The UK Bar offers one of the most rewarding, exciting, and challenging careers available. From a closing speech in a silent courtroom to negotiating new contract terms or cross-examining a witness, no two days are the same. The varied nature of barrister work is one of its biggest draws for many.
A career at the Bar in the UK is focused on solving problems and resolving disputes. If you relish winning a debate, reaching logical and reasoned conclusions and finding solutions to complex issues, then you could thrive at the Bar.
The Bar is a very sociable and close-knit community. Many barristers value the camaraderie of chambers, the social events run by the Inns of Court and the friendships they form amid shared interests and challenges. This sense of collegiality (to some extent) makes up for the fact that barristers generally work more independently than solicitors within law firms.
It can take up to five years to become a fully qualified barrister if you take the ‘traditional route’ – including three years to complete a qualifying law degree at university, one year to complete a bar course and a one-year pupillage. If you have a degree in a non-law subject and you are pursuing a law conversion course, it will take up to six years to become a barrister.
There are three main requirements to becoming a barrister:
To complete the academic component of becoming a barrister in England and Wales, you will need to be a graduate with at least a 2:2 grade in an undergraduate degree (though the vast majority of successful candidates will achieve a strong 2:1 or above).
If your degree isn’t a qualifying one, or you studied any subject other than law, you’ll need to complete a conversion course (often known as the GDL but now officially referred to more often as the PGDL). A range of law schools offer these conversion courses, and their programs are often slightly different.
Your academic component must cover the seven foundations of legal knowledge and the skills associated with graduate legal work, such as legal research.
The vocational component of becoming a barrister in the UK covers a series of subjects to ensure that you obtain the specialist skills, knowledge of procedure and evidence, attitudes and competence needed to prepare you for the responsibilities associated with being a barrister. You will need to complete postgraduate Bar Training (formerly the BPTC, now usually referred to as the BPC) as part of your vocational training.
Before you can start the vocational component of qualifying as a barrister, you will need to join one of the four Inns of Court, which are:
You need to pass the BPC before you can study the vocational component of bar training. This is certainly a challenge, but can be passed comfortably with rigorous preparation.
All four Inns offer a similar series of services, including scholarships for students on the GDL course and students taking the vocational component of training. However, they also have slight differences that are worth researching in more detail.
If you have passed the BCAT (the aptitude test required for admission onto the BPC), you can directly apply for membership with your chosen Inn by submitting an Admission Declaration.
Once you are a member of an Inn, you will need to attend a series of qualifying sessions, which are designed to develop your academic and vocational training. Qualifying sessions can include advocacy courses, dinners, lectures, moots and residential weekends and will cover one or more of the following topics:
Upon successful completion of the vocational component of becoming a barrister, you will be ‘called to the Bar’ by your Inn. You will need to be called to the Bar to complete the pupillage or work-based learning component of your training.
Your academic qualification boxes are ticked by this point. In order to practise as a barrister, you now need to undertake a period of work-based practical training while supervised by an experienced barrister. This is known as a pupillage.
You can apply for a pupillage in the final year of a law degree or conversion course. The application process varies depending on how the chambers you apply to accept applications. However, they are all known to be extremely competitive (often expecting students to achieve 1st class degrees, and traditionally, but not exclusively, favouring highly-ranked universities). Mini-pupillages are a good place to start first.
Most chambers accept applications via the Bar Council’s online application system – The Pupillage Gateway – while others let you apply for a pupillage directly. It’s important to research the chambers or organisation that you wish to do your pupillage with, so that you are aware of all the requirements and deadlines (they will usually vary between organisations).
You can commence pupillage up to five years after completing the vocational component of your training. A pupillage is split into two parts: a non-practising period of six months – the ‘first six’ – and then a practising period of six months – the ‘second six’. During the second six you will be eligible to oversee cases on your own, albeit under close supervision.
Once you have completed your pupillage, you may be considered for tenancy. This is roughly equivalent to the point in a solicitor’s career where, after completing a training contract, they are considered for a permanent position (known as NQ, or newly qualified, associate) at their firm.
However, competition for tenancy is strong. Several chambers take on several pupils, but only retain one tenant. If you do not gain tenancy at the chambers where you completed your pupillage, you can apply for a ‘third six’ at another set of chambers.
This could allow you to gain exposure to other types of work, and will give you another opportunity to apply for training.
To understand the role and responsibilities of a barrister, legal work experience is an effective (if not crucial) way to enhance your training. You can gain work experience by trying the following:
Court visits allow you to experience first-hand what a barrister does and how they represent their clients in Court. Observing hearings in Courts of different levels will provide a range of experience. Magistrates’ Courts and Crown Courts are great places to start.
Contact your local Courts to find out what opportunities are available. Many hearings are public proceedings, so it will be free for you to sit in the public gallery and watch. This will give you the chance to see how a barrister addresses legal facts, and how they present their arguments in Court.
Judge marshalling allows you to shadow a judge in their daily practices. It offers a great opportunity to see how the English Legal System operates on a day-to-day basis.
Sitting on the panel with a judge in Court will give you a first-hand opportunity to hear exactly how a barrister presents their case, argument or application to a judge. For example, you may be able to hear bail applications and opening or closing statements for a criminal case.
In order to secure a judge marshalling placement, you can apply directly to the Inns of Court, which often offer formal marshalling schemes. Alternatively, you could try contacting the Court manager or listing officer at your local Crown Court or County Court to find out about judge marshalling opportunities.
Mooting involves participating in a mock appeal trial. It provides the opportunity to practice what you will inevitably have to do should you choose to be a barrister.
Experience in mooting will also help you to get to grips with how to research, identify and address legal issues, and how to form and structure a legal argument. You will become more familiar with how barristers are expected to address people in Court, whether it be the judge, the jury or opposing counsel.
Most universities have their own mooting societies, allowing you to get involved with practice hearings and debates with your peers. You can apply to be a part of the university mooting team. This is a great way to show future employers that you are committed to law and enthusiastic about being an advocate.
Law summer schools also provide a unique opportunity to build Bar-relevant knowledge and experience via courtroom access, mock trial cases and legal argument coaching.
There are all types of barrister, who will typically specialise in a specific area of law. For example:
If you have a particular interest in a relatively niche area of the law, it could be worth taking active steps to gain experience or knowledge in that area. For example, leading sports lawyer Nick De Marco KC often appears on a Sports Law Podcast with Blackstone Chambers – engaging with such content on a regular basis (in a similar vein to building your commercial awareness via the FT or Economist) prepares you for those all-important applications.
The profession of barristers, more commonly referred to as the Bar, is overseen by the Bar Council. The Bar Council is responsible for representing, supporting, advising and offering a variety of services to barristers in England and Wales. To find out more about the work of the Bar Council, take a look at our ‘About the Bar Council’ page.
The Bar Standards Board is responsible for monitoring and regulating both the training and conduct of barristers as well as dealing with conduct-related complaints.
In short, the route to become a barrister is a challenging but rewarding one. You’ll need to be both highly educated and highly skilled, and securing relevant work experience (through schemes such as mini pupillages) is essential for success. You also have many decisions to make – for example which Inn of Court, law school (for BPTC training) or specialist area of law suits you best.
The end goal is also highly rewarding – a career as a barrister allows for greater independence than solicitors, salaries far above national averages, and a genuinely deep engagement with complex areas of the law. If this sounds like something that appeals to you, it is a path well worth considering.
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