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You are here:   Ultimate Law Guide > Careers Advice > Becoming a Barrister

Becoming a Barrister


What do Barristers do?

Barristers are specialist legal advisers and advocates representing their clients in court or a tribunal. Barristers specialise in advocacy - the verbal presentation of legal arguments of your client's case in court or in a tribunal. If you are interested in written and oral advocacy a career at the practicing bar may be for you! 

Advocacy remains the preserve of the Bar. However, you need to be aware that as a barrister the amount of advocacy you undertake will depend on the area of law in which you specialise. For example, barristers specialising in criminal and family law are 'advocacy heavy' and you will be likely to spend a great deal of time in court, in contrast to commercial and chancery, where civil practitioners will probably attend court less often, especially as civil procedure rules encourage the use of alternative ways of resolving disputes. 

Many would-be barristers are attracted to the prospect of having a job that involves standing up, thinking on your feet, speaking in public and arguing cases in a formal setting. Many aspiring barristers are also interested in the intellectual vigour of practising at the bar; enjoy communicating, enjoy language and thinking analytically. Barristers also draft court documents, such as Orders that are lodged at court. The reward is doing an extremely challenging job, but a job in which you will be constantly learning. 

Barristers appear in all courts including the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords. For the purposes of administration and organisation of the court system, England and Wales is divided into six circuits: South Eastern, Midland, Northern, Northern Eastern, Western and Wales and Chester. Barristers in chambers on each of these circuits come together to form the Circuit, headed by a senior barrister as their Circuit Leader. In addition, Circuits provide geographically based support and training functions for practising barristers. 

Barristers receive most of their instructions from a solicitor. Although in certain circumstances, barristers can be instructed directly by the client. When not appearing and advocating in court, barristers work and reside in office buildings known as sets of chambers, where they prepare their cases in anticipation of matters being litigated. The legal arguments are known as their submissions and skeleton arguments. Barristers offering services need to be specialists in a particular area or industry so that they can be consulted by solicitors for a second legal opinion on more complex / esoteric points, which is why many barristers often undertake A Masters in Law (LLM). 

There are approximately 15,000 barristers in England and Wales. Most barristers (80%) are self-employed (independent) and share their office premises at chambers. However, about 3,000 barristers (20%) are employed in organisations i.e employed practice, working in a range of places including the Government Legal Service, the Crown Prosecution Service, industry, commerce and the armed forces. The type of work undertaken is based on the type of employer they work for, but will require the same ability to offer specialist legal advice and skilful advocacy. There are many career opportunities as organisations place increasing value placed upon the skills of barristers, particularly by Government and Financial Services institutions, which reflects the recent trend of a growing number of barristers in employment.    

The Bar Council and the Bar Standards Board

Barristers are regulated by a professional body known as the Bar Council. The Bar Council has both representational and regulatory roles. The Council's representative work includes; the administration of justice, the EU, negotiations on fees, relations with Government, legal professions in other countries and other professional organizations with common interests. The Bar Standards Board is responsible for carrying out the regulatory duties of the Council, and provides a framework for formulating appropriate rules of professional conduct and practice and ensuring compliance with these rules.   

Becoming a barrister

After you have successfully completed the academic stage, the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), and attended the mandatory twelve qualifying sessions at your Inn. The Inns of Court will provide the means by which you become a barrister, known as your "Call to the Bar" or "Call". However, your Call to the Bar does not entitle you to practice as a barrister. In order to practise as a barrister, you must have completed a pupillage at either the self-employed or employed bar and hold a practicing certificate. 

Applying for a Pupillage

All pupilage vacancies are displayed on the pupillage website www.pupillage.com; where you will find "OLPAS" pupillages and "non-OLPAS" pupillages. "OLPAS" (the Online Pupillage Application System) is an online pupillage recruitment system designed to make the process of searching for a pupillage much easier. Applicants complete one application from and can submit up to 12 applications to participating OLPAS chambers per recruitment year. All applications must be submitted by a certain date, and all offers are communicated through the online system at set dates. 

Around two thirds of pupillage providers recruit through OLPAS. Others chambers recruit using their own procedures, which will usually require a covering letter, with a curriculum vitae or application form and then a couple of rounds of interview selection. The recruitment timetable states no offers can be made from 1 May to 31 July; no offers can be made before 31 July in the applicant's penultimate undergraduate year and all pupillage offers must be open for at least 14 days. 

Before making your applications, carefully research the chambers you wish to work at, the areas of practice, their pupillage selection process, the quality of the training offered and their recruitment policies and procedures. Attend the National Pupillage Fair, (usually held in March each year) to help you gain a better understanding of the different sets of chambers. If you are determined to pursue a career at the Bar, our message to you is:

  1. Realistically assess your prospects of success
  2. Gain a selection of mini-pupillages and work experience at chambers,
  3. Thoroughly research the opportunities in the market,
  4. Carefully select which chambers are right for you to spend your career.
  5. Take your time over each application to chambers; marketing your skills and mini-pupillage experiences effectively on your applications will help you to stand out from the crowd and submit the best application you possibly can.
  6. Check your application before submitting it. Is your application up to the standard required of a future leading counsel? As this will be the benchmark and standards expected of successful applicants.

A career as a barrister can be very satisfying but you should be aware before you start that it is a very competitive market to get into, and there are a number of factors that you must also take into account when deciding whether to go down the route of becoming a barrister. Competition is intense as there are many more applicants than pupillages available: there were 2,540 applications in 2008-09, competing for 550 pupillages. Recently, there has been a sharp decline in the number of available pupillages due to the introduction of compulsory funding, money for publicly funded work continues to be an issue and, since 2000, it has been easier for solicitors to gain higher rights of audience, allowing them to appear in court to represent their clients as solicitor advocates.

Many students with excellent degrees and BPTC results are unsuccessful in their search for a pupillage at their first attempt. You should be prepared for the possibility that you may need to perservere wholeheartedly and possibly re-apply for pupillage during the following season. There is no easy answer to securing a pupillage - other than to keep persisting and continue to believe in yourself. If you remained convinced that life practising as a barrister is really for you, you will need a great deal of tenacity and commitment in terms of the time and effort you invest in pursuit of securing a pupillage.  


Pupillage is a one-year period of in-service training, divided between the first "non-practising six", and the second "practising six". The first six generally consists of shadowing an experienced barrister (your pupil supervisor) and other barristers from chambers. You pupil supervisor is responsible for organising training, supervising progress, allocating work and assessing performance. Pupillage is renowned for being extremely demanding and challenging. You will be expected to undertake legal research, draft opinions and legal submissions, read your pupil supervisor's paperwork, note-taking and observe him or her in court and during conferences and meetings. 

As long as you have fulfilled the requirements and learning criteria expected of the first six, with your pupil supervisor's permission you will be able to complete the second "practising six", when you are entitled to practise as a barrister and exercise rights of audience under supervision (although in some specialist chambers, particularly commercial or chancery sets you will be unlikely to do any of your own cases during this time). The transition to the second six is significant and can be daunting because, this is where you begin carving out your own reputation as a legal advocate. Depending on your area of practice, you could have your own caseload, and represent clients at court, where you are responsible for winning or losing their cases. 

Pupillage can be undertaken in chambers or in another organisation approved by the Bar Council. Chambers provide the setting from which most independent self-employed barristers practice. The majority of barristers work as self-employed practitioners, undertaking work that has been referred to them by a solicitor. Self-employed barristers usually group together to form a set of chambers, in which members will share office accommodation and overheads. Every chamber has an experienced barrister or barristers at its helm; a number of members of varying seniority and a barrister's clerk who is essentially responsible for the administrative work in the chambers and facilitates the smooth running and efficiency throughout the day-to day practice. Clerks manage barristers' diaries, arrange and collect fees and build relationships with clients. 

Permanent members of chambers are called tenants and temporary or probationary members who completed pupilage are often known as "squatters". There are various other forms of external training and work experience, such as shadowing a judge or working with an EU lawyer, a pro bono clinic or Free representation Unit, working at a law firm, which can all count towards your pupilage requirements providing you have received prior approval from the Bar Standard Board. In addition, the Bar Council requires all pupils to attend advocacy training and a practice management course. This course offers practical help with managing a practise, including advice on financial issues. 

Show me the money

All pupillages must now be funded with a minimum level by pupilage providers. The first six months must be funded by an award of £5,000. In the second six months the pupillage provider can either pay a minimum of £5,000 or guarantee receipts for the same amount, paid in monthly instalments. From our experience most chambers award their pupils significantly higher than the minimum entitlement. 


Even a successful pupillage with consistent outstanding appraisals will be no guarantee of a tenancy. If you are really determined to make it as a barrister in self-employed practice you may have to consider spending an additional period of training - squatting and remain in chambers on a temporary basis, until you can find a tenancy.
Life as a junior tenant

Your experience as a junior tenant will depend on your area of practice and your set of chambers. Sometimes junior tenants are led by their seniors (ie they assist them in large, important cases) but generally they are responsible for their own cases and clients. 

Junior tenants are self-employed, and the flow of work can often be sporadic and the hours of work irregular. You may be given very little notice of court / tribunal appearances. Friends who are barristers often inform us that their instructions / briefs can arrive by fax or e-mail late in the evening for a case to be heard hundreds of miles away the next morning. However, what you lose in terms of social life will be compensated for by the increased volume of work that you will receive, which all go towards building a reputation for yourself in the legal profession. 

Over one-third of practising barristers are based outside London, although some work in chambers that are associated with London chambers.