Top chambers start ball rolling to increase pupillage awards

Essex Court and One Essex Court vie for top talent with financial hikes for trainee barristers. By Husnara Begum

As the junior end of the solicitors’ profession is forced to make do with lighter wage packets, their cousins at the bar are benefiting from a pay war triggered by One Essex Court’s shock decision to up its pupillage award by a whopping 33 per cent.

Graduates starting their pupillages at London set One Essex Court in October 2010 will receive an award of £60,000 – £15,000 more than their peers who joined the top three set this month (October).

One Essex Court, however, is not alone in boosting its pupillage awards. Arch rival Essex Court Chambers is increasing its award to £55,000 from £40,000 for pupillages beginning in 2010. Indeed, rumour has it that Essex Court made the first move and once One Essex Court got wind of what was going on it decided to better the award on offer at its rival set.

But whatever the order of events, there is no denying that both sets’ decisions have left others playing catch-up. On Fountain Court Chambers’ website, for instance, it says pupillage awards will be £60,000 for the 2011-12 season. But the set told Lawyer 2B that this information is now out of date and that it will also be offering £60,000 to pupillages starting next October.

Meanwhile, Four New Square is hiking its 2010 award from £45,000 to £50,000. This will be increased further in 2011 to £60,000. Elsewhere, Quadrant Chambers increased its award by £10,000, from £40,000 to £50,000, for its 2010 intake.

Other chambers, however, have decided to leave their 2010 awards unchanged, as One Essex Court and Essex Court’s decisions to up their packages only became public in August 2009, by which time candidates had already accepted pupillage offers. Consequently, Brick Court Chambers and Blackstone Chambers have left their pupillage awards for 2010 unchanged at £42,000 and £42,500 respectively and are reviewing their packages for 2011-12. Wilberforce Chambers and 4 Pump Court have also left their awards at 2009’s levels, but will be increasing their respective payments to £48,000 and £47,500 respectively in 2011.

3 Verulam Buildings, which triggered the last chambers pay war in 2006, has also kept its award on hold at £42,500 for 2010. However, it has confirmed that it will be upping its award to £60,000 from 2011, bringing it in line with Fountain Court Chambers.

One Essex Court senior clerk Darren Burrows told Lawyer 2B: “For tactical reasons we didn’t tell anyone other than the candidates about the increased award. Fiscally, I didn’t think we needed [to increase our award] to gain an advantage. It was really designed to reinforce how serious we were about wanting to recruit the best people. £60,000 is a relatively small investment in terms of the returns we’d expect from our pupils.”

But as Burrows warns, looking at the headline figures alone can often be misleading. Indeed, compared with the magic circle, where trainee solicitors’ salaries average £37,950, £60,000 sounds pretty generous, especially as in One Essex Court’s case that amount can be topped up with any earnings made by a pupil during their second six.

It is worth pointing out, though, that unlike large City firms, which pay Legal Practice Course (LPC) tuition fees and maintenance grants, chambers expect future pupils to use some of their awards towards the cost of the Bar Vocational Course (BVC). One Essex Court, for example, allows its pupils to draw down a third of their awards during their BVC year. What is more, unlike newly qualified solicitors, who earn salaries, most chambers, including One Essex Court, do not guarantee the earnings of new tenants.

So before you accept a pupillage we recommend you ask chambers the following money-related questions: How much is your pupillage award? How much of the award can be drawn down during the BVC year? Can the award be topped up with earnings during the second six? Are earnings for new tenants guaranteed? Do you offer interest-free loans to new tenants? And what other financial help do you offer new tenants?

And remember, money should not be the only factor when choosing to accept a pupillage.

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