Barrister job description
When you hear the word ‘barrister’, images of curly wigs and black gowns probably spring to mind. Whilst some barristers do wear these, many don’t. In fact, many barely even step inside the court. So, in this article we’ll look at what a barrister is, what a barrister does, and how to become a barrister.
What is a barrister?
A barrister – or advocate as it is known in Scotland – is a lawyer who generally specialises in an area of law and represents their clients in court.
Traditionally, the first port of call for a client in need of legal advice is a solicitor. If the matter goes to court, the solicitor instructs a barrister to advocate on behalf of the client.
Whilst this is often still the case, the role of barristers and solicitors are not always so black and white. Since 2004, clients can instruct barristers directly through the Public Access Scheme; meanwhile, solicitors can qualify as solicitor-advocates and represent their clients in court.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of advocacy work is still done by barristers, whilst initial client contact and case preparation falls in the lap of solicitors.
As of 2020, there were 17,078 practising barristers in England and Wales. The vast majority of these (79%) were self-employed, whilst a smaller - though growing - number were employed (18%). About 532 barristers were dual practitioners, meaning they undertook employed and self-employed work.
Barristers who are self-employed work in chambers. Each chamber typically specialises in certain areas of law.
Employed barristers may work for the likes of Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the Government Legal Service (GLS), the Armed Forces, or commercial organisations.
All aspiring barristers must join one of the four Inns of Court, namely Gray's Inn, Lincoln's Inn, Middle Temple and The Inner Temple.
The Inns are professional associations for barristers, providing services for student and qualified barristers, including training, libraries and dining halls.
What does a barrister do?
Many barristers specialise in an area of law. Typical areas of specialism include:
There are some general duties that all barristers will do, such as taking instruction from solicitors and/or clients, conducting legal research, managing caseloads, drafting legal opinions and documents, and advising clients.
They’ll also be liaising with legal professionals – including solicitors, barristers, and judges – preparing and presenting legal arguments in court, cross-examining witnesses, and negotiating settlements with opposing parties.
The nature of a barrister's work will depend on many factors, including whether they are employed or self-employed, their years of experience, and their area of expertise. A criminal barrister, for example, may be involved in a lot of advocacy work in court, whereas a commercial barrister working in-house may spend less time in the court and more time doing advisory work.
Unsurprisingly, barristers need to be confident public speakers. Standing up in court and presenting your client’s case with conviction is not for the faint-hearted.
Other essential skills to become a barrister include:
Legal research skills
Written communication skills
Presentation and advocacy skills
Project and time management skills
Attention to detail
The route to qualification as a barrister is undergoing a gradual change. Previously under the Bar Qualification Rules, there was one route to qualification involving three stages: academic, vocational, and professional.
As of 1 September 2020, there are now four pathways to qualification: three-step pathway, four-step pathway, integrated academic and vocational pathway, and apprenticeship pathway.
The three-step pathway is similar to the original route to qualification. It involves three stages: academic, vocational, and professional.
The first stage is the academic component. This requires a minimum of good GCSEs and A-level results and a 2:2 undergraduate law/non-law degree.
Non-law graduates must complete a law conversion course, either the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) or the Common Professional Examination (CPE).
The second stage is the vocational component. To complete this stage, you must first pass the Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT), be a member of one of the Inns of Court and speak fluent English.
Until September 2020, aspiring barristers had to complete the one-year Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC). This is being replaced by the new Bar Training Courses. The name of the courses vary, depending on the course provider. The University of Law course is called the Bar Practice Course (BPC).
The final stage is the work-based training component, more commonly known as pupillage. Pupillage is divided into two six-month stages (known as “sixes”):
First six: this involves shadowing and helping a supervising barrister.
Second six: this involves managing your own cases.
If you are not offered tenancy after your second six, it is possible to do a third six in another chambers. It is also possible to do your first and second six at different chambers.
Pupillage must be started within five years of completing the vocational component of qualification. It is recommended that aspiring barristers apply for pupillage before they start a bar course.
The four-step pathway is the same as the three-step pathway, except the vocational component is split into two parts.
Integrated academic & vocational pathway
This pathway involves the academic and vocational components being combined, followed by the pupillage stage.
The apprenticeship pathway combines the academic, vocational, and pupillage components.
Barristers’ salaries vary greatly depending on experience, areas of expertise, reputation, and type of employment.
As of January 2021, chambers are required to pay pupils a minimum of £18,960 per year for pupillages based in London, and £16,601 outside the capital.
As the majority of barristers are self-employed, it can take several years to build up your reputation and number of referrals. You can expect to earn more as you build relationships with solicitors and clients, and you handle more complex cases.
Less than one third of barristers (27%) earn £60,000 per year or less. A little over a third (35.7%) earn between £90,000 and £240,000 per year. The percentage topping the £1 million mark is small, at 2%. This is predominantly barristers with 15+ years of experience and/or those with Queen’s Counsel (QC) status.
These figures are gross income, meaning they do not take into account income taxes and other deductions such as contributions to chambers.
Barrister working hours
The only thing certain about barristers’ working hours is that they are uncertain – at least for self-employed barristers. One of the perks of being self-employed is that barristers can, to some degree, manage their own schedules. However, they often have to work to very tight deadlines, whilst managing large caseloads. Late nights and early mornings are not uncommon.
The ‘Sunday night homework club’ is a familiar phrase to many barristers, who find themselves buried in work on a Sunday evening in preparation for the coming week at court.
Barrister career progression
For many barristers, achieving QC status is the ultimate goal. This is the highest level of seniority at the Bar and is generally awarded to barristers who are experts in their fields with a minimum of 15 years’ experience. QCs have higher rights of audience in the highest courts of England and Wales, including the Supreme Court.
Other barristers may progress to the judiciary. In fact, the majority of judges in the higher courts of England and Wales are former barristers.
Alternatively, barristers may choose to become employed at the Bar. They may work for in-house legal departments or the government.
What can I do with a Law Degree?