In this demanding, highly rewarding field, you'll need an analytical mind, a logical approach and excellent attention to detail to succeed
Barristers (in England and Wales) are specialists in advocacy and represent individuals or organisations in court. They're independent sources of legal advice and can advise clients on their case. Generally, they are hired by solicitors to represent a case in court and only become involved once advocacy before a court is needed.
As a barrister you'll plead the case on behalf of your client and the client's solicitor. Members of the public can also go directly to a barrister to ask for advice and representation in court.
An increasing number of employed barristers work in private and public organisations, such as charities.
If you're self-employed you'll work in offices called chambers, where you could have your own office or share one with other barristers.
In Scotland, advocates have a comparable role and have rights of audience in all Scottish courts.
Types of barrister
You'll usually specialise in a particular area of law such as:
- chancery law (estates and trusts)
- commercial law
- common law (includes family, housing and personal injury law)
- criminal law
- entertainment law
- environmental law
- sports law.
Work activities depend on a range of factors, including your area of practice. However, your main focus is on solving problems and resolving disputes, and you'll typically need to:
- take instruction from clients and their solicitors
- understand and interpret the law
- master and manage legal briefs (cases)
- undertake legal research into relevant points of law
- write opinions and advise solicitors and other professionals
- prepare cases for court, including holding client conferences and preparing legal arguments
- advise clients on matters of law and evidence and the strength of their case
- represent clients in court
- present arguments in court
- examine and cross-examine witnesses
- sum up the reasons why the court should support your client's case
- draft legal documents
- negotiate settlements.
Your area of practice will largely determine the balance and emphasis of these activities. For example:
- the work of a criminal barrister is likely to involve a lot of advocacy in court
- a family law barrister may be representing clients in court in a contact dispute or divorce case, but may also be involved in mediation as a way of avoiding the need to go to court
- barristers practising chancery/commercial law are generally in court far less than those in other practice areas and instead spend more time undertaking drafting and advisory work.
Employed barristers undertake similar activities for one company or client. At more senior levels, they may also become involved with the development of legal policy and strategy.
Barristers also contribute to the collective running and management of chambers, particularly with the recruitment of pupils and other tenants.
- Salaries for those undertaking pupillage (final stage of qualification for the Bar) must be no less than £12,000 per year, set by the Bar Standards Board (BSB). However, some chambers offer substantially more than the minimum. Top commercial sets, for example, may offer in excess of £50,000.
- Qualified barristers in private practice with around five years' experience can earn anything from around £50,000 to £200,000. For those with over ten years' experience, earnings can range from £65,000 to £1,000,000.
- As an employed barrister, you can expect to earn from around £25,000 to in excess of £100,000.
Around 80% of barristers are self-employed and earnings can vary significantly depending on a range of factors. These include your geographical location, area of practice, experience and reputation, as well as your type of employer (self-employed or employed). Salaries at top commercial sets, for example, can be much higher than those at family or criminal sets.
Earnings for barristers in the early stages of their career are sometimes extremely low and there may be a considerable delay between doing the work and receiving payment. Deductions for costs such as rent for chambers, clerks' fees, tax, insurance and travel must also be taken into account if you're self-employed. Salaries for employed barristers will be less varied as they're determined by your employer.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
While courts tend to sit at regular hours during the day, barristers frequently have to work long, unsocial hours involving evenings and weekends, particularly at the beginning of their career.
What to expect
- Self-employed barristers have to contribute towards the running/overheads of chambers from their income, as well as covering their own tax and pension arrangements. The other 20% of barristers are employed in central or local government, commerce or industry.
- Most opportunities are in London and other major cities and towns.
- This is a demanding and intellectually challenging role, but the professional community is very supportive.
- Barristers are expected to conform to high standards of dress, ethics and professional conduct.
- While it is relatively rare to travel or work overseas, travel within a working day is common.
A career as a barrister is open to graduates in any subject, though non-law graduates have to undertake a law conversion course before they can start professional training.
There are currently three stages to training:
- Academic - a qualifying law degree, or an undergraduate degree in another subject followed by the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) (sometimes referred to as the Common Professional Exam (CPE)). Entry to the Bar is fiercely competitive and a good degree (at least a 2:1) is almost essential.
- Vocational - completion of the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), which takes one year full time or two years part time.
- Pupillage - a year of practical training with an authorised pupillage training organisation, spent under the supervision of an experienced barrister.
Entrants to the BPTC who do not have a qualifying law degree must take the GDL before applying.
The GDL is offered at many institutions across the country and, in addition to the seven foundation subjects, students learn legal method and research skills, the English legal system and an additional specialist legal topic. Those wanting to study the GDL full time need to apply through the Central Applications Board. Contact individual institutions direct for part-time study.
Full details of the BPTC (entry, curriculum, assessment and course providers) are available from the BSB. Applications for the BPTC must be made through the Bar Student Application Service (BarSAS) from mid-December in the year before you want to take the BPTC.
The purpose of the BPTC is to ensure that students acquire the skills, knowledge, attitudes and competence needed to undertake the pupillage.
Before starting the BPTC, you'll need to join one of the four Inns of Court:
The Inns provide educational and social support for barristers and student barristers, including libraries, dining halls and common rooms. The choice of Inn does not affect the areas of legal practice open to you, or the choice of chambers for pupillage or tenancy applications, but if you have received a scholarship, you will be required to join the Inn that provided it. The student officer at each Inn will supply more information.
A limited number of scholarships are available from the four Inns of Court. Details of funding and all other aspects of studying to become a barrister are available from The Bar Council.
After the BPTC, intending barristers must complete a pupillage in order to practise. The pupillage is divided into two parts:
- the non-practising six months - the 'first six'
- and the practising six months - the 'second six'.
You should apply for a pupillage before starting the BPTC via the Pupillage Gateway, operated by The Bar Council. Applicants may apply to up to 20 chambers or Authorised Training Organisations (ATO). For application and interview/assessment dates, see the Pupillage Gateway.
Competition is fierce, in terms of both academic standards and personal qualities. Visit the National Pupillage Fair, a recruitment fair run by The Bar council, to meet employers.
New training requirements to become a barrister will be coming into effect over the next couple of years. The aim is to make training more flexible and affordable, and therefore more accessible to more people, whilst maintaining the same high standards needed to practise as a barrister. There will be more approved training pathways offered, which are likely to be available from late 2020.
To become an advocate you need a Scottish law degree and the Scottish Diploma in Legal Practice. It is then necessary to undertake a period of training (usually 21 consecutive calendar months) in a solicitor's office approved by the Faculty of Advocates.
After you've been formally admitted by the Faculty as an 'intrant' (trainee advocate) and passed certain examinations, there comes a further eight to nine-month period of practical training ('devilling') with an experienced advocate (a 'devilmaster') and finally a competency assessment, which includes written and oral advocacy skills.
Law graduates wishing to practise as a barrister in Northern Ireland should apply for the one-year barrister-of-law course at the Institute of Professional Legal Studies. After being called to the Bar, trainees must undertake a 12-month pupillage with a Master. For more information see The Bar of Northern Ireland.
Learn more about how to become a lawyer.
You'll need to show:
- academic ability (particularly research skills)
- legal and commercial awareness
- excellent written skills with the ability to express ideas and arguments clearly
- advocacy skills
- interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate with a wide range of people
- excellent time, project and people management skills
- the ability to remain calm under pressure
- attention to detail
- problem-solving skills with a flexible approach to work
- IT skills
- self-motivation and self-discipline
- responsibility and integrity
- determination and stamina.
Relevant work experience is essential. Any legal experience is useful, but a mini-pupillage - a short period of work experience and shadowing, usually one week, within a set of chambers - is regarded highly by recruiters. Search for a mini-pupillage via Chambers Student. Other relevant work experience includes:
- marshalling - sitting with a judge, for up to a week
- pro-bono work - voluntary work with Citizens Advice or the Free Representation Unit
- public speaking - e.g. through a university debating or law school mooting society
- paid law work experience - e.g. as a paralegal working for a solicitor, taking notes in court.
For more information see law work experience.
The majority of barristers are self-employed and typically become tenants in a set of chambers. They are independent practitioners gaining work through the offices of the clerk to chambers or through personal contacts with solicitors. Their clients are primarily solicitors.
There are around 16,000 barristers working in England and Wales. The 20% working in employed practice do so for a range of employers and organisations, including the:
- Government Legal Department (GLD)
- armed forces legal services
- local government
- private companies.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Pupillage Gateway
- the barrister - online magazine that lists tenancy vacancies
- The Training Contract & Pupillage Guide - lists chambers with pupillages and information on recruiting chambers.
Recruitment agencies rarely handle vacancies.
On successful completion of the BPTC you're eligible to be called to the Bar (graduation is held at your Inn of Court).
You cannot begin your second six in pupillage before you have been called. Find out more information from:
- Gray's Inn
- Inner Temple
- Lincoln's Inn
- Middle Temple.
Currently, new barristers must spend at least 12 months in pupillage, split into two sixes with a barrister's chambers or another approved legal environment.
All pupils are assigned a supervisor who oversees and organises the training and work. Your first 'six' will involve observing and assisting your supervisor and other barristers from chambers. During the second six you'll take on some work of your own, under supervision.
Due to intense competition, some pupils are not offered tenancy at the end of their pupillage and may undertake a third six with a different set of chambers. During this period you do your own work but are not a tenant.
Candidates who do not get a pupillage on their first attempt are able to reapply but need to obtain a pupillage within five years of completing the BPTC. During the interim period between applications, it's worth obtaining additional legal experience.
In order to practise as barrister, you must be registered with the Bar Council and have a Practising Certificate, which is renewed annually online via the Authorisation to Practice renewal process.
Newly qualified barristers must complete 45 hours of continuing professional development (CPD), including at least nine hours of advocacy training and three hours of ethics, during their first three years of practice on the New Practitioners Programme.
After that, you must create an annual CPD plan, with details of your CPD objectives, activities and reflections, in line with the Established Practitioners Programme (EPP). For more information, see the BSB.
Upon completion of pupillage, you can apply for tenancy and become a junior barrister in chambers. The cases you deal with will become increasingly serious and complex.
Challenges to career development for self-employed barristers at this stage may include limited finances, long hours required to cover cases and managing your own workload. Because of this, career development and financial stability is very much dependent on your cases, your approach to work and your ability to successfully build up a practice and reputation.
Alternatively, barristers may choose to practise at the employed Bar and apply for positions with in-house legal services departments in commercial companies or public sector organisations. Career progression may involve leading a team or moving into the higher levels of general management.
Senior barristers from both the self-employed and employed Bar can apply to 'take silk' and become Queen's Counsel (QC). This involves leading in very serious cases or entering the judiciary as a recorder prior to becoming a judge. You'll usually need a minimum of 15 years' practice to be able to apply.
Getting involved with professional bodies and groups such as the Young Barristers' Committee (YBC), part of The Bar Council, from an early stage can help to raise your profile and develop your professional skills.
Career development requires a creative approach to career opportunities and the ability to think laterally - success may depend on choosing a specialist area in which you can develop a reputation.