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Qualifying as a Barrister

By: Louise Smith, barrister - Updated: 7 Nov 2012 | comments*Discuss
Barrister Pupillage Degree Bar Chambers

Qualifying as a barrister is a fairly lengthy process involving both academic qualifications and a period of apprenticeship, known as pupillage. This can be an expensive undertaking - with no guarantee of a job upon qualification. However, for those who succeed, it can lead to a long and rewarding career providing high levels of variety and autonomy.

Here, we provide an overview of the steps involved in qualifying as a barrister in England and Wales. Different systems apply for those wishing to practice in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Is the Bar Right for Me?

Some people think that the Bar is monopolised by white men from privileged backgrounds. Prospective barristers who do not fit this profile may wonder if the Bar is for them. Whilst there are still plenty of barristers who fit the traditional mould, the modern Bar has practitioners from many cultures and backgrounds. Dedication and ability are more important than having gone to the right school.

A recent survey of barristers conducted by the Bar Council found that 37% of those who responded were women – this number soared to 57% for respondents under 30. Monitoring of those who hold a Barrister's practice certificate showed that about 8.6% of all practising barristers in 2009/10 were categorised as being from a "black or ethnic minority" background. "Only" 24% of trainee barristers from the same period went to Oxford or Cambridge.

Pros and Cons of Life as a Barrister

Life for most self-employed barristers is rarely as glamorous as imagined – especially in the early years of practice. Travelling to local courts, whilst carrying heavy legal books and documents, can be exhausting. It is rare for a barrister to have a full weekend free from work and last-minute cases may take the whole night to prepare. There is no paid holiday, no sick pay and no chance of suing if someone decides not to pay your fee. In addition rent must be paid to Chambers and a percentage of all income goes to the clerks who manage your caseload.

Conversely, the work can be varied, challenging and rewarding – both intellectually and financially (depending on the type of law involved). Self-employed barristers are their own boss and can decide when and how they work. There are now rules in place to protect a woman's right to return to work after having a child and many barristers work to a much older age than those employed elsewhere.

Academic Requirements

Most prospective barristers must first complete an undergraduate degree, which need not be in law. Those with a non-law degree must then complete a one-year conversion course – the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). (Some institutions offer a longer, part-time GDL course.) This intensive course teaches non-law graduates the core legal topics they will need to continue towards a legal career. Some mature applicants without a university degree, but who have relevant vocational experience, may take the GDL to satisfy the academic requirements.

The Professional Qualification for Barristers

Following successful completion of an undergraduate degree and/or the GDL prospective barristers undertake a further year of postgraduate study on the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC). This was previously known as the Bar Vocational Course (BVC).

The BPTC provides training in the skills barristers need – including advocacy, negotiation and case management skills. The course also includes intensive cramming on civil and criminal procedural rules. The BPTC may be taught by both academics and professional lawyers. The BPTC is likely to be examined by a combination of coursework, written exams and oral assessments.

The Training Stage – Pupillage

The final step in qualifying as a barrister is the training stage known as pupillage. This usually lasts one year and is divided into two six-month periods. The first six months is "non-practising" and largely involves watching senior barristers at court. Written work and legal research is also undertaken. In the second six months the pupil barrister should, at last, begin to conduct their own cases. Throughout pupillage, trainee barristers should also undertake ongoing training and assessment.

During pupillage, trainee barristers are appointed a pupil supervisor who imparts their knowledge and experience to their "pupil" and is also the first port of call for any questions or concerns the pupil may have. A trainee barrister is likely to have at least two different pupil supervisors during their pupillage.

Pupillage is undertaken at an "authorised pupillage training organisation". Traditionally this would have been in chambers but it may now take place at other organisations including solicitor's firms and government legal departments. Upon successful completion of pupillage barristers receive a full practice certificate entitling them to conduct cases in any court in England or Wales. They may then seek a place as a self-employed barrister in chambers, known as tenancy, or a job as an employed barrister.

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