Careers advice and planning

Which area of practice is best for me? (barristers)

25 Aug 2023, 14:10

When you apply for pupillage, you should know what your options are and which areas of practice you are best suited to.

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Once you’re sure that you’re cut out for life at the Bar, you’ll need to start thinking about what sort of cases will suit your skills and interests. Whether you’re interested in tax disputes or disgruntled employees, intellectual property or immigration, you can find your niche at the Bar.

Below, practising barristers explain what their work involves, the highs and lows, and how to build a successful practice in different areas.

Do you want to be an advocate in a courtroom or do you prefer your challenge to be chambers based?

Your choice of practice area will determine the skills you’ll need and the lifestyle you’ll lead at the Bar. Many barristers value the opportunity to have some flexibility over the hours they work, but this isn’t always practical in the early years of practice. For example, commercial and company work tends to be largely chambers based, but you may not have full independence or may be led on a case early in your career.

Property law is also fairly chambers centric, but bears intellectual fruits. ‘Property is a legally challenging area of practice so there is great satisfaction in ‘finding the answer’ through all your research,’ says Hardwicke barrister Laura Tweedy.

‘However, there is a lot of law, which means it may feel as though you will never have a full grasp of it – there will always be something you don’t know.’

Family law barristers, on the other hand, will spend much of their time in county courts around the country.

If the thrill of advocacy appeals to you, criminal law could suit, whereas insurance, chancery or even employment law can offer more stable working patterns.

‘We advise people on how to treat their employees properly – if employment lawyers can’t get the work/life balance right, who can?!’ says Cloisters barrister Caroline Musgrave. ‘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.'

Identify your innate abilities and skills for the Bar

It’s a good idea to think about your natural talents and where they could be best used. If you’re good with people, employment law will give you the opportunity to make use of your communication skills.

If you’ve got strong commercial sense and are a good public speaker, you might consider banking and finance, where there is also early responsibility for juniors.

No matter the area of practice, you need to be ready to adapt. Take this example from professional negligence law: ‘You may occasionally represent an unusual type of client,’ says Fountain Court barrister Tamara Oppenheimer.

‘I once had to handle a case for auction house Christie’s; they were alleged to have been negligent in a description in their catalogue to a potential purchaser. As counsel on the case you’re dealing with what they’re auctioning – examining 18th century bronzes makes a nice change from actuarial work!’

Will the current economic situation affect your career?

How has the 2008 financial crisis affected the Bar? We’ve addressed this question in every area of practice, and the answers are broadly encouraging.

Generally, litigation increases during a downturn in the economy, which helps to maintain demand. Some areas of practice are counter-cyclical – that is, they expand when the economy is contracting, such as insolvency or dispute resolution cases.

Rosanna Foskett, barrister at Maitland Chambers, explains that in some areas, such as company law, there is always some form of work: ‘In times of economic downturn there may be more of a focus on insolvency work and asset recovery against directors (whose mis-deeds are sometimes only discovered when a company is in trouble). In times of economic boom, companies may be more willing to litigate their commercial disputes (eg over a failed joint venture or a broken contract).’

However, the impact of a recession can be unpredictable and other factors can come into play, such as the squeeze on public funding and legal aid. The type of work you do may also be affected, so it’s worth considering these factors when deciding on your pupillage.

Remember you have the opportunity to talk with sets before you apply

Attending the annual targetjobs Law National Pupillage Fair is a useful way to find out about the work done in each chambers. Mini-pupillages (work experience placements in chambers) will help you to get a feel for the sort of work that interests you and it is a great help to have done at least one in the type of set that you eventually decide to apply for.

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