Barristers

 Do you have the ability to read large volumes of information in a short period of time? Are able to cope with the stress of long hours, tight deadlines and immense responsibility?  Do you like working alone, often into the evenings, but also in a team? Are you willing to argue for an unpopular cause? If you have answered ‘yes’ to the above then a career as a barrister might be for you.

The work of barristers is attractive to those who would like an extremely challenging, rewarding and independent life. Self-employed barristers work in buildings called 'chambers' (sometimes referred to as a ‘set’), which they share with other barristers and become a member of. This aspect, combined with the opportunity to become, through your own efforts, an expert in your chosen field, creates an opportunity to develop a stimulating career. The competition to become a barrister is very real and entry standards are high; you need to research this option thoroughly before committing yourself. In recent years the Bar has taken an assertive stance in encouraging entry into the profession of the most able from all backgrounds.

Barristers' professional bodies and Inns of Court

There are over 17,000 practising barristers in England and Wales, working independently in sets of chambers (about 80%) or employed in organisations such as the Government Legal Department, the Crown Prosecution Service and industry, commerce and the armed forces.

The two organisations which have responsibilities and obligations to the profession are:

Additionally every barrister has to become a member of one of the four Inns of Court; Lincoln’s Inn, Inner Temple, Middle Temple and Gray’s Inn. The Inns provide support for barristers and students through a range of educational activities and training, lunching and dining facilities, access to common rooms and gardens, and the provision of various grants and scholarships for aspiring barristers worth over £6 million. Your choice of Inn is a personal decision - like Oxford colleges, each Inn varies slightly in character – and has no effect on where you can apply for pupillage.

Some areas of work at the Bar have Specialist Bar Associations representing the interests of that sector, e.g. the Commercial Bar Association, the Family Law Bar Association and the Criminal Bar Association. These are a useful source of information and advice about the profession and the different roles in which barristers work. Visit their websites for details.

The new Bar qualification rules

The BSB undertook a major review of training for the Bar through its Future Bar Training programme. See the section on 'Entry points' for information on how this review has brought change to way future barristers train from September 2020. The aim of the changes is to  make training more flexible and affordable, and therefore more accessible to more people, while maintaining the same high standards needed to practise as a barrister. 

Please note: the information in this sector briefing deals with the system for England and Wales. Scotland, Northern Ireland, The Isle of Man, The Channel Islands and Eire have different legal systems. However, most Commonwealth countries with Common Law systems do still recognise being called to the English and Welsh Bar for practice in their own jurisdictions.

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The self-employed bar

Roughly 80% of barristers train and work in chambers across England and Wales. Although they will be a member of chambers, they are to all intents and purposes self-employed and earn fees rather than a regular salary.

Some chambers (and therefore its barristers) will specialise in one area of law, eg QEB focuses on family law; many of the 'Bedford Row' sets specialise in criminal law.

Most sets will cover a range of practice areas and cases. Some will call themselves a 'civil law set' and cover both private and public sector clients in practice areas such as planning, employment and human rights law - some civil law sets  will also have a strong commercial practice. Commercial sets focus on domestic and international trade, business, commerce and finance. On the whole, criminal barristers earn the lowest fees (some of the work is paid by legal-aid); commercial barristers command the highest fees (with pupils at some of the commercial sets taking a pupillage award between £65,000 and £70,000)

There can be considerable differences in the nature of a barrister’s work and some barristers almost never appear in court. Family or criminal barristers may appear in court most days, while barristers specialising in commercial work may spend the majority of their time in chambers, drafting pleadings and opinions. It makes commercial sense to avoid lengthy disputes in court, so often barristers may be involved earlier in more complicated, demanding commercial matters. However, advocacy remains a vital skill for the barrister and is one of the most distinguishing elements of the barrister’s role.

The employed bar

About 20% of barristers practise at the employed bar, such as the Government Legal Department or the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). There are fewer training opportunities (pupillages) within the employed bar but some qualified barristers transfer to the employed bar later in their career, drawn to the regularity of salary and better work/life balance.

Training to become a barrister

There are three components to training to become a barrister. These are:

  • the academic stage
  • the vocational stage
  • pupillage.

Lawyers who have qualified in another jurisdiction, for example solicitors based in England and Wales or lawyers from overseas, may be exempt from some or all of these components, depending on their qualifications and experience.

Academic Stage: law degree or non-law degree + GDL

Aspiring barristers must complete either:

  • An undergraduate degree in Law (LLB) or
  • An undergraduate degree in any subject followed by a conversion course (Graduate Diploma in Law, GDL) or Senior Status Degree.

An online application system at the Central Applications Board (CAB) contains details of, and links to, all GDL course providers, a number of whom attend the annual Oxford Law Fair in Michaelmas term. Applications for the GDL can be made on a rolling basis throughout the year and all applications for full-time courses are made through CAB. Different institutions may respond and fill their courses at different rates. While there is no CAB closing date, some institutions may ask for applications to be made before a certain date in order to have a place guaranteed or to be considered for awards or scholarships (subject to meeting their criteria). Research the institutions carefully and, when ready, make your application in good time. Please check the CAB website for the latest up-to-date information.

Vocational Stage: Bar training from September 2020

The vocational stage of training to become a barrister used to be satisfied by completing the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) - and you might still hear that term being used. As of September 2020, the BPTC has been replaced by a more flexible and more affordable system. There is no longer one common course title; instead, course providers choose their course name and have more flexibility in how they offer the training. The range of names include: the Barrister Training Course, the ICCA Bar Course and Bar Vocational Studies. In this career briefing, we'll use 'bar training course' as the common term for all courses.

Despite the lack of common course name, rest assured that all course providers must be authorised by the Bar Standards Board (the profession's regulator) in order to train future barristers. In other words, the courses are still regulated to a high standard.

Courses are likely to offer more online elements, which will help providers to keep the costs down. Some, but not all, providers are splitting their courses (and course fees) into two parts, allowing students to pay for part one before committing to an (often more expensive) part two. Some course providers give students the option of pausing their studies between parts one and two. Check individual course providers websites for details on how they offer their courses as providers' offerings vary.

For information on these courses, check individual providers' websites and to keep up-to-date with changes, please check Bar Standards Board  

Bar course providers for 2021/22:

The following nine organisations (Authorised Education Training Organisations or AETOs in the new BSB terminology) have been authorised to deliver Bar training from September 2020. 

  • The Inns of Court College of Advocacy
  • BPP University (Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, London & Manchester)
  • The University of Law (Nottingham, Bristol, Manchester, Leeds, London & Birmingham)
  • The City Law School, City, University of London
  • University of Northumbria Law School
  • Nottingham Trent University
  • University of the West of England (UWE)
  • Cardiff University
  • Manchester Metropolitan University 

Wherever you apply, your application for the Bar training will be assessed according to your degree results, and the evidence you can provide of having relevant skills and your references. Some authorised education and training organisations (AETOs) will require you to go through selection interviews or assessment. Like entry for the BPTC, entry to the new bar training courses is expected to be competitive.

Students used to apply for the BPTC via a centralised application system, similar to UCAS, known as BarSAS. This website has now been scrapped. You now need to apply to the individual providers (listed above) directly for a place on their bar training course. There is no centralised system.

The Bar Course Aptitude Test

In order to enrol on a bar training course (the vocational stage of training), you must have first passed the Bar Course Aptitude Test. The BCAT tests students’ critical thinking and reasoning and is similar in style to the Watson and Glaser critical thinking tests used by many law firms.

The BCAT test can be taken at home or at a Pearson Vue test centre and the cost to sit it in the UK is £150.Test results are a pass, a marginal fail or a significant fail, and the results are valid for 5 years. Check the Pearson Vue website for information on test delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic and if you want to take it outside the UK.

Support from the four Inns of Court

You must join one of the Inns of Court before you begin the vocational stage of training: Lincoln's Inn; Gray's Inn; Middle Temple or Inner Temple. Each Inn differs slightly in character but all offer similar support. Choosing an Inn is a personal decision but will have no impact on where you can apply for pupillage (just like all Oxford colleges differing in character, but whichever college you choose, you can still use the Careers Service!).

They provide educational and collegiate activities, library facilities, support for barristers and student members, advocacy training and other continuing professional development opportunities. If you are sure of your intention to train as a barrister, the earlier you join an Inn, the more advantageous it is for you.The earliest point that you can join is usually in the second year of your law degree.

Once you have joined an Inn you should start attending the 12 qualifying sessions that need to be undertaken before Call to the Bar (consisting of activities such as lectures, residential courses, moots and debates, often combined with dinners or other social events). Each Inn organises its own events for these purposes and will inform you of them.

The education office at your Inn can provide advice on matters such as mini-pupillages, choice of conversion, that Inn's scholarships or the bar training course. You can also be mentored via your Inn by a practising barrister and the Inns provide useful networking events. These officers can also be extremely helpful in arranging relevant contacts for you to speak to and in advising on the character of individual sets of chambers.

The Inns also provide a substantial amount of  financial assistance for the various stages of becoming a barrister awarding over £6 million in scholarships every year (see Funding your training below).

If you successfully complete the vocational component of training, you are 'called to the Bar' by your Inn. However, you may not practise as a barrister until you have completed the pupillage/work-based learning component (see 'Getting a job')

Funding your training

Unlike the solicitors' side of the profession where the big global law firms sponsor their trainees' course fees, barristers' chambers are unlikely to sponsor you through the academic or vocational stages. This is partly due to the timing of recruitment. Chambers often offer pupillage once candidates are already on the bar training course whereas solicitors' firms recruit trainee solicitors two years in advance when they are still on their undergraduate degree. Some sets of chambers (notably the commercial and civil sets) offer the opportunity to 'draw down' some of your pupillage award early, during your bar training course, to help you make ends meet while training.

The costs involved to go through the different stages to become a barrister are considerable (check providers' websites). Although chambers don't sponsor their future pupils, there are other ways to fund your training:

Scholarships from the Inns of Court

All four Inns of Court offer scholarships and bursaries and the amount varies from Inn to Inn. In total, the four Inns offer over £6 million in scholarships.

You can only apply for scholarships at one Inn. The majority of these scholarships go to support those on the bar training courses, but smaller awards are also available for the GDL conversion course. When choosing an Inn to apply to for scholarships, consider the number of overall scholarships available, the size of the scholarships and the number of student members (the competition!) at that Inn.

Each Inn has its own set of criteria to assess students' eligibility for these scholarships but they are primarily based on merit rather than financial need. The Inns are likely to consider intellectual ability, motivation, research skills, your commitment to a career at the Bar and your advocacy potential. Check each Inn's websites for the scope of these awards  and eligibility criteria.

Closing dates are typically: the November before you start your Bar training course for Bar training support or the May before your start your GDL for conversion course support.

A postgraduate loan from the Student Loans Company

You are not eligible to apply for postgraduate loan from the Student Loans Company for the Bar training course. Some Bar training providers, however, offer the chance to upgrade your course with a research element, which makes it an LLM Masters, allowing you to meet the Student Loans Company criteria and apply for a postgraduate loan of £11,570.

Check with the law schools that interest you, to see what sort of financial assistance they can provide.

There is some limited funding from a few organisations for students from ethnic minority groups, students with disabilities and overseas students. For example, the Inderpal Rahal Memorial Trust (deadline usually end of April), the Kalisher Scholarship Trust and Snowden Award Scheme.

There are a number of charitable trusts that are prepared to consider applications for financial help towards vocational training, e.g. the Thomas Wall Trust. Details of various trusts are included in The Grants Register, and The Directory of Grant-Making Trusts.

Essential skills for barristers

  • A high level of intellectual ability
  • Excellent advocacy and presentation skills
  • Being able to be articulate and persuasive in written and spoken English
  • An ability to think and communicate clearly under pressure
  • Determination and stamina
  • The ability to remain calm under pressure and think on your feet
  • The ability to describe complex matters of law in simple terms
  • Good judgment and problem-solving skills
  • Good research skills
  • The ability to absorb large volumes of information
  • IT skills
  • The commitment to work with total integrity and confidentiality
  • The ability to deal with people from a wide range of backgrounds

It is also worth bearing in mind that as self-employed individuals managing an often heavy workload, barristers need to have excellent time management skills and the stamina to cope with the stress of long hours, tight deadlines and high level responsibility, and the ability to cope with an irregular income (particularly as a junior barrister at the criminal or family bar).

When applying for the Bar it is important to be able to demonstrate all of these attributes. In particular, the three key qualities that chambers tend to be looking for are:

  1. intellectual ability (which can be evidenced through consistent academic results at A level and on your degree)
  2. the potential to be a strong advocate (which can be demonstrated through mooting/debating/other public speaking)
  3. commitment to the Bar (which can be shown through undertaking mini-pupillages, open days and gaining other relevant experience).

Ten ways to gain relevant experience for the barristers' profession

There are a number of ways that you can gain relevant experience and insight into the life of a barrister to show your commitment to the Bar in your applications:

1. Mini-Pupillages

These are short periods of work experience, generally lasting two to five days and usually in a set of chambers.  These work experience visits to barristers' chambers give you the opportunity to observe the work directly, to talk to barristers and to decide what area of practice you might like to work in.

Some chambers use 'assessed mini-pupillages' as part of their pupillage selection procedures where you'll be expected to submit a written piece of work or participate in a mock conference.

Mini-pupillages are listed centrally on the Chambers Student website. Sets of chambers will consider applications for mini-pupillages to take place at any time of the year. There are generally no deadlines; applications are considered when they come in. For some chambers you may need to apply up to a year ahead. In practice many people apply in December or January for Easter or summer vacation experience. August is a very quiet time at the Bar because the courts are usually closed, so you are less likely to be offered time then.

2. Visit your local court's public gallery

A simple way to boost your experience is to sit in the public galleries in the Crown Court, Magistrates' Court or Coroner's Court and observe how barristers work. It's free and you can easily fit it around your studies. WIth Covid-19 restrictions in mind, at the time of updating (May 2021), we asked the local courts whether they were allowing people to view cases from the public gallery and this is what they said: 

Oxford Crown Court | St Aldates |Oxford | OX1 1TL

'Yes the Crown Court is open and you may view cases where there is room.'

Thames Valley Magistrates (Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire). Oxford Magistrates is on Speedwell Street. OX11RZ

‘Whilst we are open to members of the public we are limiting the amount of people who can be present in court. Therefore you may be refused admittance to the court house/room if we have reached our capacity.’

Reading Coroner’s Court. Advice on its website:  

'The Court remains open to the public with restrictions on how many people may attend any one inquest. If a member of the public would like further information about the inquest arrangements, please email us on coroner@reading.gov.uk.'

3. Vacation schemes and informal work experience in law firms

Yes, it's the barristers' profession that gets you fired up but why not gain some experience in a solicitor's firm as well? After all, it's likely to be solicitors who will provide you with work once you're a practising barrister not the the individual client. Knowing how a firm works will make you a more commercially aware barrister. It's never too early to start building your network and reputation – you'll come to rely on that as a barrister.

4. Meet chambers at the Oxford Law Fair in October 

Our annual Law Fair in Michaelmas term gives you the chance to meet around 15 sets of barristers’ chambers. Additionally, other organisations, such as the Bar course providers attend. Make sure you read the fair booklet beforehand so you can be prepared.

Some chambers visit the Careers Service to give mock pupillage interviews, usually in Hilary term. Keep an eye on CareerConnect to book a session.

5. Meet chambers in London

There are other organised opportunities to meet barristers and listen to relevant talks, aside from the Oxford Law Fair, both on a Saturday so unlikely to interfere with tutorials.

  • The TARGETjobs National Pupillage Fair, London (usually late November)
  • The Bar Council Pupillage Fair (16 October 2021)

If you are unable to make the TARGETjobs National Pupillage Fair, the you can watch recordings of barristers talking about their jobs at the TARGETjobs YouTube page.

6. Marshalling

Marshalling involves sitting with a judge (generally for a week) and provides opportunities to see barristers making submissions in court and discuss cases with the Judge. The Inns of Court will help to organise these opportunities.

7. Pro bono or voluntary work

Pro bono is a great way to get experience of advising people on legal issues and representing them in tribunals. There are a few organisations which take on volunteers (students in their third year of a law degree or during the GDL) for this role, including Citizens' Advice, Advocate and the Free Representation Unit . The Law Faculty also offer pro bono work experience with Oxford Legal Assistance (for undergraduate law students) and Oxford Pro Bono Publico (for postgraduate law students or postgraduates from relevant disciplines).

The Citizens' Advice Witness Service provides support for defence and prosecution witnesses. This volunteer role is designed to help welcome and orientate witnesses coming to give evidence in criminal cases, and gives a unique insight into the court system and the way lawyers work.

As many of the current volunteers are shielding or self-isolating due to COVID-19, some courts have a lack of witness service volunteers. The Witness Service Volunteer homepage lists the areas that are currently recruiting for new volunteers. Check the homepage to see if your area is recruiting and then contact the coordinator in your area for more information about the role, and how to apply.

If you have already completed a year of legal studies (degree or GDL), you can volunteer as an Advocate volunteer barrister.  

8. Public speaking, debating and mooting

Taking opportunities to debate, compete in mooting competitions (mock trials) or otherwise present or perform to large groups is valuable experience. Taking part successfully in mooting competitions is seen as very positive on applications. The Oxford Law Faculty offers internal mooting competitions and access to external mooting competitions. Some moots, such as The Nelson Mandela World Human RIghts Moot Court Competition and The Disability Mooting Competition, are open to non-law students. Contact mooting@law.ox.ac.uk  for more information. The Oxford Bar Society holds a mooting competition each year for non-law students. 

 

9. Use the Oxford network

About 10% of Oxford graduates go into law. Use LinkedIn to find alumni from your course or college and make contact, asking for an information interview to find out more about the Bar.

10. Join the Oxford Bar Society and your college law society

Do consider joining the student Bar Society and student Law Society who both have an active programme of visiting speakers and relevant events, including mooting competitions. The Inns also hold presentations in Oxford.

Pupillage

Once you have completed your Bar training course (previously known as the BPTC), you will be 'called to the Bar' by your Inn of Court but cannot practise or charge fees as a barrister until you have completed pupillage: on the job training.

Pupillage is one year spent as a pupil in an authorised education and training organisation (AETO) approved by the Bar Standards Board, typically a set of barristers' chambers or an organisation such as the Government Legal Department.

This 12-month period of training is divided into two parts (‘sixes’): the non-practising six-months, during which pupils shadow their pupil supervisor; and the second, practising six-months, when pupils (with their supervisor’s permission) undertake advocacy in court and other legal services. The two periods are increasingly in the same chambers. Some chambers. such as Blackstone, do not split their 12-month pupillage into two 'sixes'.

Applying for pupillage

In reality, given the fierce competition at the Bar, many candidates are unsuccessful in their first attempt at securing pupillage, and may succeed only after two or three years of applying (your Bar training course is valid for five years). The Pupillages Handbook lists all pupillages for the year ahead. At least some, if not all, of your pupillage applications will be made online. Others will ask for a CV and covering letter. Online applications are done in one of two ways:

1. The Pupillage Gateway

Many chambers use a centralised online system similar to UCAS known as the Pupillage Gateway, run by the Bar Council. Approximately half of all pupillages are filled through this system. Pupillages starting in September 2022 are published on 25 November 2021 and applications open on 5 January 2022. Applicants have a one-month window to apply for up to 20 chambers (on average people apply to closer to 6) and applications close on 9 February 2022. Chambers are able to download and sift applications, and conduct interviews between February 2022 and 6 May 2022. Offers of pupillage are made through the system on 5 May 2022.

Although the timetable tends to follow these dates year on year, check the Pupillage Gateway website for its current timetable before planning your applications.

You need to register with the Pupillage Gateway to access the centralised system. You will - and we recommend you do – tailor each section of the application form to the individual set you are applying to.

2. Chambers' own websites

Some sets of chambers do not use the Pupillage Gateway to manage the application process. However, details of these opportunities and deadlines are generally still listed on the Pupillage Gateway and in the Pupillages Handbook. From 2020, however, Chambers' are obliged to follow the Gateway timetable even if they don't use the system to receive applications.

For statistics on breakdown of pupillages (such as gender, institutions attended, disability and other demographic data) see Bar Standards Board database

Tenancy

After pupillage, the next stage is to obtain 'tenancy' in a set of barristers' chambers as a self-employed barrister or to go into practice as an employed barrister. Tenancy is a permanent position in a set of chambers and many barristers remain in the same set of chambers for the entire Bar career, but there are no guarantees that your pupillage provider will provide you with tenancy. 

As a tenant, you are then an independent practitioner, but you work as a member of your chambers contributing to the common costs, such a clerks' fees and building costs. There are usually fewer tenancies available than pupillage places, although there is some evidence that more London chambers are trying to match the numbers of pupillage and tenancy places.

Pupils usually gain their tenancy in the chambers where they completed pupillage. For those who don’t it is no longer straightforward for even strong candidates to get a tenancy elsewhere. A number of unsuccessful applicants may find themselves staying on in the chambers for ‘Third Six’ (further pupillage) or ‘squatting’ there while seeking a permanent place.

Volunteering and advocacy opportunities

  • Advocate – representing clients as a volunteer in court
  • The Free Representation Unit – volunteer advocacy experience for junior lawyers
  • Do-It – national volunteer database highlighting opportunities for volunteer work. This site has a legal section
  • Baby Barristers – recruitment site for barristers at the pre-pupillage stage
  • LinkedIn Jobs

News

Sector information and regulatory bodies

Law careers websites aimed at students

Recommended reading

There are so many informative, regulalrly updated websites on careers at the Bar (see above) that we don't feel the need to recommend buying books on the subject as well. However, the following are well worth reading if you get the chance, particularly if you are considering the Criminal Bar:

  • Bewigged and Bewildered?,  Adam Kramer QC and Ian Higgins
  • In Black and White, Alexandra Wilson (an alumna from University College and criminal barrister) 
  • The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It's Broken

Recruiters are keen to have a diverse workforce and many will have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting students and graduates from diverse backgrounds. An increasing number of recruiters are offering traineeships, internships, insight events to being recognised for their approach to being inclusive employers. To find out the policies and attitudes of the recruiters that you are interested in, explore their equality, diversity and inclusion policy. Search their website to see if they have any  specific staff networks, look out for external accreditation such as are they a Disability Confident employer, a Stonewall Diversity Champion to promoting mental health at work and being part of the Mindful Employer charter. Check to see if they are partnering with such organisations as Rare Recruitment, SEO London, MyPlus Students Club(disability), EmployAbility(disability and neurodifference) and there are many more that are working for specific communities. A key place to look is to see what they do to celebrate diversity on their Facebook and Twitter pages.

The Bar Council, the Inns of Court and the wider profession are determined to widen access to the Bar, and to create a diverse and inclusive profession. A number of initiatives exist to help achieve this from offering specific bursaries and scholarships to work experience programmes. The Pegasus Access & Support Scheme(PASS) administered by the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple. PASS is a co-ordinated work experience programme for students considering the Bar as a career. The programme has 62 partner Chambers.  The Partners represent a diverse range of Chambers and they are all committed to supporting diversity and social mobility at the Bar.

There is funding from organisations to support students from ethnic minority groups, students with disabilities and overseas students to help them train for the Bar.

There are a number of schemes and organisations that focus on encouraging diversity into the legal profession, such as:

Many Chambers also run their own bespoke programmes and are very keen to encourage applications and recruit individuals from diverse backgrounds.

There is some limited funding from a few organisations for students from ethnic minority groups, students with disabilities and overseas students. For example, the Inderpal Rahal Memorial Trust (deadline usually end of April), the Kalisher Scholarship Trust and Snowden Award Scheme.

The UK Equality Act 2010 has a number of protected characteristics to prevent discrimination due to your age, disability,  gender reassignment,  race, religion or beliefs, sex or sexual orientation. For further information on the Equality Act 2010 and to find out where and how you are protected, and what to do if you feel you have been discriminated against, visit the Government’s webpages on discrimination.

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