Careers advice and planning

The top skills you need to be a barrister

12 Jan 2024, 14:00

We asked barristers, students and careers experts what it takes to be a good barrister. Explore the skills they told us you need – plus how to develop them.

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You’ll probably know from your research (and from watching legal dramas) that barristers need the confidence to handle complex cases under pressure in court. But there are many other skills and attributes you need to make it as a successful barrister.

Read on to find out why these skills matter for a law career and to hear from barristers, law students and advisers about how you can build develop.

Jump to more details of the skills you need:

  1. advocacy skills
  2. resilience
  3. the ability to think under pressure
  4. communication skills
  5. the ability to create rapport
  6. organisational skills.

1. Advocacy skills (oral and written)

Presenting your clients’ cases – advocacy – is at the heart of a barrister’s role. This can be through written submissions as well as on your feet in court. Either way, you’ll need to appear calm, confident and convincing, and to use your legal knowledge to create compelling reasons, based on detailed research and evidence, to influence judges and juries.

Christopher Kessling , vice dean of the Inns of Court College of Advocacy, emphasises that there are many aspects to effective advocacy. The ability to explain things simply is important, for example – or, as he told us at the targetjobs National Pupillage Fair: ‘Lady Justice Andrews puts it beautifully: “How would you explain this to a friend who gets easily bored?”’ Similarly, you need to be able to engage with those listening to you: simply reading from notes won’t convey your message persuasively.

How to develop advocacy skills

The essential thing is to practise your advocacy skills, particularly performing to an audience. The traditional way to do this is via debating, mooting and completing mini-pupillages. However, as Lucy Moran , a future pupil barrister at Exchange Chambers, Liverpool, told us, there are plenty of other ways. She suggests looking for opportunities via situations in which you need to convince an audience of a particular point of view.

For example, you could:

  • stand for election to a student society
  • look for work experience involving sales or marketing
  • carry out voluntary work in journalism or communication, such as student radio or podcasts
  • enter essay competitions and contribute to research papers to demonstrate clear writing skills and use of argument.

Being comfortable performing to a crowd is an essential component of good oral advocacy. Participating in amateur dramatics, being part of a band and/or taking up standup are good ways to boost your confidence. You might find taking classes in acting or standup helpful, too.

It is always helpful to observe good advocacy in action. Take every opportunity to attend hearings , either in person or online.

2. Resilience

While it’s essential that you establish effective relationships with those you work with, you also need to be able to distance yourself when necessary. Cases can involve highly charged emotions and, to stay well and professional, you must be able to step back and put things into perspective. This is often known as resilience.

How to develop resilience

Chambers won’t expect you to have the resilience of a KC when you apply for a pupillage, but they will look for evidence that you understand the emotional challenges of working with others in difficult situations. To build this, reflect on what you find stressful and on your current coping strategies for dealing with stress. Do they work well for you?

One way to further develop resilience is to put yourself in new situations. For example, you could look for opportunities to support others or to interact with people from different life situations from yours. This could be via volunteering, travel, tutoring or customer-facing work such as retail or call centre roles.

3. The ability to think under pressure

Being on your feet in court is the ultimate test of whether you can perform under pressure, and there will be other scenarios in which you’ll be put on the spot as a barrister. As Ruth Hosking , a commercial barrister at Quadrant Chambers, told us, ‘Unless you’ve got a silk to hide behind, it will be you in front of the judge or judges or you in front of the arbitrators. You have to be able to cope with being asked difficult questions. Most of the time tribunals are absolutely lovely but we’ve probably all been in front of a judge who’s had a bad day or an arbitrator who's feeling a bit grumpy.’

Woking well under pressure

Look for opportunities to step outside your comfort zone and to reflect on your response. You don’t need to plan a bungee jump or otherwise terrify yourself, but you do need reliable ways to calm yourself and organise your thoughts in difficult situations. The best way to build these is through small steps, reflection and honesty with yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable managing high-stakes situations, that’s fine – but it may mean that a career as a barrister is not for you.

4. Communication skills

As a barrister, you’re likely to work with a wide range of people, many of whose experiences are different from yours. You need to feel confident communicating with them – not just speaking, but also listening and showing that you understand their perspective.

How to develop your communication skills

You’ll build specialist client skills as part of your Bar course (you may have seen ‘conference skills’ listed – this is what this refers to) but in the meantime, seek out opportunities to support people outside your usual network. This usually involves volunteering – this could be via the Free Representation Unit , Citizens Advice or a student or community advice service. As Ann Jago from BPP University Law School told us, this will not only give you the skills you need as a barrister but will also show your commitment to the Bar.

5. The ability to create rapport

A critical element of communication, rapport is about building and maintaining connections. It’s an essential skill for barristers, as you’re likely to meet clients in stressful circumstances. You’ll need to be able to connect with them, inspire them to feel confident in you, and maintain an effective relationship with them, regardless of how emotional the context may be. As Grant Keyes , a barrister at 3PB, puts it: ‘You’ve got to be able to deal with people. You’ve got to understand what they’re like, understand their situation, understand their position legally, and you’ve got to be able to communicate that in a very sensitive and direct way.’

Building rapport

Rapport develops when somebody feels heard and understood by you. There are practical techniques you can learn to facilitate this, such as active listening and summarising or reflecting back what you have just heard.

Another way is to develop your emotional intelligence; look for opportunities to work with people who are different from you, to build trust with them and to help them achieve their goals. Volunteering might be an option here, but so is experience in sales, client support (perhaps in a call centre) or in customer-facing retail roles. Working in sales helps you learn the techniques of rapid rapport building.

6. Organisational skills

You’ll probably know that most barristers are self employed, which in itself calls for good organisational skills. For example, you need to keep track of tax and expenses, file your accounts, pay tax on time and plan your finances carefully. But, as a barrister, you’ll also need to plan ahead to ensure you’re fully prepared for the cases you’re working on. Ruth from Quadrant Chambers explains that ‘what makes a really good commercial court advocate is someone who is properly prepared […]It’s about knowing your papers and knowing your case.’

Building organisational skills

Your course has probably already helped you here, especially if you’re juggling a job alongside your study. Other work experience, such as mini-pupillages, vacation placements, internships, volunteering and holiday jobs, can also help you build strategies to organise yourself. Nonetheless, it’s worth thinking about how you currently plan your time and money, and how you could do better. If you struggle with personal organisation, ask friends for tips. It’s also worth reflecting on how challenging organisation is for you. If it’s been a problem for many years, working as a self-employed barrister could be a risky career option.

Why do you believe you’d be a good barrister?

As part of your career planning, think about what’s driving you towards a career as a barrister and why you believe you’d be good at it. What have you done so far that suggests this? What skills gaps do you have and why?

Where you spot gaps – for example, if you know that you want to make a difference to people’s lives but have always struggled to think under pressure – look for ways to build up your skills. However, you should also think about whether you want to build those skills and use them daily in your career.

targetjobs editorial advice

This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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