If you’ve ever watched a courtroom drama on TV, you’ve probably also wondered what’s involved in becoming a barrister. Recognised for their impressive legal arguments (and extravagant wigs) in the courtroom, being a barrister looks exciting, but there’s a lot more to the job than meets the eye. As well as attending court, barristers spend a lot of time researching cases, reading legal documents and interacting with other legal professionals.
Barrister vs solicitor
So what is a barrister and how does the role differ from a solicitor? The term ‘lawyer’ applies to both, but aside from the fact that the barrister wears a distinctive uniform, much of the barrister’s time is spent defending people in court, while a solicitor performs legal duties outside of the courtroom.
The solicitor’s role is primarily desk-based, while barristers work in court (typically high courts) acting as advocates in legal hearing, advising clients and pleading on their behalf. It’s the solicitor’s job to brief the barrister on all the details of a particular case in order for them to review the evidence and prepare the argument. Most barristers are self-employed and work in barrister chambers shared with other barristers, in order to share resources and keep costs down. However, they can also be employed in-house by large organisations usually operating in finance or law.
Training to be a barrister-at-law
Training for both solicitors and barristers begins in the same way. They either complete an undergraduate course in law, or take a degree, followed by the one-year Common Professional Exam or a post-graduate diploma in law. The difference with barrister training is that, while a would-be solicitor then follows a one-year Legal Practice Course, followed by a two-year legal training contract, the barrister takes a one-year Bar Professional Training Course.
They are then ‘called to the bar’ at one of four Inns of Court where they spend a year shadowing a senior barrister and performing real-life court work. When that’s complete, they can then join a chamber as a self-employed barrister-at-law. The way solicitors qualify in the UK is set to change in 2021 with the introduction of a new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE).
A highly competitive career path
To be accepted onto an undergraduate course in law, there are no essential pre-requisites at A-level, but subjects that involve research, analysis and communication, are considered useful. Competition for law courses at university is fierce, so to be accepted you will need high grades (AAA or AAB). You may also need to take the National Admission Test for Law (LNAT), to test your suitability for the profession.
Once you’ve completed your degree, competition to get on a pupillage or training contract is equally tough. Even those with a 2:1 will struggle to secure a place. Those with lower grades often look for experience with high street solicitors or through pro bono work before applying to bolster their chances of securing training place.
If you are successful, there are good barrister jobs out there for the best candidates. Salaries can vary hugely depending upon specialist skills, experience and track record. Juniors can earn under £20,000 a year while the most successful can earn millions.
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