One question we sometimes hear from students is: 'If I become a barrister, how much can I expect to earn in my first few years of practice?'
This is a difficult question to answer, for two reasons. The first is that (most) barristers are self-employed. They may work out of chambers and have clerks pitching them to potential clients, but ultimately they are solo operators and your typical barrister would probably consider it a little vulgar to reveal how much moolah they rake in a year.
The second reason is that the amounts that can be earned vary hugely, depending on each individual barrister's personality, area of practice, the chambers employing them and its location in the country. A QC who has made a good name for him or herself over many years, working at a top London commercial set, can become, if not as rich as Croesus himself, then at least wealthy enough to never run short of vintage cars or homes in the Cotswolds.
It was rumoured that superstar silk Jonathan Sumption was paid £10 million in his last case before his elevation to the Supreme Court in 2012, representing Roman Abramovich (although Sumption's chambers denied this was true, and £3 million may be a better estimate). By contrast, a poor-quality barrister at a poor-quality set – yes, they certainly exist – may struggle to make enough money to live on. And the lack of dosh available at the junior end of the Criminal Bar is well documented. Successful junior barristers doing work supported by legal aid – be that criminal or civil – can earn under £20,000 a year.
Furthermore, as barristers are self-employed they can take as much or little holiday as they want. This naturally has an impact on their annual income.
So, as you can see, the answer to the question 'how much do barristers earn' is 'how long is a piece of string?' It depends on a number of factors, mostly notably what area of law you practice in.
Obviously, this isn't a hugely helpful response for someone considering a career at the Bar, so we got in touch with our contacts at a number of leading barristers' chambers in different areas of practice and asked them anecdotally what their most junior members would typically earn. They provided us with the numbers below, which we suggest you regard as a general guideline rather than a definitive 'this is what you will earn'.
|Earnings (Year 1)||Earnings (Year 2)|
|Commercial||£40,000 - £100,000||£70,000 - £200,000|
|Public||£20,000 - £80,000||£40,000 - £100,000|
|Crime||£10,000 - £40,000||£40,000 - £70,000|
|Family||£20,000 - £50,000||£40,000 - £90,000|
|General Civil||£20,000 - £50,000||£40,000 - £100,000|
|Chancery||£30,000 - £100,000||£60,000 - £200,000|
(Last updated: December 2016)
Please note: the figures above represent the likely upper and lower limits of earnings, and the mid-point between them should not be taken as an average pay packet. Take crime, for example: growth at the top end will be driven by privately-funded cases, but drastic legal aid cuts have meant average earnings have shrunk recently. Earnings will vary depending on how busy you are, how high-profile your set's work is and the type of clients. Publicly-funded children's law family work for a local authority client will pay much much less than privately funded divorce work.
Any more clues? Well, it is useful to look at the pupillage awards offered by each set of chambers. Since such awards are funded out of the communal pot that all barristers in chambers pay in to, the logical conclusion is that the higher the award, the better the set is doing and the more you could potentially earn.
Pupillage awards at the top commercial sets have risen significantly in the past few years, as sets scramble to compete for the top talent. The desire to pay top dollar has seen sets scrambling over each other to increase their pupillage awards, sometimes doing so several years running or by several tens of thousands of pounds. What's the cause of this increase? Well, the trainee solicitor and NQ salary increases at City firms in recent years may have something to do with it; those in turn were caused by US firms raising salaries after the market-rate starting salary for junior associates in New York was increased for the first time since the financial crisis. Funny old world.
Competition between sets is probably the key though. We asked one set why it was increasing its award and besides the usual spiel about “investing in our pupils” it said the rise would “enable [the set] to continue to recruit the very best candidates.” Read between the lines of that and you realise sets are slogging it out to recruit the very best candidates and don't want them nabbed off them by a rival chambers making a better offer.
The highest pupillage award as of 2018/19 is Atkin Chambers' £72,500 (4 Pump Court, One Essex Court, Keating, and Henderson are not far behind at £70,000). We're pretty sure this is the highest amount of money it's possible to earn in a first-year law graduate job, beating all City trainee solicitor salaries hands down. The figure is also higher than some City NQ pay packages.
Atkin Chambers is not the only high-paying set. A growing group of top sets offer awards of £65,000 to £70,000 (having previously offered £55,000 to £60,000). If that is what you are getting paid as a pupil, it is also reasonable to assume you could earn at least as much in your first year of practice. A further indication of what a baby junior at a top commercial set can earn is offered by Essex Court Chambers: it guarantees its baby barristers earnings of £100,000 (!) in their first year of practice.
It's worth remembering that unlike commercial law firms barristers' chambers do not offer separate funding for law school. Instead you can typically get an advance on your pupillage award during your BPTC (of £15,000 or £20,000 at most) if you secure pupillage before starting Bar School. Even so, there's no denying that barristers in fields like commercial and Chancery can expect to earn loadsamoney.
It's a different story for their peers focusing on areas like family, crime and publicly funded work, and those outside London. The two sets in our Chambers Reports focused on family law (1 Hare Court and Queen Elizabeth Building) both have awards of £35,000 – comparable to trainee pay at a mid-size London firm. The most highly regarded human rights sets (Garden Court, Doughty Street) are roughly in this league too, as are leading sets outside London like St John's Chambers and No5. Offering further contrast, the pupillage awards of just £15,000 at leading criminal sets 2 Bedford Row and 25 Bedford Row give you an idea of how low earnings can be at the start of your career at the Criminal Bar (though both these figures are supplemented by guaranteed second six earnings).
As of summer 2018 £12,000 remains the minimum permitted award, as prescribed by the Bar Council. (Note that, although a pupillage award is not a salary, £12,000 is approximately equivalent to the national minimum wage based on a 36-hour week.) The minimum award is likely to be raised soon, as the Bar Standards Board has said it should be brought in line with the Living Wage benchmark. According to the BSB this would have amounted to £17,212.50 p.a. in London and £14,765.63 p.a. elsewhere in 2018.
This feature was first published in our December 2011 newsletter.
It has been checked and updated on various occasions since then.