Career as a Barrister
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Review of "Career as a Barrister"
After a one year hiatus I have returned! I'm being proactive with rates rather than reactive, so if I miss you by all means throw me a message. I won't take offence.
Just to clarify something to begin with; I am currently a fully qualified and practising barrister. On my path to the Bar I actually didn't have access to all of the information below even though it is very much factual, and as such I'm going to try to make this as comprehensive as possible to inform those thinking of walking a similar path, including little bits of advice that I picked up along the way. But every bit of this article is very much from my own experience.
WHAT A BARRISTER IS (AND WHY THEY'RE NOT SOLICITORS)A barrister is one of the two primary legal careers in the United Kingdom. People often refer to 'lawyers', but technically they don't exist in this country as they do in the US, and no one goes through a law degree training to be a 'lawyer'. You ultimately either train to become a solicitor or a barrister.
Most people have a vague idea of what solicitors do, and plenty of people will have had dealings with one at some point or another. But barristers tend to be a subject of some mystery for the average person, and I often get asked the question of what the difference is between a barrister and a solicitor. The distinction is clear but often difficult to explain. Solicitors deal with a case from the very beginning right through to the end, and are the mainstay of the legal process. They are salaried and work in firms. Essentially, if you need to seek legal advice or need to start a claim of any nature, your first port of call will usually be a solicitor, and they will manage your case from start to finish. Barristers, on the other hand, are seen as specialist legal professionals with specific skills, and are instructed by solicitors at various points in a case for their specialist advice, drafting skills, or advocacy skills. Oh, and barristers are the ones who wear the wigs in court.Think of it as the difference between a doctor and a consultant. The doctor will deal with you throughout the whole process, but may have to refer to a consultant for advice on more technical matters. Barristers are self employed and only get paid for the work that they do, and as such are dependent on their reputation and quality to ensure that they are instructed by solicitors regularly. They operate in Chambers or Sets, which are effectively groups of barristers, and as such barristers do not work entirely independently. The Chambers/Barrister relationship works much the same way as that between a Doctor and the Doctor's Surgery as a whole.
THE ROUTE TO BECOMING A BARRISTER
I doubt anyone is under any illusion as to how difficult it is to become a barrister, but just in case I'll spell it out clearly. It is very, very difficult to even force your way in to this profession, let alone become successful in it. You not only need the academic ability associated with the legal profession, but also the ability to apply a range of practical and inter personal skills. The profession is highly competitive, even more so recently as the Bar has been (and will be in future) hit hard by both government cuts to publicly funded work and other proposed reforms, and you need a real insatiable desire to succeed in order to make it in addition to the ability.I'll explain each of these routes below, with individual bits of advice, but the first step is obviously a law degree. After the law degree a Masters is an optional way to boost your CV, but it is by no means essential. You will then be looking to do the Bar Professional Training Course (formerly known as the Bar Vocation Course), which is offered at relatively few institutions across the country (would be solicitors do the Legal Practice Course at this stage). Following completion of the BPTC you then have to acquire a pupillage with a Chambers, which is the equivalent of a solicitor's training contract. Pupillage lasts twelve months, at which point you will hopefully be offered tenancy (effectively a permanent position with the Chambers), and your career can progress from there. It seems so easy when I write it like that, but it isn't, so it's time to delve a little deeper.
THE LAW DEGREE
The first significant step on the road to becoming a barrister is the law degree. Whether you do a straightforward law degree or law with another subject such as a language is largely irrelevant. It should be noted that if you already have a degree that isn't law, you can do a GDL (Graduate Diploma in Law) in one year which is equivalent to a law degree. It should also be noted at this stage that doing your law degree at Oxford or Cambridge will be a boost to your chances of securing pupillage. This is by no means essential and if you don't do your degree at Oxbridge then it's nothing to worry about (I didn't), but if you can it is certainly a bonus.That said, you should still aim for the 'best' university that you can. Getting a 2:1 will get you noticed initially, but a 2:1 from University College London or the University of Manchester (for example) will get you more credit than one from the University of Hull. Likewise, getting a 2:1 from the University of Sheffield is better for you than Sheffield Hallam, and a 2:1 from Liverpool University is worth more than one from Liverpool John Moores. It's not essential to go to a great university, but you should aim as high as possible.
The most important thing with your law degree is to get a 2:1 or higher at the end of it. Again, it is not absolutely impossible to get a pupillage with a 2:2, but your chances will be dealt a serious blow if you fail to reach a 2:1, and you will have to pull something pretty special out of the bag later on to stand any sort of chance. Many Chambers will not even consider you for interview if you do not have a 2:1. So the best advice here is to knuckle down, work hard, and attain that 2:1, because you really do need it.A further piece of advice here is that you should use your three (or four) years studying law to expand your CV. This means taking part in activities that will be relevant to your application for pupillage. Examples are debating and mooting (which is essentially a mock trial activity), but taking part in other legal competitions will also be beneficial. Be sure to take some time to other activities (sports, clubs etc) that you have an interest in (it makes you seem like a more rounded person and makes you human, rather than a studying machine), but be sure to boost your legal credentials as well. Any prizes, scholarships etc are also a big boost, so if you feel that you're in the running for these be sure to put that extra effort in to try to secure them.
Another type of relevant experience here is mini pupillages, effectively work experience in Chambers. You should try to do a number of these in different Chambers to get a broad range of experience. They will not just help you guide your own career either (the law is vast subject and you're going to have to specialise to some degree); they also look great on the CV, and it always helps coming into an interview when members of that Chambers already know you from a mini pupillage.You should then be applying to the BPTC mid way through your final year, and can also apply for pupillage in advance at this time (if you have secured stellar marks with extra curricular activities on your CV at this point, it is particularly advisable that you give this a go). You also need to become a member of one of the four Inns of Court at this point (Middle, Inner, Lincoln, Grays), though it doesn't really matter which one you choose, and membership is a formality.
BAR PROFESSIONAL TRAINING COURSE
Less than half of all students who apply to the BPTC gain a place. It is a very intense year, and certainly the hardest academic year that you will spend. It is also very expensive. Each institute has a different price, but the fees are generally between £10,000 and £13,000 for the one year. That is a huge amount for anyone, but especially for people who are effectively students (and who from now on will have to face increased tuition fees), and is one of the reasons why newly qualified barristers often have an awful lot of debt.In terms of what it covers, the BPTC is a lot more practical than the law degree, and it is also a lot more demanding. You work on the more practical side of law such as learning about civil and criminal litigation rather than the law itself, and practice key skills such as advocacy, negotiation, and drafting legal documents. The work load is intense. Personally I worked between ten and fourteen hours a day every day including weekends for the majority of the year. You really get out of the BPTC what you put in, and this is what separates those who really want it from those who don't. There are a lot of talented people on the BPTC, and more often than not desire plays a huge role. You have to drive yourself into the ground to make yourself better on this course, but if you do the rewards are very much worth it.
There are always chances to improve your CV on the BPTC, as competitions are usually run on a national level in many of the key skill areas such as advocacy, but the priority here has to be getting the highest mark possible. When I did the course 50-69% was a Competent, 70%-84% was a Very Competent and 85%+ was an Outstanding. I understand that the brackets have changed slightly now, though the principles remain the same. In any given year around a third of the students at most will get a VC, with maybe one or two per institution getting an Outstanding (out of roughly 100 students). To be frank if you don't get a Very Competent in the current climate you will find it nearly impossible to secure pupillage. As I said above, it is incredibly difficult to find your way into this profession, and it is risky in terms of finances. Realistically you need a Very Competent on average to stand a chance at a decent shot at pupillage.Throughout the BPTC year you will be applying for pupillage constantly, and this in itself can be gruelling and soul destroying process. Most have to send off hundreds of applications before they secure a decent number of interviews, and currently only about 10% of each course at the very most will secure pupillage by the end of the year.
If I have made the process up to now seem so risky that it is hardly worth it, it is only because I am being realistic. Only the very best candidates secure pupillage, and realistically you can waste a lot of time doing this if you are not good enough. But if you truly have the desire to succeed you will. You just have to keep going.
PUPILLAGEPupillage is the final major hurdle before becoming a practicing barrister. It is divided into two sections of six months to make twelve months in total. In your 'first six' you essentially shadow another barrister who has been assigned to you as a pupil master. This person will already be an established practitioner of roughly ten years experience or more. You will often do work for them, take notes from them, and generally learn from them. The work will be incredibly difficult and intense, even more so than on the BPTC, but at this point you're so close you will be unlikely to relent.
In your second six you are effectively on your own, earning your own money (the first six months are funded by way of grant from the Chambers itself) and building your own practice. This is where you prove yourself to the Chambers, and will ultimately be the difference in whether you secure tenancy or not. If you do (and around 90% of pupils do secure tenancy), you have officially made it. But realistically only the minority reach this point, and a larger minority will do very well up to this point but not be able to secure pupillage. So I'm going to address that group for a second.
ALTERNATIVES TO PUPILLAGEMany people after finishing the BPTC find themselves unable to secure pupillage, but with a solid CV and good qualifications. The task at this point is to secure alternative employment that gives you relevant experience, and increasingly this is becoming a necessity as the squeeze on pupillage places causes an increase an average quality on candidates. There are a few options for what to do after the BPTC if you don't have pupillage. There are a number of freelance advocacy agencies who recruit those that have just finished the BPTC. If you can join one of these agencies (the most well known is called the Legal Practice Clerks) you will gain valuable advocacy experience that will boost your CV significantly.
If you cannot secure a place with one of these, then your best bet is to look for paralegal jobs with solicitors firms. These can be harder to obtain than you first realise, as effectively you will be overly qualified and under experienced. But like everything on this career path determination pays off, and you will get there eventually, even if it is with a small firm you will be gaining relevant experience. Some firms even have in house advocacy teams which you can muscle your way on to, giving you high quality relevant work. Personally I gained experience as an in house advocate for one such firm, which was absolutely invaluable both in boosting my credentials, and once I had made it into practice generally.Ultimately this path to becoming a barrister is one of the most gruelling you can decide to take, but you will get out of it what you put in. If you have an unshakable desire and have the skills to go with it, you will succeed. It is as simple as that. But the road is long and tough, and one thing that your journey will not be as easy. There are plenty of rewards at the end of the road, but you have to work for them.
THE JOB ITSELF
Is it all worth it? The only answer here is yes. Being a barrister is a fantastic experience. You are constantly challenged in an environment that is professional yet constantly changing. Every day brings something different, and the entire job is exhausting yet incredibly satisfying. You will work hard, but as well as finances the reward is often the job itself. Being in court every day fighting your corner, giving specliast advice on technical areas of law, negotiating settlements, and many other activities provide a vibrant career which plenty of variety and endless challenge. For many people it is impossible to reach the end of the rainbow, but for those who manage it they will most certainly find a pot of gold at the end, both in terms of actual money and in terms of job satisfaction. It should be noted that level of earnings fluctuate wildly depending on the area of law that you practise in, with areas such as criminal not paying as well as areas such as personal injury and commercial law. But whatever branch you head down, your earning capacity will ultimately be higher than average in the long term at the very least.Hopefully that has given some would be barristers some guidance, and perhaps something for parents of would be barristers to pass along.
Thanks for reading. If there are any further questions, either message me or post a comment and I will be happy to respond.
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