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.
Many barristers are self-employed and work in offices called chambers, where you could have your own office or share one with other barristers.
However, some barristers work at the employed bar for government departments or agencies such as the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the Government Legal Profession. There are also a limited number of opportunities to work in the legal departments of large companies or other organisations such as charities.
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 - both traditional (trusts and probate) and commercial (business and financial disputes)
- civil law
- civil liberties and human rights law
- commercial dispute resolution law
- common law - covers many areas of law, although you may specialise in just one or two
- company law
- competition law
- criminal law
- employment law
- environment and planning
- family law
- media, sports and entertainment 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 or 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 £20,703 per year in London and £18,884 outside of London (2023). This minimum is 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.
- Around 80% of barristers are self-employed and, once qualified, earnings can vary significantly depending on a range of factors. These include your location, experience and reputation, as well as your area of practice. Earnings at top commercial sets, for example, can be much higher than those at family or criminal sets.
- According to the BSB, 80% of barristers with five years' experience in commercial and financial law earn over £90,000, and nearly 50% over £240,000.
- Earnings can be a lot lower for barristers with five years' experience in other areas of practice such as criminal law, where 70% of barristers earn between £30,000 and £90,000, and family law, where 70% earn between £30,000 and £150,000.
- Earnings for barristers with ten years' experience also vary widely. Around 70% of barristers at this stage in their career earn between £60,000 and £500,000. However, around 25% will earn under £60,000, while around 4.5% will earn in excess of £500,000.
- Employed barristers can expect to earn from around £25,000 to in excess of £100,000.
Income for self-employed barristers in the early stages of their career is 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. You must also cover your own tax and pension arrangements.
Salaries for employed barristers will be less varied as they're determined by your employer.
Income data from the Bar Standards Board. 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
- Becoming a barrister can be a competitive process and there are many more people who want to be barristers than there are places for training.
- Most opportunities are in London and other major cities and towns.
- The career can be varied and rewarding, as well as demanding and intellectually challenging.
- 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.
In order to qualify as a barrister you must undertake three components of training:
- pupillage or work-based learning.
To complete the academic component of training, you'll need to get a minimum 2:2 undergraduate degree. If your degree is in a subject other than law, or if you took your law degree more than five years' ago, you'll need to complete a law conversion course, which is commonly called the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). As part of the academic component, you must cover the seven foundations of legal knowledge, as well as areas such as legal research.
The vocational component of training provides you with the specialist skills, knowledge, attitudes and competence needed to become a barrister. To pass this component, you'll need to complete a Bar course. The names of these courses may vary but they will all satisfy the vocational component. Courses vary in format, so do your research and choose one that meets your needs. You can:
- take the Bar course full time over one year (or part-time equivalent)
- take the Bar course in two parts - with either face-to-face teaching for both parts or self-study for one part. This is a more flexible format as you don't move on to the second part of the course (or pay for it) until you've passed the first part
- combine the academic component and vocational components of training together through, for example, taking a tailored LLM or another equivalent qualification.
For a list of organisations providing the vocational component of Bar training, see Authorised Education and Training Organisations (AETOs).
As part of the training you will take centralised assessments, which are set and marked by the Bar Standards Board, in addition to exams set by your AETO.
In order to start the vocational component of training, you'll need to join one of the four Inns of Court:
You must also be fluent in English.
The Inns are the professional membership associations for barristers (England and Wales) and 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. You can, however, only join one Inn. They also provide scholarships to students taking the GDL or the vocational training component.
For more information, see Bar courses.
After successfully completing the vocational component of training, you will be called to the Bar by your Inn. You must then complete the work-based learning component, commonly known as 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 at least a year in advance via the Pupillage Gateway, operated by The Bar Council. Applicants may apply to up to 20 chambers or AETOs. 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.
Find out more about Pupillage.
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 have:
- 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 to five days, 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.
There are more than 17,000 barristers working in England and Wales. The majority are self-employed (around 80%) 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.
Around 18% of barristers work in employed practice for a range of employers and organisations, including the:
- Government Legal Department (GLD)
- Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)
- armed forces legal services
- local government
- private companies.
A small number of barristers work as sole practitioners or in a dual capacity, undertaking both employed and self-employed work (BSB).
Look for job vacancies at:
- Civil Service Jobs
- Pupillage Gateway
- the barrister - online magazine that lists tenancy vacancies.
Recruitment agencies rarely handle vacancies.
On successful completion of a Bar course 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.
Currently, new barristers must spend at least 12 months in pupillage (or part-time equivalent), split into two sixes with a barrister's chambers or another approved legal environment.
All pupils are assigned a supervisor, an experienced barrister 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 (a long-term place in Chambers) at the end of their pupillage and may apply for a probationary tenancy (often referred to as a 'third six') or a fixed-term period of practise 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 a Bar course. During the interim period between applications, it's worth obtaining additional legal experience.
In order to practise as a 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).
CPD activities can include:
- taking part in courses, webinars and seminars
- attending conferences
- research and professional writing
- presenting lectures and workshops
- teaching on academic and vocational legal courses.
For more information, see the BSB.
Upon successful 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.
Self-employed barristers may face a range of challenges in the early stages of their career. These can include:
- limited finances - your income comes solely from the work you take on and you must pay various costs such as rent for chambers, clerks' fees, tax, insurance and travel out of this money
- long working hours to cover cases
- learning how to manage your own workload
- building up your reputation - it can take time to gain the confidence of potential clients and to develop a network of solicitors who will regularly provide you with work.
Career development and financial stability is very much dependent on your area of practice, 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 King's Counsel (KC). 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.