This is part two of my summation of work at the bar. In my previous article, you will have read about some of the intriguing and wonderful practitioners who call the bar their lives. It was vital to set the scene in my last article as, ultimately, I am hoping what is written across this exposé influences, enlightens or at least humours you!
In this article, I will discuss who should become a barrister and why. After spending time with characters such as Tony Cornberg (the new-fashioned gentleman), Julie Clemitson (the methodical mistress) and Chris McKee (the promising pupil), it has become apparent to me that the profession is filled with a variety of personalities. Therefore, if you are considering a career at the bar, you should not plan to alter your persona in order to fit some ideal perception you have of barristers. However, there is one quality that all of the barristers I have come into contact with share, which I will discuss at a later point in this article.
You are more than likely reading these articles in order to gain some additional insight that will support your move toward joining the bar, right? To that end, I want to let you in to a few of the secrets (and several of the not-so-secrets) which should make you think. In fact, if by the end of this article you are not ready to move on to a different career option, of which there are many for those of us with law qualifications, I will have failed you.
First, you must complete education and training. This takes at least four years. I am currently completing the MLAW Incorporating BPTC, which is a four year degree. If you are going to be an outstanding advocate or have every skill going to succeed at the bar if you don’t perform on paper. We need a minimum 2:1 and this needs to be a whole lot better if you’re not an Oxbridge wonder kid. In fact, the figures from the Bar Council show that Oxbridge candidates still dominate at the bar. Needless to say, you still need to achieve brilliant things in your academic record to make it past the first screening which is where chambers will disregard any application for pupillage below a 2:1.
You enrol onto the BPTC and you join an Inn of court. My preference was the Inner Temple. While I absolutely adore the pomp and history of the bar, student membership involves not insignificant costs; the books, the membership fee to the Inn and the BCAT exam will set you back a grand. If that bit doesn’t make you gasp then you are one lucky student! In addition to the aforementioned costs, student members must then attend 12 qualifying sessions of the Inn before we can be called. This demands planning and expenditure, yet more of it, to travel (quite frequently) and stay in London.
Say you manage that. You pass the additional BCAT put in place just to drive us hopefuls up the wall too. You get the results you need and you apply everywhere. You pretend you care passionately about every single practice area because you would happily kill to get a pupillage. (I will gladly kill for mine!) You’re competing with thousands of others who did the same route as you by the way… so yes, do please make sure you volunteer doing something completely original to stand out! Everyone gets experience though so that won’t make you stand out. So far, you are academically great and you have shown initiative and determination by volunteering and running around after some pompous barrister all day only to have your name completely forgotten! (Just to point out, this was not an experience I encountered! My barristers were all very lovely, no sarcasm.) Yet, you’re still in a huge pile of applications which look identical.
Now you must cross your fingers and pray that your application is considered favourably and you are lucky enough to be offered an interview. If you are lucky at this point then you have a shot at impressing someone (finally!) with your words and your personality. For the sake of ease, I will assume here that you manage to get your hands on a pupillage. How you managed it is beyond my comprehension but well done you! Now, it gets good right?! Wrong.
Now you enter a field of practice which is either massively underpaid (such as crime) or which is massively oversubscribed to (such as corporate law) or which is massively under-utilised (such as public law). Therefore, you need to do a bit of everything to survive. If you don’t, you won’t. Universities everywhere are full of lecturers who were, for a short time, barristers. But they simply could not afford to maintain the profession or perhaps could not keep up with the 90 hour weeks and poor holidays. So in actual practice, you will have a mixture of the following; lack of work, lack of money, lack of social life, lack of family life and lack of appreciation.
In addition to this, the bar is also an emotional roller coaster ride! And this is where I tie in that common personality trait I spotted in Julie, Chris, Tony, Sue and Kathryn. You have to not only cope with the relentless highs and lows, but in fact relish them, thrive on them and be incapable of living without them. Are you put off by the vast scale of competition against you, the costs, the demands, the pressure or the moral conflicts? Will you be deterred by the unrelenting workload or the maximum four hours of sleep a night and no social life? Would you be slightly concerned, even slightly, by the hoops you need to jump through and the fact you may never even make it? If yes, then the bar is probably not for you.
Mr McKee and Miss Clemitson both revealed to me that they need the highs and the lows; that if they tried any other profession, which Julie has almost done on many occasions, they would miss the bar. The bar is not a profession. It is a way of life. It is a hard addiction that you cannot go without once you have had your first hit. So you take the hell, the trouble and the pain and you take it with a smile. An entirely different level of dedication and commitment is required to maintain a career at the bar and very few have this level. I cannot speak for you, hence the reason for the title of this second article. I have only just begun my journey, but I am already addicted!