The Bar: being your own boss
15 March 2007
It may be regarded by some as an outdated institution, but nevertheless the bar offers stimulating work and huge earning potential
The bar is being hounded constantly. It has been accused by the national press of being made up of fat cats, accused by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) of being anticompetitive and accused by solicitor colleagues of failing to adjust to a modern business environment. And all this while coming to terms with a shrinking market for advocacy and increasing competition from law firms keen to hoard more and more of the existing litigation work for themselves.
So against this backdrop, combined with the debt that student barristers now incur before they can even start out in practice, why on earth would anyone go down this path? Perhaps because, despite all the risks and the pressures, the bar continues to offer a highly privileged, lucrative and satisfying profession for those that do make it.
The bar continues to represent an iconic and sometimes romantic image. Coverage in the national press continues to concentrate on barristers, as do television and film dramas, 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, or chambers, are still housed mostly in the famous Inns in London beautiful, ornate premises in tranquil grounds. And 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. In order 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 do is a rare privilege.
What does a barrister do?
Barristers are essentially concerned with disputes. It is a barristers expert knowledge of a particular area of law, whether it be crime, corporate finance, IT or sport, that can determine the outcome of a dispute.
Traditionally a barrister 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 that a barristers expertise is any less important and increasingly it is a lawyers paper-based advocacy skills their ability to present arguments cogently and persuasively that come to the fore.
Education and training
In order to become a barrister you must first complete a degree and at least one further years academic training, followed by one year as a trainee barrister, called a pupillage. The minimum requirement is a 2:2 undergraduate degree in any subject. If it is not in law then you will have to do a further years conversion course, the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) (see page 14 for further details).
On completion of this stage of training you must join one of the four Inns: Grays Inn, Inner Temple, Middle Temple and Lincolns Inn. Although the Bar Council serves as both the regulatory and representative body for the bar, the Inns are also very important. They are organisations that govern the exclusive areas of London where most barristers continue to work and also serve as the bars social societies.
The Inn still upholds a medieval tradition that used to allow members of the Inn to go wild under the guidance of a Prince of Misrule during the run-up to Candlemas every year. Writing and performing poetry became part of the Inns entry requirements at around the same time, and readings are still part of the Inns annual revels, which take place every December.
The Lincolns Inn bell tolls a curfew at 9pm every night. It used to sound one stroke for every year of the treasurers age, but now it rings a uniform 60 times. Another custom is to toll the bell in the middle of the day to mark the death of a bencher (members of the governing body of one of the Inns of Court, usually a judge or
At formal dinners smoking is only permitted when the junior bencher has asked the treasurer the ritual question: Have 20 minutes elapsed?
At formal dinners barristers can drink sherry or port as well as wine, while students can drink only wine. Members toast each others health according to a strict custom, and anyone who commits a breach can be tried after dinner by the most senior barrister in the hall.
To join an Inn a student must attend a number of qualifying sessions. Previously this was 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 tours of the courts. These qualifying sessions will be completed during the final year of educational training required to become a barrister. This is called the Bar Vocational Course (BVC), on completion of which you will be called to the bar. This course gives you practical experience as well as more in-depth legal knowledge.
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 6,000 at some colleges and the BVC will cost between 7,000 and 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.
During the final year of a law degree, or the conversion course year, you should be applying to chambers for a pupillage place. Split into two sixes, or six-month slots, pupillage is when you really learn how to be a barrister. 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 many young barristers find they have to apply elsewhere for a third six before winning tenancy.
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 of tenancy to start earning money. 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.
Pupillage: the facts
Pupillage is the final stage of training prior
to qualification as a barrister. It is split into two six-month sections, the first when a
pupil shadows their training supervisor, called a pupil master, and the second, during which a pupil can actually practise as a barrister.
Finding pupillage is not easy. The figures show that there were just 527 pupils in 2005 compared with 572 in 2004 and 711 in 2003. The 2003 figure was itself an 8 per cent decrease from 2002, when there were 766 pupils. A possible cause of the drop is a change in funding implemented four years ago by the Bar Council. It requires sets to pay pupils a guaranteed 10,000 during the course of their 12-month pupillages.
The proportion of ethnic minority pupils also dropped from 20 per cent in 2002 and 2003 to 16 per cent in 2004, rising only slightly to 17 per cent this year. The percentage of female pupils slumped in 2005 to under 50 per cent of the total.
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 11,818 barristers in independent practice, of which 70 per cent are male. In addition, there are 2,805 employed barristers.
The majority of pupillages are organised through Olpas, the Bar Councils online application process. Details of all pupillages, including those operating outside the Olpas system, can be found on the Bar Councils pupillage website (www.pupillages.com).
Career goals: QC, the kitemark of success
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 new, reformed silk appointments process was agreed. The first awards were made in July 2006 with a record number of appointments, including 33 women and four solicitors.
QC is possibly the most recognised symbol in the entire English legal system, which serves not only to preserve the romantic appeal of the bar, but also 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 led by Parole Board chair Sir Duncan Nichol. Using a defined set of criteria, the panel picks new QCs after an extensive interview programme involving both candidates and referees.
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 year of tenancy at a top commercial set can expect to earn in excess of 100,000, but with those sets only offering a maximum of four new tenancies each year, such opportunities are rare.
Average earnings for the 1,860 barristers tenanted in the top 30 commercial sets last year was 358,000. The vast majority of practitioners, though, do not earn such incredible sums and at the criminal bar earnings can be meagre.
University: Brasenose College, Oxford
Degree: Modern History
A-levels: History, English Literature, German, Classical Civilisations
Hobbies: Food, wine, the gym
Chambers: Blackstone Chambers
There is no such thing as an average day for one of the two most junior tenants at Blackstone Chambers. The range of work a junior tenant must master is sometimes bewildering. After 10 months in practice I have been involved in everything from a $100m (53.63m) shipping dispute to a 10,000 small claim by the disgruntled purchasers of a parrot called Harry (deceased).
It is not all high-powered, parrot-related commercial work, though. I have so far developed a mixed practice that encompasses commercial, employment and public law work three of Blackstones key areas of practice. The first two of those categories have provided the bread and butter of my court work so far, but I have my first judicial review case coming up in the autumn. The highlights of my advocacy as sole counsel have so far included successfully defending a doctors surgery in an eight-day sex discrimination case by a former partner and appearing opposite a QC in a similarly lengthy constructive dismissal matter.
When not in court I will be found at my desk producing opinions, pleadings, articles and book chapters at a speed which, during the BVC, I would never have believed. Come 6pm (or perhaps 7pm) it is not unusual then to find me unwinding in the Edgar Wallace or Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, both Chambers favourites.
I followed a conventional and speedy route to the bar, with my only digression being a history rather than a law degree. I therefore found myself at the bar by the age of 24.
As for the why the bar? questions, if you need to ask yes, there are long hours, a degree of financial uncertainty in certain sets and the ever-present commentators heralding the end of the bar. Yes, you are unlikely to appear in Judge John Deed-style cases in which the court is composed of your ex-wives and lovers. But in the end there is simply no other career which combines the same degree of independence, intellectual stimulation and financial reward. Plus, for the time being, if it is your kind of thing, how many of your friends can say that a crucial component of their nine-to-five is the wearing of a form of fancy dress?