What Barristers Do
The legal profession is quite diverse, with many career opportunities for those interested in the justice system. Whilst the terms “lawyer” and “attorney” are often used interchangeably, and generally correctly so, the tiles of “barrister” and “solicitor” are also intermixed, even though these refer to specific types of lawyers in common law jurisdictions, such as the UK and Australia.
On the one hand, solicitors are lawyers who take more client-facing roles. They work with the clients and can engage in courtroom litigation, but not in open court. Barristers, on the other hand, are lawyers who can plead cases in open court, as well as appear at the Bar, but generally doesn’t engage directly with clients. Because of this, they’re often thought of more as scholars.
Barristers generally focus on a specific area, such as criminal, corporate, or family law. They often have clerks or assistants who help them with document preparation and research, but they also conduct research on their own, including examining previous cases which relate to the one at hand, as well as reading statements and reports. They meet with clients at the onset of a case, give legal advice, and may give official written legal opinions too. They strategize and create legal arguments, negotiate settlements outside of court, and present cases to a judge and jury when settling is not best for the client or is not an option.
Who would enjoy a career in Litigation?
People who are naturally analytical and logical do best in the field. It’s also important to have leadership skills, as well as excellent command of the English language, both in writing and orally. Confidence and the ability to negotiate effectively are essential traits too. Because barristers manage many cases at the same time, they also have to be well-organized and operate well under stress as well. Lastly, being committed to lifelong learning is essential. For more junior lawyers who are less interested in a partner track and more excited by the courtroom and running their own business, a barrister career path may be a good fit.
Who mightn't like the career?
Becoming a barrister is a massive and expensive undertaking, so it’s not ideal for someone who hasn’t spent time getting to know the profession first and isn’t wholly committed to sticking with it past the junior years. Those who follow the path generally graduate from a top university and then spend immense amounts of time training. Many hope that following pupillage, the work and time demands lessen, but it’s not generally until an individual reaches the senior levels with a firm that any relief is felt. While the title carries prestige, the work is also less glamourous than many expect, so it’s worthwhile to speak to people in the profession and network with experienced barristers before starting down the path. The career can also be incredibly isolating, with Barristers working very much on their own despite being part of a wider floor of other practitioners.
Admittance into an accredited university upon completion of entry exams is the first step in entering law. Quality institutions have rigorous requirements and competition for positions is fierce. A law degree usually is required in order to practice at any level above the rank of intern or summer associate, though offerings such as the Graduate Diploma of Law (GDL) or the Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice (GDLP), respectively, are available, which allow people with virtually any undergraduate degree to move into law.
Each jurisdiction has further requirements, including a bar exam and licensure process. For example, in Australia, anyone who is qualified to work as a lawyer may work as a barrister. However, the UK requires a year-long vocational stage or Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), as well as a year-long pupillage, which involves learning and working for an organization approved by the Bar Standards Board or in barristers’ chambers. For more information related to the UK, see the Pupillage Gateway.
Whilst getting into a BPTC requires strong academic performance, finding a pupillage or readership is even more difficult. The Bar Standards Board reports that in any given year, approximately 1,400 students complete the BPTC, and fewer than 500 pupillages exist.
Moreover, those who do not find a position initially are permitted to keep trying for as much as five years following their BPTC, which means roughly 3,000 students could be competing for pupillages each year. Due to the immense competition, it’s important to ensure written applications are polished and stand out from others. Candidates should also be poised, professional, and have well-rehearsed responses for in-person interviews.
Networking and building relationships with barristers can also play a major role in getting one’s foot in the door for these coveted roles.
- Health Warning for prospective Bar Professional Training Course students (UK)
- Your career as a barrister (Bar Council PDF) (UK)
- How to prepare for a pupillage interview (UK)
- If you want to practice as a Barrister in Australia
- Challenges in the world of a junior barrister: accommodation (AU)
Moving into Litigation from another career
It can be difficult to transition into law, simply because one must pass legal exams and participate in additional coursework. Many choose to work as a solicitor before becoming a barrister and the financial entry requirements can often mean junior lawyers have no choice but to become a solicitor at first instance. At the same time, some big firms appreciate diversity and take pride in amassing a staff with unique non-legal backgrounds, as these individuals are better prepared to understand the needs of each sector that is being represented by the firm.
- University Professor (any subject, especially law)
- Government (diplomat, military, politician)
Pupillage / Readership
Role: During pupillage or readership, intended barristers shadow experienced barristers. It’s much like an apprenticeship, in which the budding professional learns more about what the profession is like and handles tasks to support the efforts of barristers. Most often, work involves research and document preparation, akin to what a barrister’s clerk might do, but the duties will vary based on placement.
Role: When professionals complete pupilage or meet requirements set forth in other jurisdictions, they’re generally referred to as barristers, though to be more specific, they’re junior barristers, and the permanent position is referred to as tenancy or accommodation.
Barristers are free to work independently, and most do, though they often have solicitors who pitch them cases and clerks who assist with case management. In the early years of work as a junior barrister, professionals complete work similar to that involved in pupilage or along the lines of what a barrister’s clerk might do. However, as they gain experience in chambers, the complexity of the cases they’re entrusted with increases.
Senior Counsel / Queen’s Counsel
Role: “Taking silk,” as it’s called, is a high honor, as only 100 or so barristers a granted the title each year. Only high-performing barristers who have proven their ability and skill are considered. Although it doesn’t change the types of duties one completes, it does enable individuals to take on high-profile and complex cases, as well as command higher fees for their services.
More prestigious barristers may travel to appear in court or advise clients, but it’s otherwise uncommon to travel for work. Relocation is also uncommon, due to the extensive licensing process and the effort put into building a reputation.
Salary data is difficult to come by, as many barristers practice solo and aren’t prone to discussing their income. However, some barristers can earn more than six figures in a single case.
Pupilage: Minimum salary during pupillage is £12,000, though some chambers pay more.
Barrister: UK barristers earn an average of ₤51,000 annually, according to PayScale. Newcomers with less than five years of experience have base salaries of about ₤40,290, whereas those with 20+ years report salaries of ₤64,260. In Australia, the average base pay is AU$92,000, with newcomers earning AU$66,240 on average and experienced barristers making in excess of AU$200,000. It’s also worth noting that those in different areas of law may earn more. When Chambers Student conducted unofficial salary polls, it was noted that specific sectors, such as commercial and chancery, earned double what others might.
Queen’s Counsel: Those who have taken silk are arguably the most tight-lipped about their salaries and their pay varies greatly. It’s generally accepted that six-figures is the minimum, whilst others surpass one million annually.
Bonuses and profit sharing are not always part of a barrister’s total pay, but when they are, thy can reach upwards of ₤60,000 in the UK and more than AU$200,000 in Australia.
Why Barristers move on
The burnout rate is extremely high for junior barristers, especially those in their early years. A lot of the challenges are winning work and sustaining the revenue required to continue as a barrister. Moreover, even reaching a level where independent practice is possible due to the rigid requirements. Those who decide work as a barrister is not ideal often leave law altogether, whilst those who do enjoy it continue on to Queen’s Council and judgeship. For more information, see “Why I left my dream barrister job at Matrix Chambers to become a personal trainer,” “Five lessons I've learned as an aspiring barrister,” and “Thrillable Hours: Career Change, Fear, and Life after Law.”