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8 April 2014
Pupillage is the final stage of training prior to getting tenancy as a barrister
Television programmes such as Judge John Deed and more recently the BBCs Criminal Justice all have varying portrayals of the bar. But the general underlying theme is that barristers are pompous and elitist and that 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 Londons 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 barristers 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 barristers 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 barristers expertise is any less important, and increasingly it is a lawyers paper-based advocacy skills 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 years 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 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 years 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 Lincolns Inn to enrol on the Bar Vocational Course (BVC). 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 bars 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 BVC, which can be undertaken on either a full-time or part-time basis and which take one or two years respectively. While undertaking the BVC, 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 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 a number of lectures and educational events, such as weekends away. One dining session will count as one qualifying point, although weekend events can be worth as much as three points of the 12 points required to be called to the bar.
The Bar Council and Bar Standards Board (the barristers watchdog) are currently in the throes of shaking up entry to the bar. One recommendation they have put forward is for BVC providers to bring in entrance exams that need to be passed before being accepted onto the bar course. When this comes in is anyones guess, but it will not be in the far
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 7,000 at some colleges and the BVC will cost as much as 12,000. However, LEAs offer means-tested awards, so it is possible to win scholarships to bar schools, which will pay for some or all of the fees. Inns also offer scholarship awards, with the four Inns together having a pot of just under 4m annually. Again, as with all things at the bar, the competition for these awards is stiff, but not impossibly so.
The Bar Council is in the process of reviewing how to make the bar more accessible to entrants who are not from privileged backgrounds. As part of this exercise it will be looking to offer loans at a reasonable interest rate, as it has realised that many students come to undertake the bar course with debts of around 20,000 from university. The council estimates that, by the time a barrister is called to the bar, they would already be in around 30,000-40,000 of debt if they do not have financial support elsewhere.
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 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.
Pupils are paid a minimum of 5,000 per six-month slot, plus expenses, but it is usually necessary to save up as it will take a few months to start earning money. While a pupil barristers are not allowed to have another part-time job. Under the entry to the bar review, this may be about to change, although this will not be known until the end of 2007. Most of the top sets in London routinely pay around 35,000 over the 12 months of pupillage, with earnings often paid on top of that for the second six; however, regional and criminal sets give much lower awards. See the Bar Councils website (www.barcouncil.org.uk) for more details on qualifying as a barrister.
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, who will be at least seven years call. During the second six a pupil can actually practise as a barrister and in turn earn their own fees.
Securing a pupillage is not easy and each year the competition for places increases. This year the number of students applying for pupillage is expected to rise in line with the increase in BVC applications. The Bar Councils latest figures show that there were 527 pupils in 2007 a figure that has been constant for the past two years. Three years previously, in 2004, there were 572, against 711 in 2003. The 2003 figure was itself an 8 per cent decrease from 2002, when there were 766 pupils.
A possible cause of this drop is a change in funding implemented five years ago by the Bar Council. This required sets to pay pupils a guaranteed 10,000 during the course of their 12-month pupillages. Previously, there had been no guaranteed wage.
There is no denying that the bar is more exclusive than ever, but if you have the talent and the commitment you can find a home. In total there are now 12,058 barristers in independent practice, of whom 70 per cent are male. In addition, there are 2,972 employed barristers. The majority of pupillages are organised through Olpas, the Bar Councils online application process. Some chambers, however, still prefer to take on pupils outside of Olpas. Details of all pupillages, including those operating outside the Olpas system, can be found on the Bar Councils pupillages website (www.pupillages.com).
The pinnacle of a barristers professional achievement continues to be two little letters: QC (short for Queens Counsel). It had been feared that the status symbol or quality mark, depending on your point of view would be abandoned after longstanding criticism over the QC appointment process.
In 2003 Lord Irvine, the then Lord Chancellor and the man responsible for making QC (also known as silk) appointments, announced a suspension of the system. But in the summer of 2005 a reformed silk appointments process was agreed. In the latest silk round 98 lawyers were made up to QC, of whom 97 were barristers. This included 20 women and three who were declared to have disabilities. The race is now on to find barristers worthy of being named among the 2008 elite.
QC is possibly the most recognised branding in the entire English legal system, which serves not only to preserve the romantic appeal of the bar, but to sell English advocates on the increasingly important international stage. Its status in the global legal market made the bar fight hard to defend its existence. But the new selection system is very different. Secret soundings from friendly judges have been replaced by a transparent appointments panel. Using a defined set of criteria, the panel picks new QCs following an extensive interview programme involving both candidates and referees. The process takes up to a year and can be extremely costly, although these issues are constantly under review.
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 is 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 currently in flux, as new reforms to the legal aid system are seeing these practice areas squeezed even more than previously. In fact, on the solicitor side, there have already been casualties of the change, with one of the UKs largest national law firms, Irwin Mitchell, closing its police prosecutions arm in Sheffield. This had a knock-on effect on the bar, which receives its instructions from solicitor firms as well as the Crown Prosecution Service.
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.