Almost a third of the bars biggest civil sets will pay pupil barristers 40,000 by this time next year as they keep up the heat on solicitor rivals in the war for young talent.
By 2007 the top four sets will offer at least 40,000. The 2006 average for pupil awards stands at 36,500, 1,500 more than the current magic circle benchmark of 35,000.
3 Verulam Buildings has emerged as the highest-paying set, offering pupils 42,000 this year and raising that sum to 42,500 in October 2007.
But One Essex Court and Four New Square are on course to offer the most lucrative 2008 packages, with plans to unveil 45,000 awards for new pupils in two years time.
Meanwhile, Fountain Court Chambers and 11 Kings Bench Walk (11KBW) are both hiking their pupillage awards to 40,000 next year, joining Four New Square, Keating Chambers, Maitland Chambers, One Essex Court, Serle Court and Wilberforce Chambers.
The main aim of chambers offering lucrative pupillages is to attract the cream of young legal talent. Paul Shrubsall, senior clerk at One Essex Court, said: Its to do with forward planning. Weve got to be thinking ahead with the general rates being paid to trainees and income at the bar. We take on four pupils, meaning we pay that figure [45,000] four times over. Thats the level of investment were putting into recruitment. We want to stay on top of the tree and, with purely mercenary concerns, attract good people.
The large regional chambers have also been doing their best to keep pace with the London sets. This years intake at Birmingham set St Philips will get 35,000, the same as pupils at top London chambers Blackstone, Landmark and 11KBW, and 5,000 more than those at Matrix Chambers.
Northern set Exchange Chambers has hiked its 2006 award up to 25,000 from 15,000 last year.
But as the competition for good pupils pushes up the value of the pupillages, fewer placements are being offered. Last year numbers of new pupils dropped to 527 from 572, according to statistics from the Bar Council. Chambers are now more likely to offer one or two high-paying pupillages rather than a greater number of mid-range packages.
Money is unlikely to be the only factor when choosing to accept a chambers, with pupil barristers attracted by the type of work, reputation of chambers and intellectual stimulation.
Nick Hill, senior clerk at top-paying set 3 Verulam Buildings, said: People decide that they want to be a barrister at an early stage and they focus on it. Predominantly, these people are after an intellectual challenge and a good award is the icing on the cake.