Almost a third of the bar’s biggest civil sets will pay pupil barristers £40,000 by this time next year as they keep up the heat on solicitor rivals in the war for young talent.

By 2007, the top four sets will offer at least £40,000. The 2006 average for pupil awards stands at £36,500, £1,500 more than the current magic circle benchmark of £35,000.

Once again, 3 Verulam Buildings has emerged as the highest-paying chambers, offering its pupils £42,000 this year, but raising that sum to £42,500 in October 2007.

But One Essex Court and Four New Square are on course to offer the most lucrative 2008 package, with plans to unveil a £45,000 award for new pupils in two years’ time.

Meanwhile, Fountain Court Chambers and 11 King’s Bench Walk (11KBW) are both hiking their pupillage awards to £40,000 next year, joining One Essex Court, Wilberforce Chambers, Maitland Chambers, Serle Court, Keating Chambers and Four New Square.

The main aim of chambers offering lucrative pupillages is to attract the cream of young legal talent.

Paul Shrubsall, senior clerk at One Essex Court, said: “It’s to do with forward planning. We’ve got to be thinking ahead with the general rates being paid to trainees and income at the bar.

“We take on four pupils, meaning we pay that figure [£45,000] four times over. That’s the level of investment we are putting into recruitment. We want to stay on top of the tree and, with purely mercenary concerns, attract good people.”

The large regional chambers have also been doing their best to keep pace with the London sets. This year’s intake at Birmingham set St Philips Chambers will get £35,000, the same as pupils at top London chambers Blackstone, Landmark and 11KBW and £5,000 more than those at Matrix Chambers.

Northern set Exchange Chambers has hiked its 2006 award up to £25,000 from £15,000 last year, representing a rise of 40 per cent.

But as the competition for good pupils pushes up the value of the pupillages, fewer numbers are being offered.

Last year numbers of new pupils dropped to 527 from 572, according to statistics from the Bar Council.

This year’s BVC student survey found that only around 50 per cent of its 625 respondents managed to get an interview. Half of those were then rejected and a quarter said they would not be pursuing work in the legal profession as a result.

Chambers are now more likely to offer one or two high-paying pupillages than a greater number of mid-range packages.

For example, commercial and civil set 2 Temple Gardens raised its award by £2,000 to £36,000 plus £11,000 guaranteed earnings for the 2008 intake. The chambers cut the number of pupils from five to two after changing its recruitment policy.

Money is unlikely to be the only factor when choosing to accept a chambers, with pupil barristers attracted by type of work, reputation of chambers and intellectual stimulation.

Nick Hill, senior clerk at top paying set 3 Verulam Buildings, said: “People decide that they want to be a barrister at an early stage and they focus on it. Predominantly, these people are after an intellectual challenge and a good award is the icing on the cake.

“Pupils ask us what opportunities there are to work for their own clients and where they will be working in chambers,” added Hill.

There is no doubt that the bar is richer than ever, with the top 30 sets bringing in more than £600m for the first time this year.

This boost in revenue, combined with increased competition for good young lawyers with law firms means more sets will see £40,000 as the pupil benchmark in the future.

WHo’s offering what for pupillage yearsChambers October Current October Notes 2005 (£K) award (£K) 2007 (£K) Brick Court 35 40 42 Possibility of advance drawings during Essex Court 37 37.5 40 Guaranteed earnings of £50k a year One Essex Court 40 40 40 Going up to £45k in 2008 Fountain Court 37 37 40 Guaranteed earnings of £37k in the No 5 30 N/A N/A Blackstone 35 35 38 Wilberforce 37 40 40 Up to £13.5k can be drawn during BVC 20 Essex Street 36 36 Under review Up to £11k can be drawn during BVC St Philips 18 35 35 Includes guaranteed earnings of £15,000 Maitland 40 40 40 Up to £10k can be drawn during BVC 3 Verulam Buildings 40 42 42.5 Up to £15k can be drawn during BVC 20 Essex Street 36 36 Under review 3/4 South Square 37 37.5 37.5 7 King’s Bench Walk 35 35 37.5 Serle Court 40 40 40 Up to £12.5k can be drawn during BVC 39 Essex Street 30 35 35 Up to £8k can be drawn during BVC Keating 35 40 40 Up to £12k can be drawn during BVC Four New Square 40 40 40 Includes guaranteed earnings of £5k 4 Pump Court 35 35 38 Up to £10k can be drawn during BVC Littleton 30 30 N/A Landmark 35 35 35 7 Bedford Row 36 36 36 Award made up of £16k award plus £10k Quadrant 30 30 35 Exchange 15 25 Under review 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square 31 34 Under review Up to £10k can be drawn during BVC 11 King’s Bench Walk N/A 35 40 Up to £10k can be drawn during BVC Kings Chambers 25 25 25 One Crown Office Row 30 35 Under review Includes guaranteed earnings of £17.5k in XXIV Old Buildings 30 30 38 Discretionary draw-down during BVC year Outer Temple 30 30 30 Due for review Matrix 30 30 30 Up to £7.5k can be drawn during BVC