WHAT IS A BARRISTER?
In general, barristers in England & Wales provide specialist written legal advice and represent entities in courts and tribunals. They are either hired by solicitors or instructed directly by a lay client through public access. Barristers usually specialise in particular areas of law, from chancery law and criminal law to commercial law and entertainment law.
Although the work at the Bar varies considerably according to the area of law and level of expertise of the individual, barristers typically advise clients on the law and the strength of their case by having a conference with them. Alternatively a solicitor might request a barrister provides written advice on a client’s case which is referred to as an ‘opinion’.
In court, barristers advocate on behalf of their clients, whether that be the professional client (solicitors) or the lay client. This may be in full length trials or in individual hearings. Court work ranges from hearings concerned with case management to hearings involving evidence, where it is necessary to examine and cross-examine witnesses and make submissions to the Court. Any appearance at court will also practically always necessitate the barrister to negotiate with the representatives appearing on behalf of the other parties.
Self-employed barristers, who make up around 80% of the Bar, can either work alone or as part of a set of chambers with others. In chambers, however, practitioners remain completely independent (and therefore two members of the same chambers can appear on opposing sides of the same case). Barristers also have the option to work in-house for various organisations, in agencies such as the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) or in the civil service (Government Legal Service) or for a law firm as in-house counsel.
Barristers are kept independent by the ‘Core Duties’ they must abide by and specifically by the ‘Cab Rank Rule’, which prohibits a Barrister from refusing a case for certain reasons. For example, if they disagreed with the client’s opinions or beliefs; found the nature of the case objectionable; or due to the source of the funding.
In general, self-employed barristers can only be instructed by a lay client through a professional client. However, barristers may train to become members of the Public Access Scheme, which enables them to be directly approached by legal advice for any of the services they offer.
ROAD TO QUALIFICATION
There are two undergraduate routes to becoming a Barrister; law and non-law.
On the law path, you will complete an LLB (Bachelor of Laws) undergraduate degree at university (which can also be a Joint Honours degree combined with another subject, such as a language). There are also BA and BSc degrees, where students spend a large portion of their time studying non-law modules.
Not everyone, however, will have decided that they want to pursue a legal path by the time they choose their degree, and will therefore have studied a non-law subject. Fortunately, an LLB is not a prerequisite for a career at the Bar. After completing a non-law degree, graduates will need to study a one/two-year GDL – a legal conversion course covering all the foundation legal modules, which puts those students on exactly the same playing field as LLB Graduates (although be prepared to explain your change of path in interviews!).
Once you’re in possession of a shiny new law degree, the next stage is to apply to the study the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) at one of the 11 recognised providers, on either a full-time (one year) or part-time (two years) basis.
Getting a place on the BPTC is not nearly as hard as at university; once you sit the requisite Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT), which is a relatively straightforward MCQ pass/fail verbal reasoning test, you’re likely to get in (as long as you have a minimum 2:1 degree). The real challenge will be gaining pupillage, however, and so aspiring barristers should be self-critical and assess whether the cost and time of completing the BPTC is likely to be fruitful.
As for choosing the provider, this depends mostly on where you want to study, and where you want to practice. 3 of the providers (BPP, University of Law and City University) are located in central London, while the rest are scattered around the UK. Engage in your own research, but it tends to be a good idea to study where you intend to apply for pupillage, so that you can build up local work experience and get to know some of the practitioners in your area. Most of the providers are relatively new (the BPTCs are, at least), and so the ‘standing’ of a provider is not really a dealbreaker.
(Here, have a shameless plug on behalf of my Alma Mater: many of the teaching staff at City University have authored the BPTC core texts. Do with that what you will.)
This one deserves its own category. Did you know that the BPTC ranges from £12,350 to £18,500? Consider studying part time and working, marrying old money, or seeing whether your provider offers its own scholarship. If you don’t get pupillage or a scholarship before you start, consider deferring. It’s a huge bill to be left with, on top of the university costs you’ve already borne.
Inns of Court
Between commencing the BPTC, however, you will need to apply to join one of the 4 ‘Inns of Court’, of which every barrister must be a member in order to be ‘called’ to the Bar. They are Middle Temple, Inner Temple, Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn. There is no tough entry process here; you must simply pay the entry fee in order to become a lifelong member. The Inns, however, do offer scholarships to support you during the BPTC, for which every student member is encouraged to apply. These are not easy to get, require a formal application and an interview and are decided on either a merit/financial means basis. It is an extremely competitive process. Whilst choosing an Inn is a relatively easy decision, bear in mind that you can only apply to one scholarship (and one Inn, for that matter); this means that if the scholarship deadline falls before the membership deadline and you fail to be awarded scholarship, you must still apply for membership at any Inn you wish but no longer have the time to try for a different scholarship (unless you defer the BPTC and wait until the following year to try for another scholarship). Make sure, therefore, that you take into consideration the scholarship process for each Inn and the funds available, and assess what your chances are.
The holy grail and arguably the biggest hurdle, pupillage is a 12-month apprenticeship in Chambers. It’s divided into two 6-month portions; the first spent shadowing your supervisors, the second spent on your feet in Court.
This is and will continue to be covered in more detail by Legal Loop, but briefly: the pupillage application process is no small feat and often involves two interviews for each Chambers, a legal exercise and a lot of waiting.
You’re encouraged to secure pupillage before you begin the BPTC, since once you complete the BPTC you’ve got 5 years in which to find pupillage. Many graduates don’t secure pupillage until their 2nd, 3rd or even 4th year trying, which is – although an inconvenient truth – important to take into consideration.
BARRISTER V SOLICITOR
It’s as important to understand the difference between working as a barrister and a solicitor as it is to understand the varied role of a barrister. Not only do you have to be sure that you’re cut out for what the job demands, but you must also be absolutely clear about what aspect of the legal process you will be dealing with and how the peculiarities of the job affect you. Here are some points of comparison with a career as a solicitor:
Employment & structure
Solicitors are usually employees of a law firm with bosses, a salary and sick days. The majority of barristers, however, are self-employed. Individual self-employed barristers group together to form a ‘Chambers’, and together share rent and pay clerks to administer their caseload. The implication of this is that barristers are theoretically in control of many aspects of their own working life; they are able to decide when to take on a case or return the papers, and there is much more flexibility in working hours. They can decide if they’d like to take on more cases in a particular area of law.
On the flip side; a barrister controls their workload only ‘in theory’: make no mistake, a barrister still has to work hard for their bread. Although you don’t have a boss to reprimand you; refuse enough instructions and solicitors won’t instruct you anymore. It’s worth considering this when choosing your legal path – are you perfectly suited to being in control of your own workload but with the immense responsibility that this entails, or do you prefer an arguably more secure and hierarchical role?
Pay & evolution
Early on in my training, I’ll admit that one of my considerations was earning potential. What are the differences in earnings? The short and unhelpful answer is: it depends. It depends heavily on location, discipline and the Chambers you join (when considering the pupillage award). As long as the work is there and the time is free, a barrister can choose to work as often as they can and thereby increase their earning potential (again, in theory).
This works both ways, however: there’s no sick or maternity leave, so if you’re not working, you’re not earning. And one major difference is that while solicitors are paid by the hour, barristers are paid by the brief; so if you have to turn down a particular brief, you’ll turn down the money too – there won’t necessarily be anything to replace it.
There’s also never a guarantee of work – although many barristers don’t do too badly for themselves, there’s something to be said for a set guaranteed hourly wage or annual salary.
In general terms, unless you’re a Public Access barrister, the solicitor will often be the first point of contact for a member of the public with a legal issue. The solicitor will liaise with the client in the collection of case materials and drafting of witness statements etc., and will only refer the case to a barrister for further advice or for representation in court.
Either way, there can be much less client contact at the Bar, since a barrister tends to deal with the concluding stage of a case. Whereas a solicitor speaks to the lay client from the beginning, with smaller cases it may be that the first time a barrister meets the client is on the morning of a hearing. That’s not to say there’s no client contact – depending on the area of law, there may be hours to be spent on the day of a hearing with anxious clients, and so excellent interpersonal skills are crucial regardless of the path you choose.
In summary – it’s not enough to say ‘I like advocacy’ when asking yourself the reasons why you want to practise at the Bar. There are many variables, and even if you’ve got your heart set on a career as a barrister there are aspects to take into consideration, such as the cost of qualifying. So research well, happy applying and good luck!