A career at the Bar

Being a barrister is, to quote one sage QC, “quite simply, the best job in the world.” True, the Bar is a highly competitive world in which the hours can be punishing and the work arduous, but the equation of excitement, advocacy, extraordinary experiences, a sense of personal fulfilment and kudos is unique.

Essential Bar stats: a harsh reality

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It’s no secret that becoming a barrister is unfathomably competitive. The statistics alone are disheartening: the number of students who successfully completed the BPTC in 2009/10 totalled 1,432 – up nearly 3% in five years. Sounds okay so far, except that in this same year the number of pupillages on offer came to just 460, a near 20% reduction in five short years. Hoping to address this over-subscription by raising admission standards for the new BPTC, the Bar Standards Board has given legs to some of the recommendations of The Wood Report. An aptitude test, for example, was piloted from 2011 to establish applicants’ suitability for the BPTC. It is due to be implemented in autumn 2012 for 2013 starters. The hard fact is that roughly only one in four who commence the course gain pupillage and even fewer achieve the ultimate goal of tenancy. These odds will probably discourage the casual applicant, but the average would-be barrister is made of sterner stuff and usually has a deep-seated commitment to this branch of the profession.

Will you make it?

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So, we’ve established your vocational drive, but what distinguishes you? This is a hard one. Meet enough pupils and barristers and you can see what makes someone successful. The fact that you’re gobby/argumentative/confident doesn’t mean you’ll make it, nor is success guaranteed by superstar academic results and an ability to complete the Times crossword in three minutes. Ask a chambers recruiter to define the qualities they look for and they will speak in fairly general terms (academic credentials, people skills, analytical skills, commitment, passion, an ability to express ideas) with the vague caveat that ‘you know a good one when you see one’. Perhaps it’s best to say that those who thrive at the Bar are people who offer the right traits for their chosen area of practice. Crime is all about guts, personality, advocacy ability and being to-the-point, down-to-earth and capable of assimilating and recalling facts easily. It’s not necessary to be a genius. Commercial practice is a more sophisticated game. Intelligence, an analytical mind, excellence on paper, commercial acumen and an easy manner with business clients are a must, and specialisms like tax attract true brainboxes. While advocacy is still important in commercial practice, deriving pleasure from crafting a masterpiece opinion or explaining a phenomenally complex legal argument succinctly is arguably even more so. By reading the Chambers Reports and Practice areas at the Bar you will understand more about the skills required in the various specialist areas of practices.

Is the cost of training prohibitive?

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The GDL conversion course is quite expensive, and the BPTC is painfully steep, so you need to be fairly confident about your prospects of succeeding at the Bar. Many criminal or general common law sets pay their pupils the bare minimum award of £1,000 per month (as prescribed by the Bar Council from 1 September 2011). Some commercial sets make large pupillage awards available, ensuring that they are in line with the salaries of trainee solicitors at big City solicitors’ firms; they will even advance funds for the BPTC year. Unless you’ve a source of cash, getting through law school and pupillage is a pricey business most commonly funded through bank or parental loans. Read the Funding section for more ideas. Of all the potential sponsors out there, the four Inns of Court have the deepest pockets and they make more than £4.5m available each year to students.

Huge debts aren’t so much of a problem if you’ll soon be earning a fat income, but the common perception that all barristers are rolling in it isn’t quite right. Those determined to serve their community will find the public funding of civil, family and criminal cases in the midst of a rationalisation by the Legal Services Commission (LSC). Go to our website if you want to read more about the state of legal aid in the UK. Despite this gloomy prognosis, it is worth remembering that privately paying clients still need legal advice and commercial sets continue to thrive. There’s no question that tenancy at one of the best commercial sets pays very well indeed: some Commercial Bar stars earn well over £1m a year, while pupils who make it to tenancy in good-quality sets can outstrip the salaries of their solicitor peers immediately.

Do remember that within each area of practice at the Bar there are a few Premier League sets and many others in lower divisions: the difference in earnings between the top and the bottom is substantial.

Get Bar ready

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If you’re still at university there’s plenty you can do to prepare yourself for a shot at the Bar. If there is anything a little outré about your CV – you’re mature or you have poor A levels, for instance – getting a First is the best idea. Applicants with 2:1s are two a penny and a 2:2 will scupper your chances unless you can evidence some truly remarkable alternative qualities. In general, chambers are more interested in your undergraduate performance than what you can muster up on the BPTC, but frankly you should try to get the best grades at every stage. As for postgraduate degrees – a master’s from a very good university, either in the UK or abroad – it must be your choice whether to undertake one or not. All we can say is that many of the Bar’s most successful candidates have such a qualification, though by no means all of them. A master’s degree is no silver bullet.

The best way to demonstrate commitment to the Bar is to undertake mini-pupillages – that’s barrister-speak for work experience. Whether assessed or unassessed, minis all involve observing barristers in chambers and probably also in court, although the degree of involvement varies hugely from one set to another. A good mini will see you sit in on a pre-trial conference (with the client’s permission) and be included in discussions about the law. Don’t become fixed on the idea of spending a whole week in chambers as you may find it easier, more economical and just as beneficial to get a couple of days here and there. Assessed minis have an added element of paperwork or grading through oral discussion. A typical scenario will see mini-pupils given a set of papers to analyse before producing a piece of written work, which may then be discussed with a supervisor. Some sets only conduct assessed minis or make them a formal part of the recruitment process, but the average set recognises that would-be pupils can’t go everywhere and during our travels around the Bar this year we’ve met many pupils who hadn’t done a mini at their own set.

A mini-pupillage is an important point of contact with a set and an opportunity to show some guts and create a good impression for a later application. It’s also CV and interview fodder: take notes, don’t be afraid to ask questions at appropriate moments and be sure to reflect on what was good and bad about your experiences. Recruiters tell us that candidates who simply list or describe legal work experience fall down in comparison to those who can articulate what they’ve learned from shadowing practitioners. We have written a more in-depth feature on mini-pupillage which you can find here.

Not all sets offer mini-pupillages, and some will only take students in the final year of academic legal study (be it degree or GDL), so start off by checking their websites carefully for how and when to apply. In general you should aim for as many as it takes you to decide which areas of practice interest you. Gaining pupillage may be a strictly fair process these days, but personal contacts can still help in obtaining a mini. Apply to an Inn of Court to be assigned a sponsor, or if you’ve started dining at your Inn then start schmoozing.

Stand out from the crowd

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The Bar Standards Board prescribes that BPTC students must undertake a certain amount of pro bono work. To ensure that you do land something that interests you and adds real weight to a pupillage application form, it is a good idea to investigate the options as soon as possible. You should also heed the advice of the QC who said: “Do everything you can.” Get involved with every debating and mooting opportunity that crops up, enter mock trial competitions at law school and keep an eye out for essay competitions. The scholarships offered by the Inns are not just a way of funding your education: don’t underestimate the capacity of a major prize or award to mark you out from other well-qualified candidates.

Through the Portal

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Unless taking time out from academia, most candidates start to make pupillage applications during their final undergraduate year, although in an attempt to snap up the best candidates some of the top commercial sets encourage students to apply in their penultimate year. In general, however, the majority of pupillage offers tend to be made to students following the completion of the BPTC. In 2009, the Bar Council brought in a new pupillage application system called Pupillage Portal, which lets users tailor their applications for each of the sets they apply to. The maximum number of sets users can target through the portal is 12 and the Pupillage Portal operates just once a year. Though participation is voluntary for chambers, if they run their own separate application schemes they must still advertise all vacancies on the Portal website www.pupillages.com and in the Pupillages Handbook, which is published in March each year to coincide with the National Pupillage Fair in London.

The Portal is reasonably easy to use, though drama can be avoided if you fill out all the required details in a word document and then paste it into the required fields. In general, the fields in which you write are generously sized, with a maximum of around 350 words allowed for your perfect answers to questions like 'Why do you want to be a barrister?' and 'What areas of practice are you interested in and why?' You also have 300 words for a 'covering letter' and a further 200 to discuss any further experiences you feel are relevant. Additionally, sets are now able to add a unique tailor-made question to the form. This year we heard ‘Which book do you most resemble?’ was popular. Do bear in mind that chambers' recruiters can feel quite worn down by excessively long forms, so try to find the right balance between detailed and snappy answers, and definitely leave out that one time you went to band camp.

Students can be alerted by e-mail, phone call, letter or SMS with the results of their applications, and remember, when you do get an offer you have at least two weeks to make a decision. It's important to remember that if you withdraw from the Portal you cannot reapply in the same year, so save yourself the grief and do your research thoroughly before selecting your 12 sets.

It is possible to use the Portal to make a single 'clearing' application. This facility is also used by those who were unsuccessful with all of their 12 first-round applications. The Portal clearing phase allows sets with unfilled vacancies to scout for suitable candidates. It is for the sets to make the first move and applicants are advised not to approach them directly. In making a clearing application it's best to keep your parameters as wide as possible to retain your appeal to a broad range of sets. Your application will be accessible to all chambers participating in the clearing process. As of 2010, clearing applications could be made between March and mid-September, and October was the month when chambers could view them and make their approaches.

Beyond the Portal

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A good number of sets recruit pupils outside the Portal machinery because they don't like its format or timetable and feel their interests will be better served by other means. The application method at each non-Portal set will be different; however, all must still advertise vacancies on www.pupillages.com. Some choose to mirror the Portal timetable in their own application procedures, but many don't and this can bring its own problems. The 'exploding offer' phenomenon is a real difficulty: what do you do if a non-Portal set makes you an attractive offer before your 12 Portal applications play out? The decision here must be yours. The good news is that non-Portal sets are generally very good at laying out the specifics of their application process on their websites.

Interviews: getting them right

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So you’ve got an interview – that's already an achievement. Dress neatly and discreetly with hair tidy, teeth flossed, tie sober, jacket done up. Most chambers will be grading you on standard criteria that include everything from intellect to personality, and many publish their guidelines online

You can expect your first interview to involve a discussion of the hottest topics in your prospective practice area and some investigation into you and your application form. Remember: you’ll face a panel that wants you to stand out. Naturally you should read The Times’ Law supplement, Guardian Law and – an excellent daily blog you can have e-mailed –Current Awareness from the Inner Temple library. Maybe even set the Pupillage Portal website as your homepage. Preparation for interviews should consist of more than boning up on the law; now more than ever it’s also important to be clued-up on current affairs. Finally, think about what isn’t on your CV and how you can account for disappointing grades or anything that is missing.

For second interviews expect a larger panel made up of a broader cross-section of people from chambers. While the format of the interviews may vary between sets, the panel will always want to assess the depth of your legal knowledge, your advocacy potential and your strength of character. Weaknesses on your CV will be sniffed out and pursued with tenacity. Don’t let them push you around; if you can support your position then stick to it. Resolve is just as necessary for a career at the Bar as receptivity; recruiters want to know that you can fight your corner. As one observed: “It is amazing how many people can’t stand up for themselves, which is all you want to see.

Criminal and mixed sets will commonly give you an advocacy exercise, such as a bail application or a plea in mitigation (their basic structures will fit on a post-it, so why not note them down and keep them with you at all times). Most sets, if not all, will pose a legal problem, although the amount of preparation time you are given can range from ten minutes to a week. If you know that this is going to happen then do take an appropriate practitioner’s text unless you know that one will be made available to you. That said, chambers generally aren’t looking for faultless knowledge of substantive law, but they are trying to get an insight into how your mind works. As one seasoned interviewer explained: “We are more interested in seeing how a candidate approaches a problem than whether or not they get the right answer.” Of course, other recruiters may not be so forgiving! A second interview is often the time when an ethics question may raise its head. You can prepare by reading the Bar’s Code of Conduct, which is available on the Bar Standards Board's website.

Of course, to all rules there are exceptions, but these days sets are pretty good about detailing their procedures online, so with the right research you shouldn’t be in for any shocks.

Try, try and try again?

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What if you still don’t have pupillage by the time you have finished the BPTC? Rather than seeing an enforced year out as a grim prospect, view it as a time to improve your CV and become more marketable. If you are interested in a specialist area of practice consider a master’s degree. If the thought of another year in education brings you out in a cold sweat then seek out some useful practical experience. The most obvious answer is to apply for paralegalling and outdoor clerking jobs at solicitors’ firms. Although these positions are rarer than hens’ teeth, right now, the work you do as a paralegal should teach you how cases actually work and how solicitors – your future clients – operate. As a clerk you will be in court all the time taking notes. This will give you insight into the procedures and politics of trials. The year might also be spent with an organisation that works in an area related to your legal interest. We have interviewed several lawyers who secured pupillages following a period with a company, charity or not-for-profit organisation.

Pupillage

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If you do gain a pupillage, congratulations! Now the hard work really starts. How the pupillage year is divided varies from set to set, but no matter how many pupil supervisors are allotted, the broad division is between the first, non-practising six months and the second, when pupils may be permitted some court action. During the first six, pupils are tethered to their supervisor(s), shadowing them at court, conferences and in chambers. They will also very likely draft pleadings, advices and skeletons or do research for the matters their supervisor is working on. The nature of the second six will depend on the specific area of practice. At a busy criminal set it can mean court every day, and many civil or commercial sets specialising in areas like employment, PI, construction or insurance will send their pupils out up to three times a week. Some big commercial or Chancery sets actively prefer to keep pupils in chambers throughout the year, either for the purposes of assessment or because the nature of the work means pupils are simply too inexperienced.

Tenancy

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Tenancy is the prize at the end of the year-long interview that is pupillage. Effectively, an offer of tenancy is an invitation from a set to take a space in their chambers as a self-employed practitioner, sharing the services of the clerking and administrative teams. How many tenants a set takes on post-pupillage is usually as dependent on the amount of space and work available in chambers as on the quality of the candidates. If you are curious about a set’s growth, check to see how many new tenants have joined in recent years by viewing the list of members on its website and compare that against the number of pupillages offered in the same period. Usually tenancies are awarded after a vote of all members of chambers, following recommendations from a tenancy committee, clerks and possibly also instructing solicitors. Decisions are commonly made in the July of the pupillage year, allowing unsuccessful pupils time to cast around for other tenancy offers or a ‘third six’ elsewhere.

There is evidence to suggest that civil and commercial sets have higher pupil-to-tenant conversion rates than criminal sets. Certainly, it is quite usual for a 12-month criminal pupillage to be followed by a third or subsequent six somewhere other than at a pupil’s first set. However, plenty of commercial pupils do also find themselves looking for a third six. The general rule is that if a third six is not successful, it is perhaps time to look outside the Bar. It’s been reasonably common for pupils to move to solicitors’ firms, although since September 2010 the option of swiftly re-qualifying as a solicitor by taking the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Test (QLTT) is no longer available. That said, the regulatory barriers that prevented barristers from becoming law firm partners have now been lifted by the Legal Services Act.

And finally...

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Few readers will have changed their minds about a career at the Bar after reading these pages. One thing is for sure: you need to be resolute. Success won’t come your way if you doubt your own ambition and ability.