The Bar: the prestige, the power, the nail-biting courtroom drama, the intellectual tussle, the silly wigs: it’s easy to see how joining this profession is quite so competitive.
Landing a pupillage (the Bar's version of a training contract) is, as one pupil we put it recently, “a strenuous and difficult process – one that's not to be underestimated.” Indeed, getting your application noticed in the first place is a notoriously tough undertaking, given the high volume of applicants, and if you make it to the interview stage you'll find that impressing recruiters with your ability to defend difficult positions on the spot is no cakewalk either.
“[Landing a pupillage is] a strenuous and difficult process – one that's not to be underestimated.”
Before you dive in head-first, we suggest you take the points below on board. We're certainly not making a case against the Bar here; think of this article as more of a 'proceed with caution' sign. After all, a good barrister always makes sure they're well versed on both sides of an argument.
The biggest single challenge facing aspiring barristers is the Bar’s oversubscription. Statistics released by the Bar Standards Board in 2016 show that while a whopping 1,062 students successfully completed the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) in 2014/15, there were just 437 pupillages up for grabs across England and Wales that year. The numbers have remained relatively stable since: a maximum of 430 pupillages starting in 2018 (and 2017) were advertised in 2017.
Factor in the BPTC grads from previous years still hunting for jobs, and you'll realise just how big the oversupply of candidates is: according to a warning issued by the Bar Standards Board to prospective applicants, a given year can see more than 3,000 very capable candidates vying for pupillage.
THE HARD FACTS:
BPTC graduates 2014/15: 1,062
Pupillages 2014/15: 437
Pupillage applicants annually: 3,000
In an effort to address this imbalance, the Bar Standards Board raised its admission standards in 2013 by introducing an official aptitude test for BPTC applicants. This is now compulsory for everyone who wants to do the BPTC, and tests logic, deduction and interpretation skills. The necessary pass mark has been raised for 2017, so as to ensure standards are kept high. The test should help reduce the pool of applicants in the future, but even if you breeze through the test, the challenges ahead of you are far greater.
And then if you do manage to score a coveted pupillage, it's worth bearing in mind that tenancies (permanent positions as a fully fledged barrister) too are in shockingly short supply: according to the 2014 Bar Barometer there were just 335 new ones registered in 2011/12.
So you know what you're getting into, here are the full stats on entry into the profession:
|Called to the Bar||1,629||1,469||1,346||1,456||1,184|
|Pupillages (first six)||443||422||514||397||437|
And here here some more recent stats from a report by the Bar Standards Board on the success rate of BPTC graduates from the different providers:
Data from the Bar Standards Board
These numbers may look dire but one positive to remember is that many individuals taking the BPTC (sometimes over 50%) are overseas students with no intention of practising as barristers in the UK. A student with the drive and conviction that they have what it takes to make it at the Bar need not be put off by the statistics above.
Repeat after us: academic credentials matter at the Bar. This means high scores from a reputable uni. You may be a mastermind of an advocate, but if you haven't achieved (or, if you're still studying, aren't on course for) top grades, it's unlikely you'll be invited to show off your skills of persuasion. To be clear, all our research over the years shows that a First or a high 2:1 at undergrad is what you need to get a look in here.
There's a common preconception that only Oxbridge grads have a shot at the Bar.
There's a common preconception that only Oxbridge grads have a shot at the Bar, and while this is certainly not the case, these two elite establishments are undeniably happy hunting grounds for chambers: the most recently published Bar Barometer report shows that graduates of Oxford and Cambridge made up 28% of all pupils in 2011/12. A further 36% of pupils that year came from Russell Group institutions. This doesn't mean you don't have a shot if your degree comes from elsewhere, but recognise that the lower your university is in the rankings, the more you'll need to make up for it by way of stellar grades and worthwhile extracurriculars.
Put simply, it doesn't make much financial sense to embark on the BPTC if you aren't fairly confident about your prospects of succeeding at the Bar. BPTC tuition is painfully steep – upwards of £17,000 at some providers – and wannabe pupils by and large end up shouldering this cost (and that of the GDL if necessary) themselves. Bar stats show that 32% of pupils in 2011/12 had debts totalling £20,000 or more.
Some sets will advance funds for the BPTC year to future pupils.
Some sets will advance funds for the BPTC year to future pupils, but it's worth bearing in mind this money comes out of your pupillage award; it's not given on top of it, as is typically the case with solicitors' firms sponsoring future trainees. (You also don't get the stipend for living expenses that usually accompanies a law firm's sponsorship.)
Whatever way you slice it, getting through law school is a pricey business, and those without cash at their disposal or a locked-in funding deal will likely require loans from a bank or their parents. Read our How to fund law school feature for more on the options at hand, and check out our info on the four Inns of Court too: of all the potential sponsors out there, they have the deepest pockets, with nearly £5 million worth of scholarships and bursaries on offer each year between them.
Your salary prospects
Take note, the common perception that all barristers are rolling in it is pretty out of touch. There’s no question that top commercial sets pay very well: plenty offer pupillage awards in line with trainee (and in the case of the top ones, NQ) salaries at big City firms, and pupils who gain tenancy at such sets can quickly outstrip their solicitor peers in the income stakes. Some Commercial Bar stars earn well over a million a year.
However, far more barristers work outside this realm than in it. More than half of pupils in 2011/12 mainly worked in civil, criminal or family law – all areas in which public funding is rapidly dwindling as legal aid cuts continue to bite. Many such sets only pay their pupils the bare minimum award of £1,000 per month (as prescribed by the Bar Council), and those who go on to gain tenancy often face low remuneration well into their career.
Of course, a set's stature contributes greatly to its tenants' incomes, and within each area of practice at the Bar – including the ones above – are both Premier League sets that pay handsomely and lower division ones that do not. In any case, the difference in earnings between the top and the bottom is substantial – something recruiters will expect you to know going in.
Find out more about How much barristers earn
Your working style
A final thing to think over is whether your personal characteristics and preferred style of working are suited to the Bar. A QC once pointed out to us that "the Bar is a world full of weird and wonderful characters,” and indeed there's no one 'type' of person who fits the bill. Still, there are fundamental aspects of being a barrister which don't suit everybody – a knack for oral communication, for starters. As one recruiter recently told us: “Some people crash and burn because they don't really like talking, which is a non-negotiable part of the job.” This means not only being able to speak confidently, eloquently and persuasively, but to do so in front of strangers, often on the spot – a skill all sets, even the ones that particularly prize written advocacy, require.
Keep in mind that in addition to being comfortable performing in public, you'll also need to be able to get on with all sorts of people and be strong on the self-motivation front. For many, being self-employed and therefore your own boss is more intimidating than liberating.
If you're still soldiering on at this point, it's safe to say we've established your vocational drive. Check out our article on Getting Bar ready to read more about how to prepare yourself for a shot at pupillage, and for more on the specific skills required in certain specialist areas, see our Chambers Reports and Practice areas at the Bar features.
Your next step
>>> Pupillage and tenancy explained