Careers advice and planning

Choosing the right chambers for your Bar career

25 Jan 2023, 13:38

The type of chambers at which you complete your pupillage can affect your whole career as a barrister. Work out what direction you want to take long term to help you decide where to apply.

Image of the Inns of Court, which house many different chambers

Different sets of barristers specialise in different areas of law, so before you apply for pupillage you need to decide what type of work you’ll enjoy and what sort of chambers you’d like to be based in. Being clear about what you want from your career will help you to succeed in the pupillage recruitment process: you’ll target your applications much more effectively and convince recruiters that you really do want to work for them.

Types of chambers

The most basic division of chambers is between those operating in commercial law , common law , criminal law and (one or more) specialist fields.

Commercial law covers areas such as:

Common law is an umbrella term for a broad range of civil work, often involving negligence and contract. Examples include sale of goods, the law relating to personal injury and clinical negligence , and landlord and tenant.

However, there is a great deal of overlap: many sets will practise both commercial and common law, or common and criminal law, and a handful are involved in all three. Likewise, the issue of specialisations is not clearcut. Nowadays most experienced barristers specialise in one or more fields, and in many sets they are grouped together into specialist teams. A handful of chambers work in only one area (eg intellectual property law , family law or tax law ); however, many more will list three or four specialisations.

Specialisations at the Bar

Have a look at the areas of work to get a feel for which specific fields you might like to work in and the lifestyles they entail; completing work experience placements, or mini-pupillages, in different types of sets should develop your ideas further. Don’t feel that you have to choose a specialisation at this point. Most commercial and common law sets will cover a broad range of areas and there are a number of generalist sets where you'll be able to try a bit of everything. However, in most cases it will be hard to switch between the broad areas of commercial, common and criminal law after pupillage.

Lifestyles of barristers working in different areas of the law

When you're thinking about the areas that interest you, consider the lifestyle that accompanies them:

  • How often would you like to be in court?
  • Is it important to you to be able to plan your time?
  • Would you prefer lots of variety or to get really stuck into a small number of cases?

In the early years, criminal barristers tend to spend a great deal of time in court (sometimes making several different appearances in a day) on cases presented to them at extremely short notice – burning the midnight oil is common.

In contrast, commercial law barristers are likely to spend a good deal of time in chambers, researching and drafting. They tend to have fewer cases of their own, often assisting more experienced barristers, and pupils may find that they do not get to their feet in court at all during their second six.

Common law usually falls between these extremes and, depending on the set, generally offers good opportunities for advocacy practice during pupillage.

Assess your skills before applying for pupillage

Your skills and abilities will determine the types of work you are most suited to. High intellect (and an academic record that reflects this) is sought by all chambers but it is commercial sets who place most importance on this. Interpersonal skills are also a factor – what type of client would you be most comfortable dealing with? Commercial barristers will need to build relationships with City workers and convince them they understand their business; criminal barristers must be able to deal with a broad cross-section of society.

Consider a pupillage outside London

There’s a great myth that barristers have to be based in London to receive good quality work. Don’t be deceived – the regions are thriving and boast many businesses and solicitors’ firms keen to instruct local sets. True, pupillage awards tend to be lower but then so is the cost of living.

Take the atmosphere in chambers into account

It’s important to feel comfortable with the culture and atmosphere of the set you work in. Have a good look at chambers' websites and organisational profiles. Take mini-pupillages at sets that interest you and use your networking skills to find out the opinions of others who’ve spent time there.

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