Are you tempted by the bar but unsure whether being a barrister will offer the same financial security as becoming a solicitor?
The most recent figures from the top civil sets in England and Wales show that far from being a risky proposition, becoming a barrister poses fewer risks now than ever before. And salaries for barrister pupils are remaining well ahead of those for trainee solicitors, despite the flurry of recent increases introduced by law firms.
Compared with the annual average of less than 30,000 for trainee solicitors in a large commercial law firm, a pupil in one of the top civil barristers’ chambers will earn around 35,000 – and more and more young barristers will be on salaries of more than 40,000 by October 2007.
Commercial set 3 Verulam Buildings will be the first chambers to significantly exceed 40,000 for a year’s pupillage, with 42,000 paid to pupils from October 2006.
One Essex Court and Four New Square are also likely to raise the award above their current rate of 40,000 by 2007, while both Essex Court Chambers and chancery set Wilberforce Chambers will be paying 40,000 by then.
At the same time, an increasing number of barristers’ chambers are introducing guaranteed earnings and interest-free loans for newly-qualified members to ease them through the first months of tenancy.
PUPILLAGE AWARDS: THE FIGURES
Under Bar Council rules introduced three years ago, every set of chambers in England and Wales must pay pupils a minimum of 833.33 a month (totalling 10,000 annually), plus reasonable expenses. All of the top 30 sets comfortably exceed this amount, and indeed have done so for several years. Pupils are more likely to be paid the minimum in chambers specialising in criminal law and relying on publicly-funded work, which are under ever more pressure from government funding cuts.
Of the top 30, Exchange Chambers in Manchester is the lowest paying set, offering pupils the 5,000 minimum in the first six months of pupillage. In the second six, pupils are paid what they earn, with a guarantee of at least 10,000. Chambers director Tom Handley says that in practice, pupils usually exceed the 10,000 by a significant amount.
The other large regional sets – No 5 Chambers and St Philips in Birmingham and Manchester, and Leeds based Kings Chambers – currently pay below the going rates in London. However, St Philips is planning to nearly double its current pupillage award of 18,500 to 35,000 in 2007, which will equal the majority of chambers in the capital.
Those responsible for choosing pupils and marketing them to clients think the awards are worth the money. As Keating Chambers’ senior clerk Nick Child says: “All I want is the best possible pupils to work with.”
As an extra inducement, all sets offer around a third of the award as an optional advance loan during the year at bar school. The draw-down means that while doing the Bar Vocational Course (BVC), barristers-to-be will be able to pay for accommodation, books and the like without having to take out yet more student loans.
In the same way that figures for pupillage awards are significantly higher than salaries for trainee solicitors, the draw-down is generally on a level or higher than LPC grants, which now vary between 3,000 and 7,000, depending on the firm. It must be taken into account that taking advantage of the draw-down will affect pay during pupillage year, but it does offer the pupil a choice.
CUSHIONING THE TRANSITION
The draw-down system is replicated by some chambers at the end of pupillage. Sets such as Exchange, Brick Court or 39 Essex Street offer an interest- free loan during the first year of tenancy to enable young barristers to take out a mortgage or pay off student debt. The favoured amount is 50,000, and if it is taken out new tenants will pocket whatever they earn above that sum.
But guaranteed earnings are growing in popularity, as chambers aim to further cushion the difficult transition between being a pupil and being a self-employed tenant. It often takes several months before fees start coming in, making the first few months of practice extremely challenging.
Four New Square is the most generous with its guaranteed earnings, offering a total of 150,000 for the first three years of tenancy. The earnings are split so a new tenant will receive 60,000 in the first year, down to 40,000 in the third.
Ben Hubble, the set’s pupillage committee chair, says: “Guaranteed earnings rarely need to be called upon by our junior tenants but, together with our system of subsidised rent and expenses in their first years, they enable our new tenants to plan confidently for the transition from pupil to practitioner.”
Other sets offering guaranteed earnings include Fountain Court Chambers, Maitland Chambers and Serle Court. Fountain Court gives new tenants 37,000 in their first year at the set, the same amount as it currently pays pupils. Maitland extends the guarantee into the second year of tenancy, offering a total of 70,000 during the two years. Serle Court also offers a guarantee for two years, giving tenants 100,000.
All the chambers which operate a guaranteed earnings system say their junior tenants earn well over the amount paid. Several clerks in other chambers voice doubt as to the need for a guarantee, with one describing the system as “artificial”.
A more common method of making young barristers’ lives easier is to reduce the contribution new tenants make to chambers. These contributions account for the rent of a room within the building, as well as staff salaries and other expenditure. For a fully-fledged practitioner, contributions range from just 6 per cent at 2-3 Gray’s Inn Square up to 22 per cent at 39 Essex Street.
A FUTURE AT THE BAR
Once those first months are over, earnings for young tenants at the top sets compare favourably with assistant solicitors of the same age in City law firms, ranging from around 65,000 to as much as 150,000 depending on the practice area. This is, however, before tax and chambers contributions are taken into account.
Paul Shrubsall, senior clerk at One Essex Court, points out: “Those that make it through are really good. Young barristers are marketed very cheaply, therefore they put in a phenomenal amount of work to make these incomes.”
3 Verulam Buildings’ senior practice manager Nicholas Hill says: “The junior bar still represents excellent value for money. I can still get someone really good at fees which beat law firms.”
Many clerks and barristers argue that the value-for-money factor will keep the independent bar alive under increased threat from solicitors’ firms. Some barristers seeking the financial security that a salary provides are now employed by solicitors. More pressure comes from solicitor-advocates, who are able to argue cases before courts in the same way that barristers can.
The prospect of higher awards is likely to keep attracting top-quality candidates to the bar, and will put more pressure on pupillage places. As revealed by The Lawyer in May 2005, there were 20 per cent fewer pupils at the bar in 2004 than in 2003, and this number is likely to drop again this year. The top sets attract hundreds of applicants for a handful of places and the message now is clear – for the successful and hard-working, the rewards can be great.
|Chambers||Current award (K)||New award (K)||New award effective from||Guaranteed tenancy earnings?|
|Brick Court||35||38||1 April 2006||50,000 interest-free loan available in first year of tenancy|
|Essex Court||37||40||October 2007||No|
|One Essex Court||40||N/A||Due to rise in October 2007||No|
|Fountain Court||37||N/A||To be reviewed in summer 2006||37,000 in first year|
|Blackstone||35||N/A||Always under review||No|
|20 Essex Street||36||N/A||Reviewed annually||No|
|Maitland||40||N/A||Not rising at present||70,000 during first two years|
|No 5 Chambers||30||N/A||Not rising at present||No|
|7 King’s Bench Walk||35||N/A||Reviewed regularly||No|
|3 Verulam Buildings||40||42||October 2006||No|
|3/4 South Square||37||N/A||Not rising at present||No|
|St Philips||18||35||October 2007||No|
|Serle Court||40||N/A||Reviewed regularly||100,000 during first two years|
|39 Essex Street||30||N/A||Reviewed regularly||30,000 interest-free loan offset against earnings|
|4 Pump Court||35||38||October 2007||No|
|Littleton||30||N/A||Not rising at present||No|
|Four New Square||40||N/A||Due to rise in October 2007||150,000 during first three years|
|Quadrant||30||35||October 2007||50,000 interest-free loan|
|Exchange||15||N/A||Reviewed annually||50,000 interest-free loan during second six and first 18 months|
|7 Bedford Row||36||N/A||Not rising at present||No|
|One Crown Office Row||30||N/A||Not rising at present||No|
|Outer Temple||30||32||October 2006||No|
|4-5 Gray’s Inn Square||31||N/A||Reviewed regularly||No|
|XXIV Old Buildings||30||N/A||Likely to rise for October 2006||No|
|2-3 Gray’s Inn Square||25 + 2nd six month earnings||N/A||Reviewed annually||No|
|Source: The Lawyer|