England and Wales are divided up into six ‘circuits’ on which barristers work. These are: Midland, South Eastern, Wales & Chester, Western, North Eastern and Northern. Many people traditionally think that if you are to have a successful career at the bar you need to head for London. This is not only a misconception; it leaves aspiring barristers very ill informed. A similar misunderstanding is the theory that it is significantly easier to get a pupillage in a regional set. Competition is still fierce and most regional sets still require a minimum of 2:1 at undergraduate level. A decision of whether to apply to London or a certain region should be based largely on the field of practice and your connections to that area. You should consider your commitment and suitability to the area carefully. In his article, I will outline the benefits of practicing at the regional bar, having recently completed a mini-pupillage in Bournemouth. During this one week period, I tried to ascertain from the practitioners what they consider to be the benefits of life on the Western circuit. I will outline the five factors that they identified as making practicing in the regions preferable.
1. Possibilities of faster career progression
This will depend on the area of practice and the individual sets, but, in theory, working outside London has the potential to accelerate your career at an earlier stage. This is because there are fewer barristers to take instructions from local solicitors, allowing those who are available to take on more complex cases than their London counterparts earlier on. However, it is more difficult in regional sets to initially specialise in one area, as they tend to be a broader common law practice. This is why the area of law in which you would like to practice needs to be clear in your mind before you apply. As one barrister I was with put it:
You cannot go to a regional set saying you want to practice in one specific area that they only seldom do. You need to demonstrate commitment.
2. Cheaper living costs
In general, pupillage awards in the regions tend to be less than those in London. However, this is balanced by the cost of living, which is much lower outside of London and considerably so in the north. I have been assured that there are plenty of standard outgoings during the pupillage year and that the first year of tenancy quickly diminishes any income. Thus, your pupillage award is likely to only cover the cost of living wherever you spend the year. As a comparison, £600pcm could afford you a double room in a flat share on the outskirts of London. In Bournemouth, this could be the cost of a 1 bedroom flat much closer to chambers.
3. Community and support
The barristers I shadowed were quick to compliment Bournemouth as a place to live, with one stating that he went down there with every intention to return to London. He said he was subsequently captured by the coastal living and local community. The group was very tight knit; I suspect partly because the County Court and Crown Court are in the same building. Criminal and civil practitioners share one dining room and, as a result, everyone I met knew each other. Consequently, as a new face in the crowd, everyone was keen to ask me who I was and what stage of education I was at. Practitioners from different chambers and even solicitors’ firms gave me tips and advice for pupillage applications and for good practice thereafter. Although the chambers I was with is atypical – it operates on other circuits too – I found that every barrister I was with got on well with their clerks and knew all of the court staff.
Not only did everyone seem to know practitioners from other sets, but also everyone within chambers seemed friendly with each other. On my final day in chambers, my barrister’s room was at the top of the building. When we arrived back from Court to compile notes we decided to work in a room downstairs, where another barrister joined us. They practiced in different areas of law but it was clear they were friends rather than just work associates. This seemed quite common at court, with practitioners from different fields of work sharing stories of new developments in their area. This meant that everyone seemed to have knowledge of areas of practice other than their own as they were constantly learning from each other.
The one point that was reiterated to me most throughout the week is that one needs to show commitment to the local area of chambers. With particular reference to Bournemouth, two of the female barristers I met said they would often go for a walk at lunchtime over at the beachfront. Towns and cities across the country have a character or quirk that is unique to the area which should be a consideration when deciding where to apply. This is not to say that if you really love London you could not live there and commute. This would obviously depend on whether the regional set is within commuting distance and your ability to finance the travel and rent. However, the advice from regional sets seems to be that amid the ever-growing and fierce competition, those who stand out typically show commitment to the city, town or region in which chambers operates.
5. The circuit community and training
Many students think that a career in the regions will inevitably result in laborious travelling to and from London. This travel would be for training programmes or advocacy courses that are compulsory in the first years of practice or simply for functions at the Inns to stay connected. However, the circuits run the compulsory courses that need to be completed during pupillage and the New Practitioners programmes that need to be completed thereafter. In terms of social events, these too are often organised on circuit. This allows barristers from different chambers in the area to meet in an informal setting. In addition, there exists the opportunity to become involved in circuit positions. These include Circuit Leader, Circuit Junior, or in the Northern Circuit, a position on the Executive Committee to represent your city.
The regional bar seems to have potential for a rewarding career. This is not to suggest that people should not consider applying for pupillage in London but just to outline that other places do exist. Students, especially those who are based in London, often overlook the regional bar. I would thus recommend to anyone completing a mini-pupillage at a chambers outside of London, not least to gain a sense of comparison.