What is common law? A guide for aspiring barrister pupils

Last updated: 25 Aug 2023, 13:48

General practice is less likely these days, but the variety of cases will be attractive to many.

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Changes to the courts and a move towards transparency have made leaps forward in some aspects of common law. A common law practice, however, is less common than it used to be. Remuneration is not terrible in common law, but cuts to legal aid have made their mark on certain areas of common law.

What is common law at the Bar?

Common law is the collective name for a number of practice areas including chancery, family, criminal and employment. It is now less likely for a barrister to work across all of these areas equally, but instead to specialise as their practice develops.

What do common law barristers do?

Cases will vary depending on the area of law practised, and will be heard in different courts accordingly. For example, employment cases may be heard by tribunal or the High Court dependent on the subject matter, while smaller personal injury cases may be heard in the county courts.

It is possible to have many cases on the go at the same time; it would not be uncommon to have 20 to 40, but you may not have involvement in your case for several months in between hearings. Common law barristers will likely spend the majority of the working week in court.

It can be difficult to achieve a work/life balance in this area of practice, particularly in the early years when demands will be made on your time for networking and building professional relationships. It is important to factor in preparation time so that you can avoid staying up all night frequently (although sometimes it is inevitable).

Government cuts to legal aid in recent years has led to an increase in litigants in person. The courts have been trying to adapt to the changes, but it may be challenging for practitioners.

What is life like as a common law pupil?

There is a renewed focus on wellbeing at the Bar at present, which should work in pupils’ favour. Pupils need a work/life balance and hours beyond 9.00 am to 6.00 pm, are not generally expected. Pupils will often be in court watching, learning and conducting advocacy when necessary and will be expected to complete a broad range of tasks across all common law areas.

What skills do you need to be a common law barrister?

Common law barristers need compassion and the ability to give direct advice in sensitive situations, the ability to respond and deal quickly with last-minute changes in circumstances and analytical brainpower.

Types of law practised within common law

Everything other than some specialist areas of law, though this will vary according to the development of your practice.

How much can I earn as a common law pupil?

You will likely shadow a number of different members of chambers alongside your pupil supervisor and may later specialise in one area of law (generally one of chambers’ specialties) once you have been in practice for some time. As such it can be tricky to nail down exact earnings for early tenants, but you can take a look at our overview of How much you can earn as a pupil barrister to get a general idea of how much each chambers offers to pupils. Sets in the more commercially orientated areas tend to offer between £40,000 and £75,000 for 12 months but there is a huge variation by practice area.

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