Roles in law: Barrister Q&A
Ally, thanks so much for your time to offer an insight into the work you do! The world of barristers so often seems a Hogwartseque world of bundles, silks and oration, fashioned (at least in my mind!) from media, The Secret Barrister and limited work experience in courtrooms. I’m intrigued to find out more about the work you do and what life looks like at the bar.
Ally, could you tell us a little about what you do and where?
I’m a self-employed barrister and a member of One Crown Office Row chambers in London. I work in civil litigation, specialising in public law and human rights, employment and equality law, and healthcare law/clinical negligence. I also do a bit of environmental law. So quite a diverse practice!
How did you decide to work in civil litigation?
Well, from a young age I always liked arguing about things! I did a lot of debating and public speaking at school. When I went to university to study law I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a lawyer, but I think if I did pursue that vocation I had always envisaged being the kind of lawyer that would actually argue about cases in court. As I learned more about the legal system, I decided pretty quickly that I did enjoy law and wanted to be a lawyer, and that I would much prefer being a barrister as it involved a lot of thinking about and arguing about the actual law. I thought about the criminal Bar, because that’s what most people think of when they imagine barristers, but realised that I found areas of civil law more interesting and also sadly that I probably couldn’t afford to start out as a junior criminal barrister as the pay was so low.
What is the process to become a barrister – do you have to study law?
No, not at all. I did, but a significant minority of my fellow barristers did a degree in something else first and many did a different career first before coming to the Bar. There are three parts to the process – academic, vocational and work-based. In terms of the academic part, you have at least a 2:2 degree in something, and then (if it’s not in law) do the 1-year law conversion course, the GDL. You then do a vocational course. This keeps having its name changed – it was called the BVC when I did it, then more recently the BPTC and now the Bar Practice Course. You also join one of the four Inns of Court. They’re four very old institutions with beautiful buildings in central London which have the ability to ‘call’ someone to the Bar of England and Wales. Originally they were like colleges, but over time the formal education part of their role has been taken on by other providers (although they still do continuing professional development once you’re qualified). They’re probably the most Hogwartsesque part of the process. You have to complete a certain number of ‘qualifying sessions’ at your Inn, and though these can be lectures or seminars, they can also be formal dinners in the Inn’s grand dining hall! Finally, you do the work-based part, which is called pupillage. This takes 12 months and is a bit like the traineeship to become a solicitor – you spend 6 months shadowing a senior barrister and helping them with their work, then a second 6 months continuing to do that but also starting to do your own advocacy in court on small, simple cases.
What does being a barrister involve day-to-day?
Well, one of the fun things about the Bar is that there isn’t really a ‘normal’ day! Essentially there are four things barristers do: (i) oral advocacy in court; (ii) advising in conference; (iii) advising in writing; (iv) drafting pleading and other formal court documents. We also act for clients in ADR, like arbitration, mediation or round-table settlement meetings. The balance of these four elements differs quite a bit depending on what area of law you work in. Criminal and Family barristers are usually in court every day. Civil barristers have more a mix with some days in chambers and other days in court, but there’s a real range depending on field of law, from commercial or chancery where almost all your time is spent in chambers, to personal injury where there’s a lot more court work. I think for me the average is probably about 2 days in court a week, but it varies a lot.
What is the process of going through a matter or case? At what stage do you contribute, who else is involved in a case, what’s your contribution and how long does work last from when you first receive it to completion?
It totally depends on the case. We don’t generally have the overall conduct of cases, but are instructed by a solicitor on behalf of the client. Traditionally, a barrister is briefed at various stages of litigation to do discrete tasks. That could be to give initial advice on prospects of success, or to draft pleadings, or to attend a preliminary hearing, or to conduct a full trial or appeal. But things are becoming more and more fluid. Now a barrister can get authorised to conduct work on a ‘direct access’ basis, where the lay client retains overall conduct of their claim and there is no solicitor involved. That can mean a lot more ongoing correspondence and advice throughout the case. Even when a solicitor is involved, generally we tend to work much more as a team these days than in the traditional model, so we will often advise on strategy or tactics on an ongoing basis by phone or email, as well as doing more ‘set-piece’ bits of work on the case.
What are the highlights of your job?
I’d say variety and intellectual interest. No two days are the same. In the past week, for instance, I’ve spent three days in Manchester at the hearings of a public inquiry into the terrorist attack in 2017, a day working at home on an internal review of an organisation’s employment practices, and a day on video calls advising on a clinical negligence dispute and an immigration appeal. I also have to think pretty hard about a lot of complicated things, which can be tiring or stressful, but is rarely dull. There’s also a real thrill to getting a client the result you think is just and fair, especially if it was a struggle to achieve it or if they otherwise would have had no-one to speak up for them.
What about some of the challenges of your job?
Unpredictability is the main one, both in terms of time and money. It’s not a job to do if you like routine! My income is very ‘lumpy’ – some months I’ll earn almost nothing, but other months far more. And no two weeks look the same in terms of what you’re doing, or where you’re doing it. Especially in my early years at the Bar I would be traipsing around to courts and tribunals all over the country, spending a lot of hours on the train. So in order to thrive as a barrister you need to have a combination of good time management/administration, but also ability to cope with chaos or last-minute changes, and you have to be fairly savvy about organising your finances.
In your experience, what are the main distinctions between being a solicitor and barrister?
When I was first thinking of the Bar I had it explained to me as being like the difference in the world of medicine between a general practitioner and a hospital consultant. Both are highly-skilled professionals, but they have a different role or focus. Solicitors are a bit like GPs, in that they’re usually the first port of call for someone looking for help with a legal problem, in the way that you normally go to the GP first if you have a medical issue, and often they have a long-term ongoing relationship with the patient/client. Barristers are like consultants, in that we have the more specialist skill-set or expertise in advocacy or a particular area of law, and in the same way a GP refers a patient to the specialist physician or surgeon, so the solicitor refers a client to a barrister to help with a specific problem. The analogy isn’t perfect, because there are many solicitors who are highly specialist too, but it still captures the basic idea I think.
I get the impression that work as a barrister is often more independent than work as a solicitor – to what extent is that accurate?
Yes, this is one of the key differences. Although there are an increasing number of employed barristers who work in law firms or companies or for the Government, most are still self-employed who group together in chambers to share expenses, but basically do our own thing. That means our professional lives are very different to solicitors. Once you’ve finished pupillage, you don’t have a boss or supervisor. That doesn’t mean you’re completely on your own. For instance, my chambers has a very friendly atmosphere where we share rooms and people (at least in pre-COVID times!) are constantly popping in to see each other to sense-check something or ask for help. But ultimately the buck stops with you for any work you do on a case. And we very rarely work in teams. As junior barristers we are sometimes ‘led’ by a QC, and on really big cases we might work together with other barristers, but almost all the time you’re working alone. That can get lonely – you need to be happy with your own company and fairly confident about your own decisions and judgment – but it also means there’s a lot of freedom. In particular, we have a lot more scope to manage our diaries and time than solicitors. Most barristers work pretty hard, but we never have to be seen to be in the office, and you can take on other activities or roles alongside your legal work if you want. As long as you fulfil your professional commitments, you can juggle stuff around however you need to. That’s one of the things I like most about the Bar.
If I’m being completely honest Ally (and a note to readers – I do know Ally, I’m not just being super cheeky!), my experience in courtrooms has been pretty dull… it often seems like lots of waiting around to get in, and a frustrating mixture of script-learned monologues and improvisation (sometimes by members of the public who probably should have found someone else to represent them). I imagine your experience and perceptions are very different! What’s your experience of being in court?
Ha! I’m sorry that’s your experience. To be fair, some of it pretty representative. Although I love my job and find it interesting most of time, there are certainly boring moments and sitting around waiting for court to start is definitely one of them! Plus, you’re quite right that litigants-in-person (people trying to represent themselves in court) are often a bit of a nightmare. More generally, the impression you get from films and TV shows that every trial is full of dramatic ‘gotcha’ moments when a witness suddenly breaks down and confesses to an appalling crime, or beautiful speeches full of high rhetoric, isn’t really what it’s like in real life. But I have had my fair share of pretty exciting moments in court, when we’re grappling with a really serious breach of human rights, or something completely unexpected turns up in evidence. There’s a reason why you’ll almost never hear a barrister say that a piece of litigation has more than 70% prospects of succeeding; it’s because the longer you go on in this job the more you realise anything can happen in court! I’ve had documents suddenly produced in the course of a trial which changed the whole course of a case, witnesses break down and cry, witness alter their story entirely or admit to lying. You see all sorts!
Thanks very much for all of the above Ally, one final question: What are your top tips and advice for any students thinking about life at the bar?
Check out if you’re really suited to the Bar by doing a few minipupillages (work experience placements) at a range of different chambers before you embark on the long and expensive process of training. It’s a great job but it’s definitely not for everyone. If you do decide it’s for you, don’t give up! Getting pupillage in particular is ludicrously competitive at the moment, but if it’s what you want to do keep plugging away and making applications. Finally, there’s no disadvantage to coming to the Bar a bit later, and doing something else first. In fact, I think it’s almost certainly an advantage to do some postgraduate study, or to work as a paralegal or solicitor, or to work in an entirely different field, before becoming a barrister. Life experience is really helpful in this job, and it will probably increase your chances of successfully making a go of the Bar.