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Called to The Bar

Uncategorized September 21, 2007

Called to The Bar

Called to The Bar

The Bar can be a mystifying place, with its ancient traditions. But students shouldn’t be put off applying because nowadays the Bar is becoming a more dynamic environment, with potentially great financial rewards

You can tell how long a barrister has been practising by the colour of his wig." Not a delightful image, admittedly. But it seems fitting for the profession: you are revered for wearing a horsehair wig that hasn’t been washed for 30-odd years. While the Bar is becoming a more dynamic environment to work, it still has several traditions – such as not cleaning your wig – that confuse and amuse future barristers in equal measure.

For starters, there’s the quaint matter of bar vocational course (BVC) students joining an Inn and participating in "qualifying sessions". As well as comprising lectures and educational events, these sessions also require students to attend several communal dinners at their chosen Inn before they can become a barrister.

But the Bar isn’t just about eating fine foods and quaffing port. The mainstay of a barrister’s work is dealing with disputes. While historically this would mean appearances in court, nowadays the number of matters going before a judge is decreasing, but barristers are still required to put forward arguments in written form.

Advocacy has long been the staple of barristers’ work, and that is still true for many. Increasingly, barristers are taking an advisory role – giving opinions to solicitors on technical legal matters. Barristers tend to specialise in particular legal areas, which could be anything from crime to tax or personal injury.

Find your vocation

To become a barrister, students need to undertake the BVC (see the feature on law schools for more details). This vocational training is then followed by the Bar’s equivalent of a training contract, known as pupillage. If you are a law undergraduate, you should apply for pupillage during your final year; non-law students should apply during the conversion course year.

Pupillage usually lasts 12 months, with work split into two "sixes" – during your first six you will be shadowing your pupil master. All pupillages must be funded, but the amount you get paid can vary from £5,000 for six months, up to around £40,000 for 12 months.

Once you have completed pupillage, there is no guarantee that you will secure tenancy. Consequently, some pupils continue to work for a further six months, sometimes at different chambers, and become "third sixers".

Seasonal variations

Most pupillages are advertised through Olpas, the Bar Council’s online application process. There are two recruitment seasons: one in summer, one in autumn. Typically, the larger sets of chambers tend to go for the summer season. During each season you can apply to 12 Olpas chambers – there is no limit to the number of non-Olpas chambers you can apply to. The form contains standard application information, but there is space for a 150-word personal statement that you can tailor depending on which set of chambers you are applying to.

For details about closing dates, visit The site also gives information about periods during which time chambers are not allowed to make offers – typically during exam time.

Given that barristers are self-employed, the amount you can earn is theoretically limitless. Barristers who specialise in tax, for example, can earn vast amounts of money. Some top barristers – known as Queen’s Counsel or silks – at commercial sets of chambers take home more than £2 million a year.

But most practitioners do not earn such vast amounts. Juniors – barristers who have not been appointed as a QC – at the criminal Bar can find they work very hard, yet take home very little.

Are you experienced?

Anyone who is considering becoming a barrister is strongly advised to undertake "mini-pupillages" at a variety of barristers’ chambers. Not only will it help you decide whether you really want to embark on a career as a barrister, but it will also enhance your CV enormously.

Mini-pupillages usually involve shadowing a barrister for between three and five days to gain an insight into daily work at the Bar. Your mini-pupillage may be formally assessed through either a piece of research or some written work. You may also find it useful to undertake some work experience at a solicitor’s firm, for comparison’s sake.

Another way to boost your CV is through debating or "mooting". Mooting is an extracurricular activity organised by many law schools. Participants take part in simulated court proceedings, which often comprise putting forward an oral argument, as well as drafting briefs. Mooting competitions are often sponsored by solicitors’ firms or chambers, and are a great way to get an insight into appellate practice.

To learn more about the life of a pupil barrister, take a look at our case studies overleaf. You will also find more legal case studies on our website: For more information specifically about life at the Bar, take a look at the Bar Council’s website:


Yasin Patel

Age: 32

Degree: English and History, 2.1, Kent University
GDL: Part-time at London Guildhall University (now London Metropolitan)
BVC: Part-time at Inns of Court School of Law

Yasin started his career at a civil liberties and pressure group in Newham, east London, dealing with victims of racial and police harassment. He then moved to Charlton Athletic football club, directing an anti-racism project. He went on to Birnberg Peirce & Partners, where he tackled topics connected with the Oldham riots and the Burnley unrest. His work there also involved casework and research for well-known human rights solicitor Gareth Pierce on various issues including terrorism cases and anti-terrorism legislation.

As much as he loved working for solicitors, it was advocacy and representing people in court, rather than casework, that appealed to him. Persuading the jury and tribunal, the various elements of advocacy, and doing it completely independently are aspects of the job that are priceless, and are why Yasin chose the Bar ahead of being a solicitor. He is still quite junior as a "third sixth" pupil, but he has already been to the Court of Appeal and dealt with cases at the High Court, some of them on a pro bono basis.

How difficult was it getting pupillage?

Because of my background, I had it a little easier. I’d been involved in law and legal issues-related work, and it gave me a foot in the door. It was still difficult, but I was pretty lucky. I did mini-pupillages at Garden Court and QEB Hollis Whiteman chambers.

What does your work involve?

Everything from first appearances at magistrates’ courts to trials at crown court. The work I do is primarily criminal. But I also do some civil work such as civil actions against the police, inquests, prison law and some immigration work. I also do a lot of pro bono work – some relating to new human rights laws; others where people can’t be represented because of their status.

How would you rate the training you’ve been given so far?

I’ve been lucky both at Tooks, and now at 25 Bedford Row where I’m in my third sixth. Both pupillages were very good – I can recommend them both highly. My Inn, (Gray’s Inn) has also been instrumental in my development as an advocate, owing to the training courses that it has provided.

What do you enjoy most about pupillage?

Learning something new every day, whether it is a new case or old precedent. Also, meeting more experienced and knowledgeable lawyers all the time.

What do you like least?

The demands on your time. To be successful as a pupil, and to do justice to your client, you have to do twice as much work as a normal practitioner. It affects your social life, as preparing for the following morning takes
a lot of time.

Advice to other students?

Do something away from law for a while, either in another country, or by getting a job that develops other life skills. Everything you do will have some relation to law. The people skills you can build up elsewhere are priceless.

If you want to find out more, you can email Yasin at

Orla Grant
: 24
Degree: Law and Spanish, 2.1, Sheffield University
BVC: Northumbria University
Chambers: No5 Chambers, Birmingham

Orla was interested in public speaking and debating, but at school she preferred languages. However, she ended up enjoying the law side of her degree. Orla applied for training contracts to be a solicitor and had several interviews, but then realised it wasn’t for her. She kept returning to the idea of the Bar, and given her personal skills, becoming a barrister was a natural decision.

How difficult was it getting pupillage?

It was really difficult. It’s such a confusing and worrying time. I sent out lots of applications, but I was chambers-specific [rather than taking a scattergun approach]. However, I didn’t get anywhere. That was my first attempt while I was still doing my degree. During my second attempt, I managed to get three interviews, and then three second interviews, and then I was offered two pupillages.

What does your work involve?

It varies. My pupillage is mixed, so I do a bit of family law, some crime and now a bit of personal injury. Within family and crime, it’s more court-based. I get into chambers at around 9am, and I’m out at court most days. I will be at court all day if it’s a trial or large hearing. If not, I come back and do some paperwork, take advice, or draft pleadings. With personal injury it’s a lot more office-based. I’m still at the non-practising stage of pupillage. In my second six, I will be more on my feet and court-based.

How would you rate the training you’ve been given so far?

It’s been fantastic. It’s a friendly chambers to work for, and everyone is extremely helpful. They all make a real effort to discuss things through with you, and to talk about both sides of a case. You get to flag up with them what your approach might have
been on a case, and you find out if the same outcome could have been
achieved differently.

What do you enjoy most about pupillage?

I have reached the stage now where I’m on the verge of something that I really
want to be doing. My career is about to really move forward. There is also a social side to pupillage that I enjoy. There is an annexe where people – everyone from the most junior to the most senior – do their reading and check facts on computers. There are always people to ask questions, and it helps you to get to know people a
lot more quickly.

What do you like least?

There is nothing really that I dislike, but I have experienced nervousness. When you start, you think everyone’s watching and observing you. But, thankfully, everyone’s friendly. And after the first month, you realise that people want to help – they are not looking at you critically.

Advice to other students?

You need to be aware of how competitive it is. You have to really want to practise at the Bar, and have that dedication. At the same time, don’t give up: for me it took only three people to look at my CV to give me an opportunity. During interviews, you have to be yourself. Maintaining a persona you think people want to see is extremely difficult, and in any case they’ll see through it at interview. Keep an open mind. Because of the level of competition, you can’t limit your options – for example, by saying you want to practise only criminal law in Hull. You have to be flexible about areas of law, and you need to be willing to move to different parts of the country.

Kate Hallett
: 23
Degree: Law, 2.1, Oxford University
BVC: Inns of Court School of Law
Chambers: Landmark

Kate has always wanted to be a barrister. She liked the idea of a job that was different every day, rather than doing the same thing all the time. She was also keen on a career that featured aspects of academia – putting across arguments in a coherent way. And she relished the challenge of finding answers to legal questions. So the Bar was exactly the thing for her as a career choice.

How difficult was it getting pupillage?

I got pupillage first time round. I did about five mini-pupillages. I did a lot of mooting, which I think strengthened my application – it was something to talk about during interviews. In my third year at university I was involved in a prestigious national mooting competition, which was helpful.

What does your work involve?

At the moment I am working on a lot of public and planning matters with my pupil master. I have to research specific issues, and get to grips with more general matters. I go to conferences with my pupil master, and went to court with him last week on a judicial review. My role was to take notes. Afterwards, we discussed what had been going on.

How would you rate the training you’ve been given so far?

It has been very, very good. It has been a good balance between being thrown in at the deep end and being patronised. The work is challenging, and there is a lot to learn and get your teeth into. Everyone here is amazingly friendly, considering the quality of work and how important some of these people are. They always have time for you, and pupils are always included in drinks and chambers events.

What do you enjoy most about pupillage?

Finding out about new areas of law. Although I studied property law at university, applying it in a practical context is very different. There is more thinking outside the box, more coming up with tactics, and more practical thinking than at university.
What do you like least? Sometimes it can seem a bit rushed, and you don’t always have time to get to grips with a matter – you can be asked to do something urgently. But you hope that later on you’ll have a discussion to put it into context.

Advice to other students?

You need to have something to point to that’s "your thing" – you need to stand out. Mine was mooting. Everyone will have done mini-pupillages. Do mooting, debating, or get involved with your law society – anything to show you’re keen on law as a career and that you are willing to give up your time for it.

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