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Raising the Bar

General advice, Law November 4, 2008

Raising the Bar


What do barristers do apart from stride around looking angry? Real World takes a look at what’s beneath the wig.

Getting paid to row with strangers: that is one way to describe a barrister’s work. Traditionally, barristers deal with courtroom advocacy – that is, arguing their client’s case in front of a judge. Barristers act on the instructions of solicitors, who occupy a more client-facing, advisory role. However, the number of disputes that make it to trial has been falling for several years. What’s more, there has been an increase in ‘solicitor advocates’, and some barristers have been taking on advisory roles in an effort to diversify. The boundary between the two areas is therefore becoming blurred, but it’s not quite time for barristers to hang up their wigs: advocacy, whether in person or on paper, is still the mainstay of the profession.

Working life
The majority of barristers are self-employed, working out of shared offices known as ‘chambers’ or ‘sets’. Once a junior barrister has completed pupillage (see our feature add title & page no.), the next step is to secure a place, or ‘tenancy’, at chambers. Despite the freedom of self-employment, the hours are usually long and antisocial, particularly for those just starting out. Most barristers specialise in a particular legal area, such as tax or crime, and build their practice around this. Employed barristers work for private firms or for public institutions such as the Crown Prosecution Service.
The Bar Council is the professional body for barristers. In addition, all barristers are members of one of the four Inns of Court: Gray’s Inn, Inner Temple, Middle Temple, and Lincoln’s Inn. The Inns, based in Central London, are responsible for ‘calling’ barristers to the bar, and are a source of socialising and training. However, this does not mean that you’re limited to the Capital. Almost a third of barristers, and half of all chambers, are based outside London, according to Bar Council figures. Junior barristers in cities such as Birmingham, Liverpool, and Leeds spend far less of their hard-earned money on general living costs such as rent and travel than those in the Capital.
Being a barrister is seen as a highly lucrative profession, but income depends on various factors. At the extreme, Queen’s Counsel (QC), the very top barristers, can earn in excess of £1 million a year, while junior practitioners at leading commercial chambers might take home £80,000 plus. Yet those who specialise in publicly funded areas such as family or crime can expect considerably less.

Blame Judge John Deed, or maybe Cherie Blair, or perhaps there are lots of wig fetishists out there; whatever the reason, the Bar is an extremely popular destination for graduates. If you want to become a barrister, you will need a great deal of determination. A recent report in The Lawyer revealed that the number of Bar Vocational Course (BVC) graduates offered pupillage has dropped by 20 per cent since 2000. This is owing to a 32 per cent increase in the number of students taking the BVC. Even when a junior barrister does secure pupillage, the competition does not stop there. Tenancies at the top chambers are fiercely contested. Some junior barristers find themselves extending the term of their pupillage – taking a ‘third six’ – as they have struggled to find a place in chambers.

Getting in
To be in with a chance, you need strong academic qualifications: the minimum requirement is a 2.2 in any subject, but many chambers expect a 2.1. Yet your degree classification alone is not enough to make you stand out from the crowd. Mini-pupillages – short periods of work experience in chambers – are an excellent way of strengthening your CV. These usually involve shadowing a barrister, and will give you an unparalleled insight into the profession. You should also consider getting involved with your student debating society to demonstrate your public speaking skills.


- Number of students called to the Bar: 1,776 (51% male, 49% female)
- Number of practising barristers: 15, 030 (66% male, 34% female; 11.3% ethnic minority)
- Self-employed barristers: 12, 058
- Employed barristers: 2,972
- Geographic spread of chambers: 330 in London, 313 outside London
- Main hubs for chambers outside London: Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester
Figures from the Bar Council, December 2007

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