22 February 2011
Television programmes such as Judge John Deed and more recently the BBC’s Criminal Justice and Barristers all have varying portrayals of the bar.
But the general underlying theme is that barristers are pompous and elitist and the bar is an outmoded institution and the preserve of the privileged. The Bar Council of England and Wales, which represents barristers, would be the first to hold its hands up to the fact that there is not a level playing field for students from less-well-off backgrounds. It is, however, trying to change this and is in the process of bringing in new initiatives to open its doors to potential barristers from all walks of life.
That said, attempting to widen access to the bar does not mean there are more actual opportunities. The competition at the bar becomes fiercer year-on-year as there is a shrinking market for advocacy as well as increasing competition from law firms keen to hoard more of the existing litigation work for themselves. Only one in four qualified barristers actually manage to practise. So with this in mind, combined with the debt that student barristers incur before they can even start out in practice, why on earth would anyone go down this path?
Well, despite all the risks and the pressures, the bar continues to offer a highly lucrative and satisfying profession for those who do make it. It represents an iconic and sometimes romantic image, although barristers would note that it also includes hard graft. Coverage in the national media concentrates on barristers rather than on their solicitor colleagues. This is understandable because it can be a truly fantastic profession.
The working environment cannot be rivalled in any other sector anywhere in the world. Barristers’ offices, known as chambers or sets, are still housed mostly in London’s famous Inns of Court, beautiful, ornate premises in tranquil grounds. Similar environments are replicated in the major cities around the country, such as Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Manchester. Although as a barrister you join a particular chambers, which are becoming increasingly corporate in their make-up, you are still essentially your own boss. As a self-employed individual you work on your own terms. To be successful, of course, everyone must work extremely hard and barristers tend to work among the longest hours around, but the ability to have some control over when you work and over the type of work you take on is a rare privilege.
What does a barrister do?
Barristers’ main work still 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. Traditionally barristers would use their skills in the courtroom, doing battle with a colleague before a judge. That still forms the mainstay of a barrister’s business.
However, things are changing, particularly in the commercial world. The number of disputes that actually go to trial has been diminishing for a number of years. This has made it harder for young barristers to gain courtroom advocacy experience. But it does not mean a barrister’s expertise is any less important, and increasingly it is a lawyer’s paper-based advocacy skills and the ability to present arguments cogently and persuasively that come to the fore.
There is also a different form of dispute, known as alternative dispute resolution (ADR) that will see barristers needing to use their advocacy skills, although not in a courtroom.
In recent years there has been a downturn in litigation that has prompted many members of the junior bar to take on more unconventional roles, such as advising on regulatory or policy issues their clients are faced with, with barristers having seen the need to diversify to ensure they can compete. Many are now also involved in inquiries where no advocacy skills are required.
The current economic downturn means that litigation, arbitration and ADR are all picking up, but the more unconventional roles are set to continue.
Education and training
To become a barrister you must first complete a degree and at least one further year’s academic training. At this point, if called to the bar, you will be what is known as a barrister at law, but to actually practise and to join a set this will have to be followed by at least one year as a trainee barrister known as a pupillage. The minimum requirement is a 2:2 undergraduate degree in any subject, although increasingly chambers require a 2:1. If your degree is not in law (LLB), then you will have to do a further year’s conversion course the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).
On completion of the GDL or LLB stage, you must join one of the four Inns of Court - Grays Inn, the Inner Temple, Middle Temple or Lincoln’s Inn - to enrol on the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), which is due to replace the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) from 2010. A student’s choice of Inn does not affect the area of law in which they wish to practise or their choice of pupillage or tenancy and is a matter or personal choice.
Although the Bar Council is the representative body for the bar, the Inns are also very important. They are the organisations that govern the exclusive areas of London where two-thirds of barristers continue to work and also serve as the bar’s social societies. The Inns are also the institutions that will call any barristers to the bar.
Once signed up to an Inn, a student can enrol on the BPTC. This is done via the Bar Standards Board’s (BSB) online system BVCOnline (www.bvconline. co.uk) and applications typically open in November. There is heavy competition for places on the course, with around 2,500 candidates chasing approximately 1,500 places per year.
While undertaking the BPTC, which teaches practical skills such as advocacy, negotiation and conferencing, as well as giving a more in-depth legal knowledge, a student must attend a number of qualifying sessions at their Inn if they wish to be called to the bar and become a practising barrister.
Previously these qualifying units or sessions were known as dining, and eating does form a large part of the criteria. Inns will hold communal dinners, which students must attend, in addition to lectures and educational events such as weekends away. One dining session will count as one qualifying point, while weekend events can be worth as much as three points of the 12 required to be called to the bar.
The Bar Council and BSB are currently in the throes of shaking up entry to the bar. In addition to replacing the BVC with the BPTC, one other recommendation they have put forward is for course providers to bring in entrance exams that students need to be pass before being accepted onto the bar course. When this comes in is anyone’s guess, but it will not be in the far-distant future.
Becoming a barrister is not cheap, although the cost will depend on previous qualifications and discretionary awards from local education authorities (LEAs). A law conversion course can cost more than £8,000 at some colleges and the BVC will cost as much as £14,000. However, the Inns do offer scholarship awards, with the four Inns together having a pot of just under £4m annually. But as competition for awards is fierce, most students have to secure alternative sources of funding mainly in the form of loans. Indeed, last year the Bar Council teamed up with HSBC to launch a loan aimed specifically at students enrolling on the BVC. The loan is on terms that are more favourable than those on offer from other lenders and followed one of the recommendations contained in the Neuberger report on improving diversity at the bar.
During the final year of a law degree, or the conversion course year, you should be applying to chambers for a pupillage place as well as funding by way scholarships or loans. Traditionally, pupillages are split into two sixes (six-month slots) and this is when you really learn how to be a barrister with a set of chambers.
At the end of the year a pupil may be offered tenancy, or a place in chambers, from which to build a practice, although this is not a given and some young barristers find they have to apply elsewhere for a third six before winning tenancy. Third sixes tend to be for those who feel that perhaps the type of law at the set they attended was not for them, or that they would like to stay at those chambers, or go elsewhere, but there simply are not enough tenancy positions.
All pupils must be paid no less than £833.33 per month plus reasonable travel expenses where applicable (ie £5,000 in total).
Moving to pupillage
As previously discussed, pupillage is the final stage of training prior to being able to obtain tenancy as a barrister or work within a company as a barrister. It is split into two six-month sections, the first when a pupil shadows their training supervisor, a pupil master of at least seven years’ call. During the second six a pupil can actually practise as a barrister and in turn charge their own fees.
Securing a pupillage is not easy and each year the competition for places increases with more students completing the BVC than the number of pupillages available.
The Bar Council requires all pupillages to be advertised on its online application system the Pupillages Portal, previously known as Olpas. Some sets, however, still prefer to take on pupils from outside the portal. Details of all pupillages, including those operating outside the portal, can be found on the Bar Council’s pupillages website (www.pupillages.com). Students can apply up to two years in advance.
For a leading commercial barrister, the sky is the limit. There are a few barristers whose annual earnings have hit £3m for a single year, while there are more than a handful who earn in excess of £2m. Junior barristers in their first years of tenancy at a top commercial set can expect to earn more than £100,000, but with those sets only offering a maximum of four new tenancies each year, such opportunities are rare. Average earnings for the 2,000 barristers tenanted in the top 30 commercial sets are around £375,000.
The vast majority of practitioners, however, do not take home such incredible sums. For the criminal and family bar, which relies on public funding through legal aid, the wages are not as high as with its commercial counterparts. The monetary income of crime and family practitioners is in flux, as new reforms to the legal aid system are seeing these practice areas squeezed even more than previously.
But as many publicly funded barristers will tell you, they are not in it for the money. Although many do earn in the hundreds of thousands, they are doing the job for the satisfaction of ensuring justice is done. And, of course, it is the criminal bar that provides the romantic notions that help make the reputation of the bar what it is today.