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What does a barrister do?
A barrister is a legally trained professional who provides specialist legal advice and representation to solicitors and clients in court. Individuals are barristers if called to the Bar of England and Wales or the Bar of Northern Ireland (also known as Counsel). In Scotland, they are advocates.
Barristers typically specialise in specific practice areas of law, including criminal, common, family and chancery, and could work in an office or at chambers (a collection of offices) or court. Therefore, what a barrister does will depend on their specialist area and where they work. The particulars of each case will also influence their day-to-day tasks.
Even though there are similarities between barristers and solicitors, and they are both lawyers, the roles are not the same. Barristers are mainly instructed by solicitors on behalf of their clients and are rarely hired by the public directly. They are also two different branches of the legal profession.
Barristers have many duties, including meeting with solicitors/clients and representing them in court, researching relevant laws and cases, providing legal advice and opinions, preparing legal arguments and negotiating settlements or sentences. The role also encompasses drafting legal documents and reports.
A barrister’s main aim is to solve problems and resolve disputes for their clients. They help their clients by providing legal advice and opinions and pleading their cases in court on their behalf. Being involved in legal disputes and the legal system can be distressing and overwhelming. Barristers assist their clients in navigating the process and negotiating the best possible deal for their case.
Barristers will work with many people, including solicitors and sometimes their clients. They will also liaise with witnesses, clerks in chambers, judges, other barristers, solicitors and legal professionals, court staff, government agencies and the police.
Most UK barristers are self-employed and work in chambers. However, some are employed by government departments/agencies, private organisations and the Armed Forces.
A barrister’s responsibilities will depend on many factors, including their area of practice, where they work and their seniority. Some examples of their duties may include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Solving problems and resolving disputes.
- Meeting with solicitors and clients, receiving instructions and taking on cases.
- Representing clients in court, e.g. presenting cases to the judge and jury, questioning witnesses, providing summaries, etc.
- Researching, understanding and interpreting the law relevant to their cases.
- Preparing legal arguments, cases and court briefs to present in court.
- Providing advice and opinions (written and verbal) to clients, solicitors and other law professionals.
- Informing clients about the likely outcome of their case.
- Reading witness statements and reports.
- Drafting legal documents.
- Managing legal briefs on the client’s behalf.
- Negotiating settlements or sentences.
Senior barristers may also be involved in legal policy and strategy development.
A barrister can expect to work 36–38 hours a week. There are usually regular hours during the working day in line with court times. However, being a barrister is not a 9–5 job, and those looking at entering this profession must be committed to working long, unsociable hours (evenings and weekends), especially in the early stages of their career.
Travel is a requirement, as barristers will need to meet with clients and solicitors and attend court, which may lengthen the working day. Travel or work overseas is rare for barristers, but there may be opportunities depending on the role.
What to expect
Being a barrister is hard work but extremely rewarding. They help clients by providing legal support and assisting them in negotiating the best possible outcome for their case. Barristers can go home at the end of the working day knowing they have made a difference to clients’ lives.
The salary for barristers is exceptionally high once trained and experienced. However, it does reflect the level of education, training and commitment needed to become a barrister.
Being a self-employed barrister and having an opportunity to be your own boss can be an attractive prospect, as it can give individuals the independence to take charge of their own career progression. There is also plenty of support in the professional community, so being self-employed does not mean working alone.
Boredom will never be a problem for barristers, as their work is very varied. Every case they take on will be different, and they will meet various people throughout their working week. It is an intellectually stimulating role with lots of learning, research and investigation. Therefore, those with an academic flair are unlikely to get bored.
Even though being a barrister is rewarding, and there are many positives associated with the role, it is also important to consider the cons and challenges, for example:
- Stress and mental demands – barristers can work long, unsociable hours, and the workload is often high and unpredictable. They may have to deal with many different clients at once, and some situations may be challenging, especially emotional ones. Individuals will need to feel comfortable juggling various demands at short notice. There is a lot of responsibility on barristers.
- Location restrictions – most barrister opportunities are based in major cities or towns, especially London. Therefore, individuals must be willing to be close to where the jobs are or commute.
- Expensive formal attire – barristers are expected to be dressed to high standards, which includes specific court dress when attending court. The barrister gowns and associated attire can be expensive to buy, but there are also options to hire. It is still an additional cost that individuals will face, especially if they are self-employed. If individuals do not fancy a highly formal working environment with a strict dress code, then it is probably not a suitable role for them.
- Qualifications, training and costs – achieving the necessary qualifications, undertaking training and work experience to become a barrister will take years, and it is not cheap. There are also additional costs for self-employed barristers, as they will be required to contribute to chambers costs and will need to cover their own tax, National Insurance and pension.
- Competition – there is fierce competition for barrister roles, so individuals must be committed to working hard to enter the profession and succeed. Individuals must be aware that there are far more graduates than available pupillages, so there is a risk of going through the expense of becoming qualified and trained but not succeeding..
Every career choice has pros and cons, and prospective barristers must know what to expect before deciding whether the role is for them. Working as a barrister is challenging, mentally demanding and stressful. However, there are many positives too, and representing people in complex legal matters is very fulfilling. A good barrister can make a significant difference to people’s lives.
Individuals should consider the pros and cons of being a barrister. They should also ensure they have the right personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Personal qualities needed to be a barrister
Some of the personal qualities a barrister requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Self-motivated, self-disciplined, responsible and determined.
- Academic and a desire to learn, progress and develop.
- A flexible approach to work.
- Knowledge and a keen interest in law and legal processes, including court procedures and government regulations.
- Excellent verbal and written communication skills.
- Excellent problem-solving skills.
- Excellent organisational skills.
- Advocacy skills.
- Active listening skills.
- Researching skills.
- Analytical thinking skills.
- Persuading and negotiating skills.
- Time management skills.
- Interpersonal skills to deal with a wide range of people from all walks of life.
- Being thorough, accurate and having attention to detail.
- The ability to accept criticism.
- The ability to use clear, logical and reasoned thinking.
- The ability to express complex ideas and arguments clearly and in a way that is easier to understand.
- The ability to work under pressure and remain calm in stressful situations.
- The ability to speak confidently in public.
- The ability to use IT equipment competently, e.g. writing legal documents, reports, briefs and opinions.
- The ability to work long and often unsociable hours.
Individuals must be comfortable speaking in public and negotiating, so this role may not be suited to those who are more introverted and have trouble with confidence.
Qualifications and Training
Individuals need either:
- An undergraduate degree in law.
– It can take two to four years to complete, depending on the university, and whether the course is full-time or part-time.
– Individuals will typically need 2–3 A levels, or equivalent, for a degree.
- An undergraduate degree in any subject and a Postgraduate Diploma in Law (PGDL) afterwards.
– The PGDL has replaced the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and is a law conversion course.
– It covers seven foundations of legal knowledge.
– It can take one to two years to complete, depending on the university and whether it is full-time or part-time.
– Individuals who completed a law undergraduate degree more than five years ago will also need to complete a conversion course.
– Individuals typically need an undergraduate degree at 2:2 or above in any discipline (or equivalent).
- An undergraduate degree in law.
Some universities may ask individuals to pass a Law National Aptitude Test (LNAT). Getting a placement is highly competitive, and some institutions may also require a personal statement and interview. The grades and tests will depend on the university entry requirements, and individuals should check before applying.
After graduation, individuals must enrol on a Bar Course to acquire core skills. Before they can do this, they must:
- Be fluent in English.
- Pass the Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT) (this is no longer a requirement for those starting the vocational component of Bar Training from September 2022).
- Become a member of one of the four Inns of Court (all based in London): Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn, Inner Temple and Middle Temple.
There may be additional entry criteria, depending on the individual training providers.
Note: the Bar Professional Training Course was replaced by several new Bar courses, which meet the vocational component requirements. Some examples of these courses are:
- Bar Course (BC).
- Barrister Training Course (BTC).
- Bar Training Course (BTC).
- Bar Practice Course (BPC).
- Bar Vocational Studies (BVS).
- Bar Vocational Course (BVC).
Bar courses usually take a year to complete full-time. Part-time is an option but will take longer to complete. The vocational component can also be combined with the academic component as an integrated programme (depending on the provider). A list of Authorised Education and Training Organisations (AETO) can be found here. Courses are not cheap and can range from £10,000 to £20,000.
After successfully completing the vocational training component, individuals are Called to the Bar by their Inn.
After the vocational training component and before an individual can practise as a barrister, they must complete a year of work-based learning (on-the-job learning), also known as a pupillage. This stage is very competitive, and obtaining a pupillage can be difficult. Standing out from the crowd is essential to being successful. Individuals may wish to contact someone who earned a pupillage for advice and to ask more about their experience.
Individuals should apply for a pupillage via the Bar Council’s Pupillage Gateway before starting the Bar Course.
Individuals are known as pupils during this stage. They undergo practical training whilst under the supervision of an experienced barrister. This training is divided into two six-month parts:
- Non-practising period.
- Practising period.
Pupils do earn during this training period. There is a minimum award, but some may get more.
Once a pupil has completed their pupillage and has successfully met the requirements, they can apply to the Bar Standards Board (BSB) for a Practising Certificate and must register with the Bar Council. Only then can they practise as a barrister.
If an individual is a qualified solicitor or another legal professional who wants to become a barrister, they may be exempt from some or all of the above components. However, it will depend on their qualifications and experience. They will need to complete a Bar Transfer Test (BTT) and get approval from the Bar Standards Board.
Work experience and volunteering
Individuals do not need to do work experience before applying for an undergraduate/postgraduate degree. However, it can be beneficial to see if law is a suitable career path for them personally and discover more about available roles. It may also give them a competitive advantage when writing a personal statement for university admissions.
If an individual decides to be a barrister, then relevant law work experience is essential. They can (this list is not exhaustive):
- Apply for a mini-pupillage – this is a short period of work experience (sometimes paid), which involves shadowing a barrister for a week. It gives students an idea of what it is like to work in certain chambers or practice areas. Students can apply for mini-pupillages from their second year of university onwards. Vacancies can be found on Chambers Student.
- Apply for a work placement – there may be work placement opportunities in law firms and a chance to shadow experienced barristers and other legal professionals. Individuals could contact a local law firm by sending a speculative application. Larger law firms offer vacation schemes, ranging from a week to a month.
- Start paid work – individuals could work in a law firm as a paralegal or in an organisation’s legal department as a starting point to their career. Some employers may help individuals to gain more law qualifications.
- Volunteer – individuals can do voluntary work in a legal setting to gain law experience, e.g. with Citizens Advice, the Free Representation Unit and the Prisoners’ Advice Service. Universities may also be able to help with placements.
- Attend court – court visits and observing various proceedings are an excellent way to see barristers in action.
- Shadow judges – there are opportunities to shadow judges in their day-to-day practices, also known as marshalling. Individuals can get insights into the legal system and how barristers present and argue their cases. Placements are available from the Inns of Court or directly from the Courts.
More relevant work experience will boost an individual’s CV and give them a competitive edge when applying for roles.
Learning does not stop once a barrister becomes qualified. Undertaking postgraduate qualifications and relevant training courses can help prospective and current barristers enhance their employability by boosting their CVs and keeping their knowledge and skills current.
Professional bodies and associations, such as the Bar Standards Board (BSB), the Bar Council and the Inns of Court, can advise on reputable training courses. They also have events, support services and guidance that can help barristers and give them the means to continue their professional development. Continuing professional development (CPD) is a mandatory requirement for practising barristers. Further information can be found on the BSB.
Most colleges, universities and accredited private training providers provide training courses. Some example topics that may be useful for barristers include:
- Practice management.
- Legal knowledge and skills.
- Working with clients and others.
- Ethics, professionalism and judgement.
The training a barrister requires will depend on their employment status, specialist area of law and the CPD requirements. As well as looking on professional body websites, it is worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the qualifications and other training needed for specialist roles. Jobs can be found on the Law Society Gazette Jobs, LawCareers.Net, the Barrister Magazine (tenancy vacancies) and other job sites, such as Armed Forces Careers, LinkedIn, Glassdoor and Indeed. Also, look at recruitment agencies, e.g. Law Absolute and Legal Recruitment Agencies.
More relevant work experience, training and competence will open up more opportunities for barristers. Refresher training will also be required, as laws are constantly changing, and it keeps knowledge and skills up to date.
Criminal records checks
Barristers will be required to undergo a criminal record check. A criminal record, caution, warning, or conviction may put off prospective employers. It can even affect registration. However, they should account for the seriousness of the crime, when it occurred and its relevance.
The organisation that holds criminal records will depend on the country within the UK, for example:
Where do barristers work?
Most barristers are self-employed and become tenants in chambers. However, they can work in other settings, such as courts and offices.
They can work for public bodies and private organisations, for example:
- Government departments or agencies, e.g. the Crown Prosecution Service or the Government Legal Professions.
- Local Government.
- Charities (legal departments).
- The Armed Forces, e.g. the RAF, Royal Navy or Army, legal services.
- Private organisations, e.g. companies.
Even though rare for barristers to work through recruitment agencies, it is possible.
How much do barristers earn?
A barrister’s salary will depend on their qualifications, experience, seniority, reputation, location (i.e. London supplement), specialist area and whether they are self-employed or employed, for example (these are only a guide):
- Individuals undertaking a pupillage – the minimum pupillage award is £19,144 per year in London and £17,152 outside of London. This is reviewed annually and some chambers may offer much more.
- Employed barrister – between £25,000 and £100,000+ a year. Those working in legal aid will usually earn less.
- Government (GLS) or Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) barristers – between £30,000 and £90,000+ a year.
- Self-employed barristers – varies significantly and will also have various expenses, e.g. chambers rent costs, clerks’ fees, travel, tax and VAT, insurance, pension and compulsory CPD programmes. A qualified barrister with five years’ experience can earn between £50,000 and £200,000 in London on average.
According to The Lawyer, 12% of barristers earn less than £30,000. However, as barristers progress in their careers and enter more senior positions, their salaries should increase, especially if they have an excellent reputation. Barristers with over ten years’ experience can earn up to £1,000,000. Currently, 2% take home this significant salary.
Some specialist areas will also pay more than others, e.g. commercial law tends to be more lucrative than family. There is significant earning potential for barristers, especially those with talent and an excellent reputation.
Types of barrister roles to specialise in
There are many different areas of law in which barristers can specialise, including:
- Criminal law – these barristers represent the defence or prosecution in criminal cases and trials. There are different areas to choose from, e.g. drug offences, violent and sexual crime, fraud, white collar crime and international crime.
- Common law – covers many different areas, such as employment disputes, discrimination law, landlord and tenant, personal injury and professional negligence.
- Environmental law – covers disputes and issues pertaining to the environment, e.g. environmental crime, pollution, waste, contamination, climate change and statutory nuisances.
- Commercial law – relates to commercial disputes involving businesses, commercial transactions and employment law.
- Family law – this area covers family issues, such as marriage, cohabitation, divorce and child welfare issues.
- Chancery law, i.e. estates and trusts – includes traditional chancery, e.g. trusts, probate, real property and tax, and commercial chancery, e.g. finance and business disputes.
- Sports and entertainment law – appointed by clients, e.g. athletes, performers, agents, managers, owners and agencies, in these industries. Disputes can relate to contract and intellectual property law, tax, privacy issues or defamation.
All different specialist areas will require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. Some may need specific qualifications, e.g. postgraduate and additional training for specialised areas. Most barristers will need knowledge of the law and legal processes, know how to undertake thorough research and investigation, be extremely confident in public speaking and provide clear opinions and guidance to clients. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what an organisation is looking for in a barrister (if employed) and the specialist area a barrister wants to work.
If barristers do not carry out their role effectively, it can cause issues for clients and is likely to impact a barrister’s reputation. Complaints can be brought to the Bar Standards Board which can make enforcement decisions. If a barrister is found to have committed serious misconduct, they can be fined, suspended or disqualified permanently. Therefore, whatever the area of expertise, barristers must have the necessary training and competence (knowledge, skills and experience) to carry out the work professionally, ethically and responsibly. They should also know the limits of their competency.
Legal standards, technology and laws are updated regularly. Therefore, barristers need to keep abreast with the latest developments and changes in legislation to remain compliant and ensure they carry out their roles professionally, ethically and safely. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives barristers the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes and understand their responsibilities. It also helps them to stay registered with the Bar Standards Board (BSB) and allows them to progress in their career.
Joining a professional or representative body can help prospective and current barristers enhance their skills and overall career. The Bar Council and the Inns of Court offer representation, CPD, access to industry contacts and social and networking events. The Bar Standards Board (BSB) also has advice and guidance on professional development.
There is ample opportunity for career progression within the legal profession. With more qualifications and years of experience, a barrister could:
- Apply to become a Queen’s Counsel.
- Become a judge.
- Lead a team or become a manager if employed.
- Move into different specialist areas.
- Become self-employed.
Having the knowledge, skills and experience can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, a barrister may want to work in education and training, research, or other areas of law. They may also want to be more involved with professional bodies and councils.