Whether they are self-employed and working in chambers or employed directly by an organisation, barristers will usually specialise in a type of law such as criminal law, commercial law or chancery law. Barristers give legal advice to clients and solicitors as well as representing people or organisations in court. Most barristers are self-employed and are hired by solicitors or members of the public to represent their cases. Other barristers are employed by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the Government Legal Service (GLS) or other organisations such as government departments, agencies, the armed forces or charities.
A career as a barrister can be very rewarding, comes with a lot of prestige and has the potential for high earnings. Experienced and successful barristers may have the opportunity to become a Queen’s Counsel or even a judge.
If you have a keen interest in the law, an analytical mind and the ability to remain calm under pressure, a career as a barrister might be for you. You will also need a desire to study hard as the qualification route is tough and competition is high for pupillage positions. As most barristers are self-employed you will need excellent organisational skills to manage your own workload and finances.
The responsibilities of a barrister will vary depending on the area that they specialise in and where they practice. For example a barrister specialising in criminal law is likely to spend a lot more time in court than a barrister specialising in chancery law. The general responsibilities of a barrister involve:
- Working with and advising clients and solicitors
- Interpreting the law where relevant to their cases
- Legal research
- Drafting legal documents
- Preparing cases for court
- Representing clients in court
- Negotiating settlements out of court
- Working with witness statements and cross-examining witnesses
Barristers who work in chambers will also contribute to the smooth running of the offices and supporting trainees through their pupillage.
The first step on the path to qualifying as a barrister is to get a degree. This doesn’t have to be in law but if you do choose a different subject to study, you will need to complete the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). This one year course will earn a diploma which is equivalent to a law degree.
After completion of a law degree or GDL, you can join an Inn of Court. These Inns provide barristers and student members with support, training opportunities and library facilities. You must join one of the four Inns before you can progress in your training to become a barrister:
The next stage is to complete the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC). You can complete this course full-time over one year, or part-time over two years. This course will help you prepare for your pupillage and often involves debating practice and mock trials to develop the essential skills that a barrister needs.
On passing the BPTC, you will become a fully qualified barrister, however, there is still another year of training which you must complete before being able to practice. This final stage of training is pupillage. This usually takes place in a set of chambers and under the supervision of a junior barrister who is your pupil supervisor. Pupillage is very similar to an apprenticeship and will give you the opportunity to put into practice what you have learned. The first six months, or the ‘first six’ is usually spent observing and assisting your supervisor. During the ‘second six’ you will start work on your own cases and clients.
It is important to start thinking about your pupillage application early on, certainly before you finish your degree or GDL. Competition for these places are extremely high and only a third of those who start their BPTC will get one so starting to apply early and good work experience are very important. Applications are made through the Pupillage Gateway and you should apply a year before you want to start. Usually this means applying before you start the BPTC.
Strong academic background: Becoming a barrister requires a lot of further study, even after you’ve left university. You’ll need a strong academic ability to cope with the exams, especially the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) which has a relatively low pass rate.
Good communication skills, including written and oral: You’ll need to be able to communicate well with clients and in court when representing them. Good writing skills will also help you prepare legal documents.
The ability to analyse complicated information: The ability to understand and interpret the law is essential for a barrister. Each case will have unique information to analyse.
Good debating skills: This is essential when representing clients in court. The ability to think on your feet is just as important as thorough preparation here.
The ability to work both in a team and independently: You will have to work with a variety of people to be successful in your cases such as clients, solicitors and barristers’ clerks. There will also be a lot of time spent working independently while you research and prepare cases. The ability to switch between the two will be crucial to your success as a barrister.
Research skills: You will need good research skills to help prepare your cases. You will need a thorough understanding of the case and how the law relates to it.
An eye for detail: The details of your cases will often be complicated and you will need to have a meticulous approach to make sure you don’t miss any details and understand fully. This will also help in your research.
Confidence with public speaking: In order to present a strong case for your client in front of a judge and jury, you will need to be able to speak convincingly and confidently.
The ability to organise your own workload and manage finances: As many barristers are self-employed, you will need excellent organisational skills to manage your time effectively. This is especially important for newly qualified barristers who will often be under financial pressure and have to work long hours to build up their reputation.
High levels of commitment: The path to becoming a barrister is not an easy one and you will need to be dedicated to your studies and finding relevant work experience in order to qualify. Once you do qualify, the hours can often be long and some cases may be very complicated. You will need to be committed to your work and your clients in order to succeed.
The ability to work well under pressure: Not only will you need the ability to cope with a high volume of work but you will often find yourself under pressure in court to perform well. The ability to stay calm, anticipate counter-arguments and think quickly are essential in such situations.
Commercial awareness: This is often listed as a skill necessary for any career in law. Commercial awareness is essentially staying up to date on any developments in the commercial world. This is because so many legal issues today are in the area of business. To achieve a good level of commercial awareness you should start reading newspapers and business publications as early as possible. Work experience is also a great way to improve commercial awareness as you will get a first-hand insight into the way a business runs.
Pupillage: £12,000 – £45,000
Qualified barrister in employment: £25,000 – £250,000
Qualified barrister in private practice: can rise to £1,000,000+
Many barristers are self-employed and therefore need a wide-ranging skillset in order to complete work for clients alongside managing their workload, time and finances.
The usual route for barristers after pupillage is to apply for a tenancy and work in chambers as a junior barrister. This is where you will gain valuable experience while working on increasingly difficult and serious cases. This is a crucial stage in a barrister’s career as the financial strains of being self-employed may show. Long hours are often required to cope with the workload while building up a reputation as a successful barrister.
For many barristers, the aim in career progression is to become a Queen’s Counsel (or King’s Counsel during the reign of a king). This is a barrister, or even a solicitor, who are given their status by the Crown. They are given the privilege of sitting within the Bar of court and have another barrister as an assistant. Becoming a Queen’s Counsel is often referred to as ‘taking silk’ as they wear special silk gowns in court. This status means that these barristers can charge higher fees that normal barristers. Becoming a Queen’s Counsel is often seen as a good route to becoming a judge.
For barristers who wish to have a more stable form of employment from the beginning, there is the option of being employed by the Bar and seeking in-house positions in public or private sector companies or in legal service departments. This career path can lead to positions in management. The added financial security of this route tends to sacrifice the large salaries that experienced barristers in chambers have the potential of earning.
For more information, see our barrister vacancies on Simply Law Jobs.
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