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Law barristers

From graduate to barrister: how to get in

Everything you need to know about qualifying as a barrister, finding pupillage vacancies and working life at the Bar. Whether you want to know about pupillage awards, Pupillage Gateway applications or how to become a barrister if you are not a law graduate, you can find answers to key questions here.

What is a barrister?

A barrister is a specialist in advocacy who presents a case in court – but it’s not just a matter of standing up during a trial. Generally speaking, a case might progress in this manner:

  • A solicitor is usually the first port of call when an issue arises, and they deal with the day-to-day administration of the case before it comes to the barrister.
  • The solicitor contacts the clerk at a barristers’ chambers – asking either for a specific person or a specialist in a certain field – and the clerk passes the case on.
  • The barrister considers the relevant points of law and researches previous similar cases. He or she then supplies specialist advice and does the advocacy if the case goes to court.
  • In court the barrister presents the case, cross-examines witnesses and debates the issues. Many cases involve an initial hearing, followed by an interim hearing, and finally a full trial. There is no ‘typical’ length for a case. For small matters, a barrister may receive instructions the night before a case and the hearing may be completed within a day. Others last much longer – some cases take years. In very complicated matters, a barrister will work closely with solicitors and junior colleagues for a considerable time before the case comes to court.

A career as a barrister entails providing specialist legal advice and representing clients in court. Most barristers are self-employed but operate collectively from organisations known as ‘chambers’ or ‘sets’. A small number work in-house for companies or solicitors’ firms (known as the ‘employed Bar’) or for the Government Legal Service or Crown Prosecution Service. 

Graduates from any degree background can become a barrister; however, you’ll need to complete at least one year of further study first (see below), then look for a one-year training place – known as pupillage – in chambers or with another approved provider. Most chambers’ pupillage recruitment programmes are annual, sometimes recruiting graduates as much as two years in advance.

Training as a barrister

If you’re a non-law graduate interested in a career as a barrister, you need to take a law conversion course, known as the common professional examination (CPE) or the graduate diploma in law (GDL). These tend to take one year full time. Alternatively, a few institutions offer a two-year masters’ course, which goes into more depth. Both law graduates and non-law graduates must then take the Bar professional training course (BPTC), formerly known as the Bar vocational course (BVC), which lasts one year full time. The next step is to complete your pupillage year at a barristers’ set, during which you will shadow an experienced barrister and possibly take on your own cases. Once you have completed pupillage you will need to find a set to take you on permanently – this is known as ‘tenancy’.

Pupillage applications

Many chambers’ graduate recruitment programmes operate 18 months to two years in advance so you’ll probably want to start applying for pupillage during the final year of your law degree or during your conversion course. Begin researching pupillage providers by picking up a copy of TARGETjobs Law from your university careers service or law department, then visit pupillagegateway.com, the home of the Pupillage Gateway online pupillage application system (formerly known as the Pupillage Portal and, before that, OLPAS). The website provides a directory of all chambers’ pupillage vacancies and application methods. You can apply to up to 12 Pupillage Gateway chambers. You can apply to as many non-Gateway chambers as you like.

Many sets offer students the opportunity to do a mini-pupillage, which is a chance to see what barristers’ jobs are really like by spending a few days in a set. They also let chambers find out about prospective pupils. Some sets run ‘assessed’ mini-pupillages, and tend to only accept pupillage applications from those who have done one.

How much do barristers earn?

During your pupillage year you’ll receive a ‘pupillage award’ – in effect, a salary – from your set. The Bar Standards Board sets the minimum pupillage salary at £12,000 per year. However, many sets pay much higher amounts – in some cases over £40,000 – which compare very favourably with graduate starting salaries in other career sectors. Some commercial and chancery sets of chambers are now offering £65,000 a year or over to pupils. At the other end of the scale, sets carrying out publicly funded work continue to feel the squeeze: awards for pupils at family or criminal law sets tend to be around £25,000 for 12 months.

Once you become a tenant you’ll be self-employed and won’t receive a regular pay-check. Finances may take a little juggling in the first few years as there is inevitably a gap between billing for work and receiving fees; however, your earning potential will grow rapidly in your first few years. Criminal law is perhaps the least lucrative area but it’s still a decent living; earnings in commercial and chancery sets are the most lucrative.

What are the different areas of work at the Bar?

Individual barristers’ jobs and lifestyles differ greatly depending on the areas in which they practise.

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