Barristers (in England and Wales) are specialists in advocacy and represent individuals or organisations in court. They are 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.

They plead the case on behalf of the 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.

Most barristers work on a self-employed basis, while others work in government departments or agencies such as the Crown Prosecution Service and the Government Legal Service.

An increasing number of employed barristers work in private and public organisations, such as charities.

Self-employed barristers work in offices called chambers, and may have their 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

Barristers usually specialise in particular areas of law such as:

  • criminal law;
  • chancery law (estates and trusts);
  • commercial law;
  • entertainment law;
  • sports law;
  • common law (includes family, housing and personal injury law).

Responsibilities

Work activities depend on a range of factors, including the area of practice. However, barristers are generally involved in the following tasks:

  • taking instruction from clients and their solicitors;
  • understanding and interpreting the law;
  • mastering and managing legal briefs (cases);
  • undertaking legal research into relevant points of law;
  • writing opinions and advising solicitors and other professionals;
  • preparing cases for court, including holding client conferences, preparing legal arguments, etc.;
  • advising clients on matters of law and evidence and the strength of their case;
  • representing clients in court;
  • presenting arguments in court;
  • examining and cross-examining witnesses;
  • summing up the reasons why the court should support their client's case;
  • drafting legal documents;
  • negotiating settlements.

The area of a barrister's 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.

Salary

  • 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 and salaries can be up to £65,000 depending on the area of practice.
  • Qualified barristers can earn anything from £25,000 to £300,000.
  • Salaries for those with over ten years' experience can rise to £1,000,000.
  • Salaries around £30,000 to £90,000 can be expected for barristers in the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) or the Government Legal Service (GLS).

Salaries vary depending on a range of factors, including location, area of practice, experience, reputation and type of employer (self-employed or employed).

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.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

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

  • Around 80% of barristers are self-employed (The Bar Council, 2014) and have to contribute towards the running/overheads of chambers from their income, as well as covering their own tax and pension arrangements.
  • Most opportunities are in London and other major cities and towns.
  • This is a demanding and intellectually challenging role, but there is a very supportive professional community.
  • 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.

Qualifications

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 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 Bar Standards Board (BSB). Applications for the BPTC must be made through a centralised clearing system by early January prior to entry, visit the Bar Student Application Service (BARSAS).

The purpose of the BPTC is to ensure that students acquire the skills, knowledge, attitudes and competence needed to undertake the pupillage. A limited number of scholarships are available from the 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 12 chambers or Authorised Training Organisations (ATO). The deadline to apply is the end of April and full details are available on the website. Competition is very strong, in terms of both academic standards and personal qualities, with an average of over three applicants for every place, so it is important to apply in the first round. To find out more see the National Pupillage Fair (held annually in March).

By the end of May prior to starting the BPTC, it is also necessary 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.

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 have 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. After three months barrister pupils are able to take on cases with the permission of the Education Committee. For more information see The Bar Library.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • academic ability (particularly research skills);
  • legal and commercial awareness;
  • strong written and oral communication skills;
  • advocacy skills;
  • interpersonal skills;
  • excellent time, project and people management skills;
  • the ability to remain calm under pressure;
  • IT skills;
  • self-motivation and self-discipline;
  • responsibility and integrity;
  • determination and stamina.

Work experience

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, with a set of chambers - is regarded highly by recruiters. For a list of chambers offering mini-pupillages see the Pupillage Gateway. Criminal records must be disclosed and may exclude some applicants.

Other relevant work experience includes:

  • marshalling - sitting with a judge, usually for up to a week;
  • pro-bono work - voluntary work with a Citizens Advice Bureau 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.

Professional development

On successful completion of the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) course you are eligible to be 'called to the Bar' (the graduation ceremony for BPTC students 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, usually split into two six-month periods (called 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 will 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, either at the same or a different 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 is worth obtaining additional legal experience.

External training such as working for a solicitors' firm or marshalling with a judge can also count towards pupillage.

In order to keep up to date with changes in the law, newly qualified barristers are required to 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, they must undertake 12 hours of CPD every year on the Established Practitioners' Programme. Details of accredited courses are available from the Bar Standards Board (BSB).

Career prospects

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.

Further career development involves honing and updating your skills. For many barristers, the eventual aim is to 'take silk' and become a Queen's Counsel (QC). This involves leading in very serious cases or entering the judiciary as an assistant recorder prior to becoming a judge.

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.

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.