Areas of work, specialisms and alternatives

What is employment law? A guide for aspiring barrister pupils

25 Aug 2023, 13:44

Employment barristers engage with a variety of advisory and advocacy work that has a direct impact on people’s lives.

A picture of Caroline against a faded background of a workplace

The relationship between employer and employee is, for most people, highly significant and when it breaks down there can be far-reaching consequences. Caroline Musgrave-Cohen , a barrister spcilaising in employment and discrimination at Cloisters, shares with targetjobs her insights into practising at the employment Bar and what prospective pupils need to know about working in an area where emotions can run high.

Caroline graduated from the University of Cambridge with a degree in social and political science, spent six years working in international development and then was called to the Bar in 2008.

What is employment law at the Bar?

Employment law covers the legal rights of employers and employees within the workplace from small local businesses to large corporate firms.

Typical clients are employees facing discrimination or dismissal, or employers that are seeking advice about how to manage employment relations with individual employees or groups of staff who may be affected by their business decisions. Employment cases, particularly discrimination, tend to attract a lot of media attention. Cases could involve a one-hour legal argument to a multi-day full liability and remedy trial or anything in between.

What do employment barristers do?

Barristers advise about the legality of employment relations decisions, review witness statements, advise clients on strategy and represent parties at trial.

Matters are normally brought before an employment tribunal, employment appeal tribunal, the High Court for contractual disputes or the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court for points of law. As an employment barrister you may spend around 60% of your time in court, although this can vary between those who advise employers and those who thrive on advocacy.

The more senior you are in your career, the more advisory the work tends to be. An employment silk might be advising a client on a transfer or business takeover, whereas juniors may be handling more day-to-day litigation. It is worth noting that employment barristers will frequently work outside of employment on discrimination and equality law cases, in the field of goods and services for example.

Generally, there are few all-nighters. We advise people on how to treat their employees properly – if employment lawyers can’t get the work/life balance right, who can?! However, it can be harder to maintain your hours around a trial and it is up to you to put the effort in to keep a good balance. Those who have caring responsibilities manage to strike a balance.

What is life like as an employment law pupil?

Pupils at our chambers tend to follow regular working hours (8.00 am to 6.00 pm) and are encouraged to go home at the end of the day. They do not generally work through the weekend. Pupillage can feel like a yearlong interview; you don’t get through that year by working through the night.

In the first six, pupils will likely be drafting, researching, opinion writing and attending conferences and court with their supervisors while learning from barristers in each of chambers’ different areas of practice. In the second six they’re on their feet in court with their own caseload. They still have a supervisor throughout this time and the cases tend to be the more straightforward ones.

In terms of early responsibility, employment law can offer a lot to pupils and junior tenants. One of the things about being at a set that does high-profile discrimination cases is that they often bring juniors in.

One of the best aspects of this area is being involved in people’s employment interactions. It’s often considered to be the most important relationship for someone after their family and you are stepping into a key area of their lives. It’s also a great opportunity to be involved in litigation – you’re not stuck behind a desk and you get a chance to use your advocacy skills.

However, being involved in people’s lives can also be one of the negative aspects of this area. It can get emotional sometimes and that may deter some barristers from claimant work. It is stressful knowing that you’re involved in decisions that are so important to people; it’s part of someone’s life story and that does put the pressure on.

With thanks to Caroline for her insights, targetjobs goes on to answer even more key questions about practising within employment law.

What skills do you need to be an employment law barrister?

targetjobs says…Employment barristers need excellent written and spoken advocacy skills and a knack for telling a story. The challenge is to bring the case to life so that the judge can see that these are real people with real stories. A talent for negotiation also goes a long way.

Types of law practised within employment law

  • Contract
  • Employment

How much can I earn as an employment 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.

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.

People reading this also searched for roles in these areas:

Related careers advice

undefined background image

We've got you

Get the latest jobs, internships, careers advice, courses and graduate events based on what's important to you. Start connecting directly with top employers today.