Training and progression

How to become a barrister

10 Jan 2024, 19:40

What is the route to qualifying as a barrister in England and Wales? What if you haven't got a law degree? And how long will it take? We explain everything you need to know about qualifying as a barrister, finding pupillage vacancies and working life at the Bar.

The picture shows a close up of a statue of justitia, representing a career at the Bar

Here we answer your key questions on becoming a barrister, from ‘What do I need to do in order to qualify?’ and ‘How long does it take?’ to ‘How do I actually apply?’. Read on to find out:

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.

Where can you work as a barrister?

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 Profession or Crown Prosecution Service.

Do you need a degree to become a barrister?

In practice, yes – at the moment. The Bar Standards Board has approved an apprenticeship pathway for school leavers, but it is not yet operating. However, your degree does not need to be in law; graduates from other disciplines can complete a conversion course (most usually a graduate diploma in law or postgraduate diploma in law) before going on to qualify.

How do you train to become a barrister?

The qualification process for becoming a barrister has three stages:

  • The academic stage involves studying a law degree or a non-law degree plus a conversion course, eg the graduate diploma in law, GDL. or the postgraduate diploma in law.
  • The vocational stage involves undertaking the one-year Bar course, either in one or two parts, or as part of an integrated LLM. To qualify as a barrister and be ‘called to the Bar’, you will need to have joined one of the Inns of Court no later than three months before your Bar course starts. However, joining earlier may help you access scholarships and bursaries that can help fund your studies.
  • The work-based stage involves taking a pupillage year, split into two six month blocks (a first six and a second six). This will normally be spent in one or more barristers’ chambers, although the government and a very small number of other organisations also offer pupillage.

You’ll then need to find a set from which to practise permanently (known as ‘tenancy’). It may be with the same set or you may need to complete a ‘third six’ elsewhere.

An infographic of the qualifying process to become a barrister

How long does it take to become a barrister?

In theory, a law graduate could qualify and start practising as a barrister around two years after graduating, if they complete the Bar course full time and get pupillage immediately. Non-law graduates would take a year longer if they study for their conversion course full time.

However, in practice, it will probably take longer. Securing pupillage is competitive and many don’t do so first time around. Many chambers only take on one or two pupils per year. In fact, one barrister told us it took them nearly 50 interviews, two years and someone else dropping out to get pupillage. You may also choose to study part time or to stagger your study so that you can pay for it or gain law-related work experience, which will also increase the time it takes you to qualify.

How do you apply for pupillage?

You apply for most pupillages via the Pupillage Gateway a centralised online application system. However, some chambers may ask you apply to them directly with a CV and covering letter.

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 on targetjobs and at the targetjobs National Pupillage Fair to gain a sense of whether they are for you.

If your initial application is successful, you will be interviewed by members of the chambers’ pupillage committee (comprising practising barristers). Expect to have your commitment to the Bar and advocacy skills tested.

Which area of legal practice should you choose?

Areas of law are commonly divided into: commercial law; common law (which covers a broad range of civil work, often involving negligence and contract); criminal law; and specialist fields. There are then further areas of specialisation within each area. Most experienced barristers specialise in one or two fields and in many sets they are grouped together into specialist teams. However, many chambers work across more than one of these fields; most commercial and common law sets will cover a broad range of areas and there are also a number of generalist sets.

This is why for pupillage you don’t necessarily have to choose a specialism, but bear in mind that it will be difficult to switch between the broad areas of commercial, common and criminal law after pupillage. Read our guides to different areas of practice:

Are there any barrister-specific work experience opportunities?

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.

Each chambers decides for itself how many mini-pupillages it runs and when they run them.

Get more from targetjobs

Register on targetjobs to access your own personalised hub of the latest law careers advice and news of pupillages, mini-pupillages and postgraduate courses. If you are ready to search for roles right now, you can browse opportunities with chambers .

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