How to become a barrister

Despite all the risks and pressures, the bar is an immensely satisfying profession for those who make it. It has an iconic appeal and a romantic image, although a barrister would point out that it involves a lot of hard graft too.

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What does a barrister do?

Barristers’ main work comes from disputes. It is a barrister’s expert knowledge of a particular area of law, be it crime, family, corporate, finance or sport, that can determine the outcome of a dispute. This has been the case since the 13th century.

Traditionally, barristers use their skills in the courtroom, doing battle with a rival before a judge or cross-examining witnesses. Criminal barristers in particular will be in and out of court all the time, defending or prosecuting those accused of anything from road traffic offences to murder.

However, in the commercial world things are changing. The number of disputes going to trial has been diminishing for a number of years. Trials are expensive and many companies prefer to settle out of court.

This has made it harder for young commercial barristers to gain courtroom experience, but it does not mean their expertise is any less important.

Increasingly, it is their paper-based advocacy skills and the ability to present arguments cogently and persuasively that come to the fore. This requires copious amounts of legal research, followed by writing an ‘opinion’ for a client setting out the legal advice.

Alternative methods of dispute resolution, such as mediation and arbitration, are also growing in popularity and barristers are involved in these processes too.

How do I become a barrister?

To become a barrister you must first complete a degree and then at least one year’s further academic training on a course known as the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC).

If you did not do a law degree at university, you will need to complete a conversion course, known as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), before starting the BPTC.

Further reading: The Graduate Diploma in Law

If you pass the BPTC, you are ‘called to the bar’ and are technically allowed to call yourself a ‘barrister at law’. However, many consider it a bit pompous to call yourself a barrister at this stage, as you have not fully completed your training yet.

To actually be allowed to practise you must complete at least one year in a set of chambers as a pupil barrister. This period is known as a pupillage.

Is it tough to become a barrister?

Do you really need to ask? The competition is extreme. The gap between the number of Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) students and the number of pupillages available is growing bigger.

We are not here to put anyone off, but you will need to know your own strengths and make a sensible decision as to whether you have got what it takes. That said, even good candidates may apply unsuccessfully for a year or two before bagging a pupillage. It is a case of judging when to persevere and when to call it quits.

Further reading: How to think like a barrister

What’s the working environment like?

Barristers’ offices, known as ‘chambers’ or ‘sets’, are still housed mostly in London’s Inns of Court – beautiful, ornate and ancient premises in tranquil grounds. Similar environments for chambers are replicated in other major cities, such as Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Manchester.

Although barristers take space in chambers, where they’ll be around others of their own kind and can take advantage of communal facilities, essentially they are their own boss. As a self-employed individual, therefore, they work on their own terms. To be successful, barristers have to work extremely hard. They tend to work some of the longest hours around, but the ability to retain some control over when they work and the type of work they take on is a rare privilege.

Eighty per cent of barristers are self-employed, work in chambers and handle work that has been referred to them by a solicitor.

The remainder are employed in a wide range of organisations, including the Crown Prosecution Service, the Government Legal Service and the British Armed Forces, as well as in commerce and industry.

How much will I earn as a barrister?

Here’s the thing: it really depends. Firstly, barristers are self-employed, so they can work as much or as little as they like. Secondly, earnings vary hugely depending on what are of practice you work in.

At top commercial sets, the money can be huge – maybe as much as £72,500 as a junior, rising to hundreds of thousands after five or six years in practice (though remember, this is all potential earnings rather than guaranteed). For family or public law barristers, earnings are generally much more modest – maybe between £20,000 and £40,000 to start out with and gradually rising.

I didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge. Will it count against me when I apply for pupillage?

No. When recruiting, chambers looking for intellect, analytical skills and the potential to become a successful commercial barrister. An excellent degree (and often postgraduate degree) from any good university will help to show that you have at least the intellectual skills, but then it is mainly down to your interview performance.

The relatively high success rate of Oxford and Cambridge students is probably because their high-standard small group tutorials are good practice for discussing legal topics in pupillage interviews, but some of the best candidates for the bar are not from these universities, and some of the worst are. Don’t worry about your university, worry about your abilities.

DID YOU KNOW?

English judges don’t use gavels, and never have done. So if you’re watching a drama set in the UK and see a judge banging a little hammer and shouting “Order! Order!” you’ll know that the TV producers haven’t done their research properly.

The BPTC

The Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) is a compulsory course that all aspiring barristers must complete successfully prior to starting pupillage. The aim of the course, which can be studied either full- or part-time, is to bridge the gap between the academic study of law and the skills that are needed in practice.

The course takes one year full-time, two years part-time or can be integrated as an extension to a qualifying law degree.

Course length varies between providers but your chosen BPTC must be at least 30 weeks long, excluding holidays. If you choose a full-time BPTC, you can expect to do a full day’s work every day of the working week.

To find out more detail read our article on The Bar Professional Training Course

Further reading: Ten factors to consider when choosing a BPTC provider

Further reading: Five tips for prospective BPTC students

Barrister

Pupillage

After successfully completing the BPTC, you must then start a one-year period of work-based learning known as a ‘pupillage’ before you qualify as a fully-fledged barrister.

Traditionally, pupillages are split into two six-month sections known as ‘sixes’. The first ‘non-practising’ six involves shadowing an experienced barrister. In the second ‘practising’ six, a pupil is entitled to offer legal services and exercise rights of audience under supervision (ie appear in front of a judge). Most pupillages are undertaken at a chambers, but a small number of in-house positions with the Crown Prosecution Service are also available.

All pupils will work closely with their pupil supervisors – experienced barristers who take responsibility for organising their training, supervising progress, allocating work and assessing their performance.

A lot of hard work will be expected of you during your pupillage year. During your first six you will typically undertake legal research, draft opinions, read your pupil supervisor’s paperwork and shadow them in conferences and in court.

Once you have successfully completed this stage of training you will finally be allowed your own clients and to work on your own cases. Significantly, you will also be permitted to appear in court as an advocate.

Further reading: 17 tips on how to get pupillage

Further reading: Pupillage: what to expect

Boost your chances of getting pupillage by…

Getting amazing grades

There’s no getting away from the fact that you will be competing with some of the best academic minds in the country, so it is important to get stellar A-level grades in challenging and traditional subjects and a 2:1 or first-class degree in your undergraduate course.

Doing mini-pupillages

Mini-pupillages offer the perfect opportunity to get to know all about the work of a barrister. It is the bar’s term for a work experience placement and consists of shadowing a barrister in their working life. The length of mini-pupillages is variable but most last a week.

Most chambers select candidates for mini-pupillages by asking for a covering letter and CV. It is always worth double-checking on websites and looking for the name of the person to address your application to. Others will call you in for an interview before offering you a mini-pupillage. Check chambers’ websites for dates, selection processes and entrance requirements.

Some chambers’ mini-pupillages are really well organised, others can be a bit scrappy. If you have a bad experience, do not take it as indicative of what all chambers are like.

The Bar Council, in conjunction with the Social Mobility Foundation, also runs a chambers placement scheme aimed specifically at Year 12 students from low-income families. For more information check out www.socialmobility.org.uk.

Mooting

Mooting is just a fancy word for debating a legal point. Most universities have mooting events and there are regional and national competitions too. If you are serious about becoming a barrister, join your university’s mooting or debating club. It will help you build vital skills and looks great on your CV.

Getting involved with pro bono

Pro bono means ‘for the public good’ – basically, it is giving some of your free time to provide legal help to those who need it but cannot afford to pay for it. It can provide useful experience and is a massive CV-booster. Your university might run a legal advice clinic, where law students assist qualified solicitors helping the public with their problems. Read more about pro bono work here, and check out www.lawworks.org.uk for other opportunities.

Winning competitions

Keep an eye out for mooting, essay and other forms of competitions such as mock trials organised by the Citizenship Foundation. Doing well in one of these really impresses recruiters.

Doing work experience

Remember that other forms of work experience, including vacation schemes with a firm of solicitors and non-law related jobs, are valuable too. The key to all such experience is being able to show what you have gained from it – maybe it has simply confirmed that you want to be a barrister.

When and how to apply

The Bar Council requires all pupillage vacancies to be advertised on its online application system, the Pupillage Gateway (www.pupillagegateway.com). Students are able to apply for pupillages up to two years in advance.

The Gateway aims to make the recruitment process simple for candidates, as you use just one form to apply to up to 12 chambers per recruitment season. The whole process operates under a strict timetable, which both candidates and chambers must adhere to.

Before applying, find out as much as you can about each of the chambers on your shortlist, such as the type of work it focuses on and their pupillage selection procedures, including minimum entrance requirements.

Remember, competition is intense. There are about 500 pupillage vacancies per year, which is significantly lower than the number of students successfully completing the BPTC.

Qualifying sessions

The qualifying sessions, often referred to as the ‘12 dinners’, are a compulsory part of a barrister’s training. As their name suggests, food is involved, but this is followed by an educational activity such as a moot or debate.

Money matters

Bar Council rules stipulate sets must pay pupils a minimum £12,000 per year plus reasonable expenses. Those who specialise in criminal law and join a set that relies on publicly funded work are likely to find themselves being paid the minimum award.

But if you secure a pupillage with one of the leading commercial sets you can expect something much heftier.

Awards can be paid once a pupil starts their pupillage year, or if they have secured a pupillage while still completing their BPTC, they have the choice to accept approximately a third of the award as an advancement during their year at law school.

Tenancy

Tenancy is the final step to securing a pupillage and is by no means guaranteed – even the most able pupils often struggle to secure a permanent position in a chambers.

Indeed, some pupils who are determined to make it as a self-employed barrister have to consider a third six or ‘squatting’ – staying in chambers on a temporary basis until they find a tenancy.

Key skills for barristers

Written and oral advocacy skills are vital

Strong academic background

Self-confidence/assertiveness

Teamwork

Ability to work alone and on own initiative

Ability to handle difficult clients

Research

Ability to analyse complicated information very quickly

Writing concisely

Verbal and written communication

Ability to pay close attention to detail

Management and conflict resolution