‘What Is It Really Like’ – the Reality of Working as a Barrister

For aspiring barristers, we take a look at the reality of the profession, from pupillage and the culture involved to the structure of an average working day.

Do you remember the TV show Silk? It was TV drama series about barristers written by Peter Moffat based on his experiences of being at the bar. If you are thinking of pursuing a career at the bar it is worth watching – you can decide what is fact and what is fiction! Below,  Francine Ryan, Senior Lecturer in Law and member of the Open Justice Centre at The Open University, explains what to expect from a career as a barrister.

If you think you are the next Amal Clooney or Michael Mansfield, then there are three elements to becoming a barrister.

  • Academic element
  • Vocational element
  • Pupillage/ work-based element

The vocational element is changing from September 2020. You can find out more about the new Bar Qualification rules here. The professional statement sets out the knowledge, skills and competencies that barristers must have on ‘day one’ of practice.

Pupillage

So, you have defied the odds and obtained a pupillage – well done! You can now start the real training to become a barrister. Pupillage is completed in a set of chambers under the guidance of a pupil supervisor. The experience of pupillage very much depends on your pupil supervisor and the chambers you are in. During pupillage time will be spent preparing pleadings, going to conferences, and attending court. The second Six builds on those experiences and involves going to court regularly. The work will be varied, you are likely to be out a lot travelling to different courts. In terms of what you do each day much will depend on which practice group you work in.  Once you have completed your pupillage, you apply for tenancy which is a permanent position as a barrister with a set of chambers.

The experience of pupillage very much depends on your pupil supervisor and the chambers you are in.

Working Day

One thing is for certain you definitely won’t be working 9 to 5! A lot of time is spent in court, so you need evenings and the weekends to prepare cases. If you are travelling to court a long distance away it can involve quite early starts. What many barristers enjoy is the variety of work that is challenging and intellectually stimulating.  Your clerk is responsible for managing your diary. A barrister builds their reputation from conducting cases therefore you want a full diary not only to gain experience but to develop your practice. Barristers are self-employed their earnings depend on the types of cases they conduct and how busy they are.

Culture

Most barristers are attached to a set of chambers, with each barrister contributing to the financial costs of running chambers. Many barristers enjoy the freedom of being self-employed, it provides more independence and autonomy than working for an employer. Some barristers may choose to be employed and work for organisations such as the Crown Prosecution Service.

Although barristers work for themselves, they are part of chambers. The culture in many chambers is friendly and collegiate with more senior members of chambers providing advice and guidance on cases, but some barristers can find the job  quite isolating and lonely. The bar council is very keen to address wellbeing at the bar and encourages barristers to support each other.

What Next?

If you are thinking of becoming a barrister, you should get involved in mooting competitions offered by your university.  This will give you an opportunity to develop your presentation and advocacy skills. It will help you determine whether you enjoy public speaking and how well you can cope with the pressure and scrutiny from a judge. The Free Representation Unit also takes on volunteers and gives them opportunity to represent clients at the Social Security and Employment Tribunals. Barristers chambers offer mini-pupillages where you shadow a barrister and can gain first hand knowledge of what life at the bar is really like.

It is important to recognise that being a barrister can be quite stressful and you need to think carefully about whether this is the right career for you. Make sure you do your research, think carefully about whether a career at the bar is most suited to your personality, speak to other people to get an insight into what it is really like working as a barrister. To find out more read the Q & A with Angelina Nicolaou, a barrister at One Pump Court.

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