to present an argument persuasively in speech and writing Presentations within your course, and mooting or debating experience. A student representative role is also likely to offer opportunities to develop these characteristics
Time management skills CAPOD offers courses on Time Management regularly within its Professional Skills Curriculum. Also attend other CAPOD courses which address any identified development needs.
Other key attributes demanded for the role : do you possess them?
  • Self-reliance: as a barrister is self-employed and dependent on reputation
  • Integrity: a keen moral awareness and commitment is needed to underpin legal analysis
  • Determination: the career path and day to day work are very challenging
  • Resilience: set backs are inevitable

Networks - why and how to use them

Networking is particularly important and can really help you succeed with your applications. If you have been in contact with someone working for an organisation you are applying to you will have extra information to back up your case for why they should employ you.

Join the University of St Andrews Students' Law Society which hosts regular events enabling you to meet and speak with law firms and others in the legal field. Employers are impressed if you say in applications that you have spoken with members of their firm at Law Society events, the University of St Andrews Law Fair and Employer Presentations. Use these opportunities to introduce yourself to representatives; ask for their business card so that you can make contact in the future.

Use social media sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter to keep up-to-date with employers and the sector.

Have a look at the Network with Alumni section of our website for more advice and information.

How to gain experience/internships

Thorough research is essential before you commit yourself to the Bar. You will not be able to get direct experience, i.e. in assuming the role of a barrister, but you can read about the barrister’s role, talk with and observe barristers, and try out some of the essential skills which a barrister has to deploy.

By far the most important preliminary step you can take is to undertake one or more “mini-pupillages”. These work experience visits to barristers' chambers give you the opportunity to observe the work directly, to talk to barristers and to decide what area of practice you might like to work in. Some chambers use assessed mini-pupillages as part of their assessment procedures. You can identify those chambers offering mini-pupillages through the Chambers student website. Chambers will consider applications for mini pupillages to take place at any time of the year. For most chambers, there are no deadlines; applications are considered when they come in. In practice many people apply for Easter or summer vacation times in December or January. August is a very quiet time at The Bar, with courts closed down, so you are less likely to be offered time then.

Taking opportunities to debate, moot or otherwise talk to large groups is valuable experience. Join and participate in mooting through the St Andrews Law Society.

Once you have a law degree or GDL, you can take advantage of being able to work for the Free Representation Unit or Citizens’ Advice Bureaux to gain advocacy experience. Once you have joined an Inn, you can also apply for the marshalling opportunities (assisting a judge) offered.

Read TARGETjobs Law Vacation Schemes & Mini-pupillages which offers information and advice on getting mini-pupillages.


International Students

International (non-EU) students will find it very challenging to be taken on by sets of chambers. We suggest you consider International Law Firms based in London, while bearing in mind current visa restrictions, and acquiring advocacy training through them as an alternative.

How to get a (graduate) job

There is a prescribed route to becoming a practising independent barrister.

  1. The academic stage. To complete this you need first to have either taken a qualifying law degree or a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), after another first degree.
  2. The vocational stage. This is completed by passing the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC).
  3. Pupillage. Similar to the Training Contract if you were applying to be a solicitor. To complete the pupillage students have to undertake at least 12 months in two “sixes” before they are eligible for tenancy.
  4. Tenancy. This is a permanent position in the chambers which offers it to you. You are then an independent practitioner but you work as a member of your chambers.


Academic Stage

Your chances of pupillage, and therefore tenancy, are significantly improved if you have a first class degree. During the academic stage you will have to study the foundations of legal knowledge in the following areas: constitutional and administrative law, criminal law, contract law, law of tort, land law, equity and trusts, EU Law.

Non-law graduates need to complete the Graduate Diploma in Law or Senior Status law degree. Gaining a distinction increases your chances of gaining a pupillage. As the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) is now offered by a number of providers, you may wish to take your GDL at the same institution, or in the same geographical location, as your BPTC. City University is the one institution where the GDL course is geared primarily towards the needs of would-be barristers who form the majority of its students. An online application system contains details of and links to all GDL course providers.

Before you begin the vocational stage of training you must join one of the Inns of Court, institutions which offer competitive scholarships for both the GDL and BPTC courses.

Each Inn has a Student Officer part of whose job is to give advice on applying to an Inn and their Scholarships’ application process. These officers can also be extremely helpful in arranging relevant contacts for you to speak with, and in advising on the character of individual sets of chambers. Do make use of them!

Their details are as follows:


Vocational Stage

This is accomplished through taking the BPTC.

An online system of applications acts as a clearing house for all BPTC courses.

Your application for the BPTC will be assessed according to your degree results, the evidence you can provide of having relevant skills (refer to the list above) and your references. There are no selection interviews. 2941 applicants competed for the 1071 (FT & PT) available places to start in 2013/14.


Pupillage

Under 500 people completed pupillages in 2011/12, the most recent data available, and similar numbers in previous years.


Tenancy

335 tenancies were awarded in 2012, the latest data available. Pupils usually gain their tenancy in the Chambers where they have completed pupillage. It used to be comparatively straightforward for strong candidates to get a tenancy elsewhere; that is no longer so easy. A number of unsuccessful applicants may find themselves staying on in the Chambers for ‘Third Six’ (in effect a further pupillage) whilst seeking a permanent place somewhere.

How to finance your training

The costs involved are considerable. The GDL course fees are up to £10,000, depending on the provider, while BPTC fees vary between £11,500 and £17,000. Living expenses for a year in London will be over £10,000 if you do not have access to free or subsidised accommodation. Chambers are obliged to contribute at least £12,000 to pupils during the pupillage year. Some pay considerably more.

Law course providers

The College of Law, BPP and Kaplan all offer GDL and BPTC scholarships.


Scholarships from the Inns of Court

The closing date for GDL scholarships is usually 30th April for the following academic year for a GDL. You need to obtain your own application form from the relevant Inn’s Student Officer (see contact details above) who will also send you supporting information.


Bank Loans and other Sources

All the High Street banks offer schemes for students during the vocational year and the pupillage year. Note that the branches of High Street banks in the vicinity of the Inns in London are likely to be the most knowledgeable and helpful in arranging a loan at preferential rates. It may be worth moving the location of your account! The Bar Council has set up a loan scheme with HSBC on preferential terms.

You can also look into the Government Career Development Loan scheme.

There are a few charitable trusts that are prepared to consider applications for financial help towards vocational training e.g. the Thomas Wall Trust. Details of numerous trusts are included in The Grants Register 2016, The Guide to Educational Grants 2016 and The Directory of Grant-Making Trusts - all available for reference at the Careers Centre.

Also access the Careers Centre Funding Online Database.

Key UK links and resources

Careers Centre resources

Online

Use CareerConnect, your central careers hub, to:

To take Away

Links

AGCAS

AGCAS has produced a good resources guide which contains a wealth of information resources for those interested in a career in law. A high quality and comprehensive resource listing.


Scotland

England and Wales

USA resources

The USA job market and recruitment timetables, for both internships and graduate jobs, for sectors of employment often differ from the UK.

The Careers Centre subscribes to the reputable independent USA careers information and vacancy provider Vault. The links below will take you directly to Vault subscription resources which cover this sector. You may find further useful and relevant resources linked from there as well.