Self-employed vs. employed barristers

  • Last updated Jul 11, 2017 12:50:20 PM
  • By Jos Weale, Managing Editor,

As you get ever closer to that Holy Grail of qualification as a barrister, you’re going to have to decide whether you’d like to take on self-employed or employed practice. So what’s the difference? Let’s bring on the heavy weights…  

Self-employed barristers...

The vast majority of the 15,000 practising barristers in England and Wales are self-employed and act as ‘independent practitioners’ (around 80% according to the Bar Council).

They are, essentially, their own business: they don’t get a salary, and so when it comes to the way they get paid there really isn’t much difference to a freelance or contract worker in any other industry (though you won’t find many other freelancers around whose work dress code is robes and a wig!). Their income is down to what they take from the individual cases they work on.

Practising self-employed barristers must also pay for residence at chambers. An office base, and essentially the epicentre of daily working life for its barristers, chambers provide their ‘tenants’ with access to their facilities and administrative support. This is vital for independent practice, as clerks will book and, in some cases, even source work for the barrister. As fellow tenants, barristers based at the same chambers can also provide a professional network for each other.

When it comes to business, things might not always be chummy: they work on their own cases, which could even mean barristers of the same chambers will each represent opposing clients in some cases. Awkward!

So what are the ups and downs of being a self-employed barrister?

Self-employed barrister pros:

  • You’re free to establish your own practice and set your own rates.
  • There’s perhaps more potential to work with a more diverse range of clients and develop your own specialisms.

Self-employed barrister cons: 

  • Securing tenancy at chambers is notoriously tricky. Some may be lucky enough to be offered tenancy at the chambers at which they undertake their pupillage. However, this isn’t the case for all newly qualified barristers and they may well have to apply to other chambers.
  • As a self-employed barrister you’ll need to possess self-discipline that extends beyond the realms of your legal work. Unlike salaried lawyers, your tax and National Insurance contributions will not be deducted automatically from your earnings, so you’ll have to be able to manage your income and save to pay for these, as well as factor in unpaid holidays or leave and your pension.

Employed barristers...

Barristers can also work in an employed capacity working for a sole organisation. They receive a salary from the organisation that employs them and, unlike self-employed barristers, are generally instructed to take on cases. According to the Bar Council, around 20% of practising barristers are employed, all working in a range of public and private sector organisations.

Where could I work as an employed barrister?

You could find yourself working in anything from governmental departments to institutions and charitable organisations:

  • Government Legal Services (GLS)
  • Armed Forces
  • Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)
  • solicitors’ firms
  • commerce, finance and industry
  • The EU
  • local authorities
  • human rights organisations
  • charities.

Employed barrister pros:

  • Your cases are set out for you by your employer.
  • There could be more opportunity to travel.
  • You’ll receive a steady salary and, therefore, won’t drown underneath tax return paperwork.

Employed barrister cons:

  • The areas you work in may be more restricted.
  • If you like the idea of being your own boss, think again as an employed barrister!

For more information on practising as a barrister you can visit the Bar Council’s website:

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