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Not a pint in sight. Life at the Bar

01 November 2011 

“You know, it's a most extraordinary thing, my Learned Friend. We go through all the mumbo-jumbo, we put on the wig, and the gown, we mutter the ritual prayers, "If your Lordship pleases", "Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury", abracadabra, fee fie foe bloody fum. And just when everybody thinks you're going to produce the most ludicrously fake piece of cheesecloth evidence, there it is, clear as a bell! The truth!”

Horace Rumpole
What is it with law students and the Bar? Is it the robes? The wig? The oakpannelled offices and the millionaire lifestyle?

Whatever it is, every year around 3000 would-be barristers fight it out for about 1800 places at Bar School. But a place at Bar School is no golden ticket. Only around a third of Bar students will actually make it to a pupillage1  and the ultimate goal of becoming a barrister. So with BPTC fees hitting £16000 this year, is it worth it?

First, the job bit.

What does a barrister actually do?

First and foremost barristers represent their clients in court. This is the part barristers love the most. Arguing about the law in front of (and sometimes with) a judge, presenting evidence, cross examining witnesses.

But it only tells part of the story of what a barrister does. Behind the cut and thrust of the courtroom lies hours and hours of detailed legal research and analysis of mountains of evidence – emails, letters, reports, memos, financial accounts, witness statements. In our winner-takes-all adversarial legal system preparation is everything.

A lot of this work gets done late into the evening or at the weekends. And it is not unusual for barristers to pick up a “brief” (their next case) in the evening and work through the night before walking into court the next day.

Why do they do it? Is it simply that they love the job?

In part the answer to that is Yes. Most successful barristers always wanted to be a barrister and are driven to achieve. But barristers are also self-employed and as the cliché goes “You’re only as good as your last case.” If you get a reputation for being unprepared in court, prepare to leave the profession for good.

So what kind of person becomes a lawyer?

Well, it helps if you are bright.

23% of pupils in 2010 had a first class degree2; 23% went to Oxbridge and 46% went to a Russell Group University3. Most went to state school (53%) but more than a third went to public school (35%). 4

It also helps if your parents are professionals with only around 7% identifying their parents as having technical, semi-routine or routine manual occupations.5

And a bit of spare cash won’t go amiss either. Incredibly in spite of the cost of a degree and bar school, almost 42% said that they expected to have no debt at the end of their pupillage. By contrast 24% said they would have debts in excess of £20,000.6

Filthy lucre

“But” I hear you say “barristers are loaded!”
This is true…of some.

Certainly in the privately funded bar (where you work for a client who pays your bills) you can earn hundreds of thousands of pounds as a barrister. Your clients will be big companies and rich individuals and most accept that if you want the best you have to pay and pay well.

But lots of law students are motivated to become barristers by a desire to make a difference.  (In a recent survey of College of Law students who wanted to be barristers it found they were much more motivated by a desire to help people than by their possible earnings.)7

These students want to work as criminal defence barristers or in family or immigration law. And here - in the publically funded bar - the picture is very different

With the coalition driving government expenditure down, spending on legal aid is a bit of a soft target. There has been a vigorous campaign to persuade the government to ditch the £350 million cuts to the legal aid bill (see But even without these cuts expenditure on legal aid in 2010 was frozen at 2004 levels.

The upshot is that barristers working in areas like crime and family don’t earn the sorts of sums they are often portrayed as earning. (According to one report 25% of family barristers earned the equivalent of £44,000, a figure which does not include pensions, paid annual leave or paid sick leave.8 ) And some experts expect that there will be less financial incentive in the future for barristers to do publically funded work. To be blunt – they just won’t be able to earn enough to make it worthwhile.

So where does that leave the Bar as a profession?

In lots of ways the Bar is in rude health. Whilst big companies are increasingly refusing to pay or pay as much for legal work which does not have to be done by a solicitor, they are prepared to pay for high quality specialist legal advice. And in many cases they turn to barristers for that advice.

And the bar is starting to take advantage of the new ways in which lawyers can offer legal services.

Some have launched what are called Procure Co’s – companies tacked onto Chambers which enable barristers to bid for legal work when a local authority, for example, puts its legal work out to tender.

The Procure Co bids for the work, gets the contract and then sources barristers to do the work. Because of the ways Chambers are set up they couldn’t previously do this. But Procure Cos allow Chambers to play on their reputations – which in some cases are world renowned – and get work which otherwise might have gone to a firm of solicitors.

So whilst it’s not all sweetness and light, it is still possible for anyone wanting to take on the challenge of becoming a barrister to enjoy an intellectually challenging, adrenalin fuelled, and well paid career.

What’s holding you back?

1In 2009/10 460 First six pupillages were registered –  Pupillage Survey 2009/10 Bar Council
2Pupillage Surver 2009/10 Bar Council
3Ibid; Russel Group universities are Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Imperial College, Kings College, Leeds, Liverpool, UCL, Warwick, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Oxford, Queens Belfast, Sheffield, Southampton, LSE
6“An analysis of the backgrounds of BPTC applicants 2009/10” Bar Council
7College of Law Times Survey Sept 2011
8“The Future of the Bar” by Nicolas Green QC 10 June 2010 p13 para 23


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