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Despite all the risks and pressures, the bar offers a highly lucrative and satisfying profession for those who make it, especially in the commercial arena. It has an iconic appeal and a romantic image, although barristers would also point out that it involves hard graft.
There are lots of preconceptions about what it is like to be a barrister, fuelled no doubt by the many famous movies and TV programmes that centre around life at the bar. But the 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 admit that there is an unlevel playing field for students from less well-off backgrounds. It is, however, trying to change this and has introduced initiatives to open its doors to potential barristers from all walks of life. Saying that, breaking into the bar is very competitive, with the gap between the number of Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) students and the number of pupillages on offer growing bigger.
Despite all the risks and pressures, the bar continues to offer a highly lucrative and satisfying profession for those who make it, especially in the commercial arena. It has an iconic appeal and a romantic image, although barristers would also point out that it involves hard graft. Coverage in the national media concentrates on barristers rather than their solicitor colleagues, which is understandable as it can be a truly fantastic profession.
The working environment is hard to rival. Barristers’ offices, known as ‘chambers’ or ‘sets’, are still housed mostly in London’s Inns of Court - beautiful, ornate premises in tranquil grounds. Similar environments for chambers are replicated in other major cities, such as Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Manchester.
Although barristers join a chambers, which means being part of an organisation that is corporate in make-up, essentially they are still their own boss. As a self-employed individual, therefore, they work on their own terms. To be successful, barristers have to work extremely hard. They tend to work some of the longest hours around, but the ability to retain some control over when they work and the type of work they take on is a rare privilege.
What does a barrister do?
Barristers’ main work 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. This has been the case since the 13th century.
Traditionally, barristers use their skills in the courtroom, doing battle with a colleague before a judge, or cross-examining witnesses. This still forms the mainstay of a barrister’s business and provides a thriving profession offering high-quality advice.
However, things are changing, particularly in the commercial world. The number of disputes going to trial has been diminishing for a number of years.
This has made it harder for young barristers to gain courtroom experience, but it does not mean a barrister’s expertise is any less important. Increasingly, it is their paper-based advocacy skills and the ability to present arguments cogently and persuasively that come to the fore. This requires copious amounts of legal research, followed by writing an ‘opinion’ for a client setting out the legal advice.
Barristers are also often involved in other forms of disputes between clients, such as arbitration ormediation.
Eighty per cent of barristers are self-employed, work in chambers or sets and handle work that has been referred to them by a solicitor. The remainder are employed in a wide range of organisations, including the British Armed Forces, Crown Prosecution Service, Government Legal Service as well as in commerce and industry.
Education and training
To become a barrister you must first complete a degree and then at least one year’s further academic training on a course known as the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC). At this point, if you are ‘called to the bar’, you will be known as a ‘barrister at law’, but to practise and join a set you must complete at least one year as a trainee barrister, known as a pupillage.
If you do not complete a qualifying law degree at university, you will need to do a conversion course, known as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) or Common Professional Exam (see page 9 for more information).
On completion of your law degree or GDL, you must join one of the four Inns of Court - Gray’s Inn, Inner Temple, Middle Temple or Lincoln’s Inn - before enrolling on the BPTC. The four Inns, which are all based in London, provide educational and collegiate activities, library facilities, support for barristers and student members and training, including continuing professional development. They also provide the mechanism by which people are called to the bar.
The Inns are also a vital source of financial assistance for the various stages of training as they offer a number of grants and scholarships (see box).
It is important to note that you will be competing with some of the best academic minds in the country, so it is important to get stellar A-level grades in challenging and more traditional subjects, and a 2:1 or a first in your undergraduate degree.
Many students study A-level law as they believe it will make their applications stronger, but this will not necessarily put them at an advantage. In fact, certain practice areas such as intellectual property might require you to have an in-depth understanding of a specific subject matter, such as physics or biology.
The BPTC is the compulsory course that all aspiring barristers must complete successfully prior to starting pupillage. The aim of the course, which can be studied either full- or part-time, is to bridge the gap between the academic study of law and the skills that are needed in practice.
Who can apply?
To be eligible for a place on the BPTC you should have either a qualifying law degree (2:2 minimum) or an undergraduate degree in any other subject (2:2 minimum) and a GDL. The Bar Standards Board (BSB) is introducing a compulsory aptitude test in autumn 2012 for candidates starting the BPTC in September 2013. This will test critical reasoning skills and must be passed before BPTC providers can offer places to students.
Increasing competition means that, statistically, applicants with 2:1 or first class degrees are more likely to secure a pupillage. A 2:2 will not prevent admission to the BPTC or pupillage, but it will help to compensate for it with strong A-level grades and/or postgraduate exam results.
A CV that can demonstrate your commitment to the profession, for example by completing mini-pupillages and any other form of law-related work experience, as well as extra curricular activities including public speaking/mooting and pro bono work, will also help.
Which BPTC course?
It is important that you find the course that suits your requirements. You should attend different providers’ open days or evenings and speak to current and former students. Also, make sure you read all the available literature from the different providers before making a choice and contact them and ask questions when necessary.
How and when do you apply for the BPTC?
Applications for a place on a BPTC are made through the BSB’s central applications system, called BPTC Online (see timeline on page 41). The application form itself needs careful attention. You will be asked to:
- provide details of mini-pupillages and other legal experience;
- explain why you want to be a barrister;
- provide examples of exceptional communication/interpersonal skills;
- provide examples of your ability to accurately analyse large volumes of written information;
- provide examples of how you cope with pressure;
- provide examples of how you have developed your advocacy skills since the age of 18 - you will not be able to rely on having once been an angel in an infant school nativity play.
Give yourself plenty of time to think about the content of the form and make sure you re-read it before submitting it because poor spelling, grammar, punctuation and typographical errors will make your application look weak and count against you.
How long does the BPTC take?
The course takes one year full-time, two years part-time or can be integrated as an extension to a qualifying law degree. Course length varies between providers and your chosen BPTC must be at least 30 weeks long, excluding holidays. If you choose a full-time BPTC, you can expect to do a full day’s work every day of the working week.
What does the course cover?
The BPTC is designed to prepare you for pupillage and the early years of practice. The principal skills taught are: legal research, case management, drafting (for example, pleadings, witness statements etc), opinion-writing, conference skills (client interviewing), resolution of disputes out of court (for example, negotiation, mediation) and plenty of advocacy. The knowledge subjects taught are civil litigation and remedies, criminal litigation and sentencing, evidence and professional ethics. In addition, you must take two options - different providers offer different options, so make sure you know before you start the course that your chosen provider offers a range of options that you are happy to do.
Training as a barrister is very expensive as the BPTC can cost more than £16,000 with no guarantee of a job afterwards (see box above for details on fees). Also, do not forget that you will also need money for food, rent, transport and going out.
Thankfully, financial assistance is available from the Inns as well as from the BPTC providers. BPP Law School and Northumbria University offer awards of up to £5,000, while Kaplan Law School offers a 50 per cent fee reduction to its Master/Mistress of Moots scholars and a £2,000 reduction for an advocacy scholar. The City Law School also offers six scholarships, each worth £3,000. For more details, visit the individual law school websites.
If you are not fortunate enough to secure financial assistance from one of the Inns, your BPTC provider or, indeed, your family, then you may have to consider borrowing money to fund your studies. HSBC offers a loan product aimed specifically at BPTC students while BPP in conjunction with Investec offers a loan exclusively for its BPTC, GDL and LPC students.
As with all forms of debt, think carefully about whether or not you can afford to take out a loan, especially as there may be a delay between completing the BPTC and securing a pupillage or other form of employment. It may be worth thinking about taking on a temporary job to help you save up for the course fees, or completing the course part-time so you can combine it with paid work.
After successfully completing the BPTC, you must then start a one-year period of work-based learning known as ‘pupillage’ before you qualify as a fully-fledged barrister.
Traditionally, pupillages are split into two six-month sections known as ‘sixes’. The first ‘non-practising’ six involves shadowing an experienced barrister. In the second ‘practising’ six, a pupil is entitled to offer legal services and exercise rights of audience under supervision (ie appear in front of a judge). Most pupillages are undertaken at a chambers, but a small number of in-house positions with the Crown Prosecution Service are also available.
All pupils will work closely with their pupil supervisor - an experienced barrister who will take responsibility for organising their training, supervising progress, allocating work and assessing their performance.
A lot of hard work will be expected of you during your pupillage year. During your first six you will typically undertake legal research, draft opinions, read your pupil supervisor’s paperwork and shadow them in conferences and in court. Once you have successfully completed this stage of training you will finally be allowed your own clients and to work on your own cases. Significantly, you will also be permitted to appear in court as an advocate.
When and how to apply
The Bar Council requires all pupillage vacancies to be advertised on its online application system, the Pupillage Portal (www.pupillageportal.com). Students are able to apply for pupillages up to two years in advance. The portal aims to make the recruitment process simple for candidates, as you use just one form to apply to up to 12 chambers per recruitment season. The whole process operates under a strict timetable, which both candidates and chambers must adhere to.
For further tips on using the Pupillage Portal, check out Lawyer2B.com. Before applying, find out as much as you can about each of the chambers on your shortlist, such as the type of work they focus on and their pupillage selection procedures (including minimum entrance requirements). And remember competition is intense, as there are approximately 500 pupillage vacancies per year, which is significantly lower than the number of students successfully completing the BPTC.
The qualifying sessions, often referred to as the ‘12 dinners’, are a compulsory part of a barrister’s training. As their name suggests, food is involved, but this is followed by an educational activity such as a moot or debate.
The Bar Council rules stipulate that chambers must pay pupils a minimum of £12,000 annually (£1,000 per month) plus reasonable expenses. Those of you who decide to specialise in criminal law and join a set that relies on publicly-funded work are likely to find yourselves being paid the minimum award. But if you secure a pupillage with one of the leading commercial sets you can expect a much heftier (see table).
Awards can be paid as a full salary once a pupil starts their pupillage year, or if they have secured a pupillage while still completing their BPTC they have the choice to accept approximately a third of the award as an optional advancement during their year at law school.
Mini-pupillages offer the perfect opportunity to get to know all about the work of a barrister. It is the bar’s term for a work experience placement and consists of shadowing a barrister in their working life. The length of mini-pupillages is variable but most last a week.
Most chambers organise mini-pupillages by covering letter and CV. It is always worth double-checking on websites and looking for the name of the person to address your application to. Others will call you in for an interview before offering you a mini-pupillage. Check chambers’ websites for dates, selection process and entrance requirements.
Some sets also require applicants to undertake a mini-pupillage with them if they wish to be considered for a full pupillage at a later date.
In addition to mini-pupillages, your quest to join the bar will become more realistic if you also secure other forms of relevant experience by participating in as many extra-curricular activities as possible - the most useful are mooting, debating and pro bono activities.
Also, keep an eye out for essay competitions and other forms of competitions such as mock trials organised by the Citizenship Foundation. And do remember that other forms of work experience, including vacation schemes with a firm of solicitors as well as anything that is non-law related, are equally valuable. The key to all experience is what you have gainedby doing it.
The Bar Council, in conjunction with the Social Mobility Foundation, also runs a chambers placement scheme aimed specifically at Year 12 students from low-income families. For more information check out www.socialmobility.org.uk.
Tenancy is the final step to securing a pupillage and is by no means guaranteed - even the most able pupils often struggle to secure a permanent position in a chambers.
Indeed, some pupils who are determined to make it as a self-employed barrister have to consider a third six or ‘squatting’ - staying in chambers on a temporary basis until they find a tenancy.
- 1,509 students enrolled on the BPTC in 2009-10
- 1,313 passed the BPTC
- Average pass rate: 87 per cent
- Highest pass rate: 94 per cent in 2007-08
- Lowest pass rate: 76 per cent in 2008-09
- Bar by gender (2010) – Female: 5,354 (35 per cent); Male: 10,033 (65 per cent)
- Total number of graduates who commenced their first six months of pupillage: 1 October 2000 and 30 September 2001: 695; October 2010 and 30 September 2011: 444