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How to become a barrister or advocate

The different routes for becoming a barrister or advocate in the UK – with or without a law degree

 Female Lawyer In Court Holding Brief And Book

CONTENTS

  1. Working as a barrister or advocate

  2. How to become a barrister in England and Wales

  3. How to become a barrister in Northern Ireland

  4. How to become an advocate in Scotland

Working as a barrister or advocate

Barristers provide specific, specialist legal advice. They represent individuals and organisations before courts and tribunals, in writing or in person. In Scotland, advocates perform a similar role.

What does a barrister do?

In general, a barristers is hired by a solicitor when advocacy before a court is necessary. Their role is to argue the client's case. Usually, this is a one-off representation rather than ongoing advisory work.

Barristers normally specialise in one area of law. This may be criminal law, commercial or common law (such as divorce, housing and personal injuries). Other areas include chancery (dealing with estates and trusts) or entertainment and sports law. Barristers who specialise in criminal law can expect to spend a lot of time in court. Those working in family law are more involved in mediation. Commercial and chancery law can involve more advisory work and drafting legal documents.

What's it like to work as a barrister or advocate?

The work is demanding. Barristers require a high level of intellectual ability and must be fluent in written and spoken English. They need to think and communicate well under pressure, have stamina and emotional strength. They must marshal and analyse large amounts of information, apply the law to the facts, present legal arguments persuasively in court, and more.

Most barristers are self-employed. To share costs, they band together with other barristers in offices referred to as sets of chambers (or sometimes ‘stables’ in Scotland). Experienced barristers may become sole practitioners and set up their own chambers. Some barristers work for government departments, or agencies such as the Crown Prosecution Service. An increasing number of barristers are employed by private and third-sector organisations. This may even include firms of solicitors.

If you’re looking to become a barrister or advocate, expect to work long and unsocial hours. Court sits during the day but there’s a lot of preparation involved, including tight deadlines. Barristers conform to strict dress codes.

How much do barristers earn?

In England and Wales, trainee barristers undergoing pupillage are usually paid at least £12,000 a year. Most chambers will pay above this, even up to £65,000 depending on the area of specialisation.

Incomes for qualified barristers are hugely variable. It depends on the level of experience, location and area of expertise. Incomes range from £25,000 to over £200,000. Self-employed barristers must cover the cost of their chambers, insurance, professional fees and work-related expenses.

Barristers employed in the Crown Prosecution Service earn around £57,000 per year.

Becoming a barrister in the UK

If you’re considering a legal career as a barrister, or advocate in Scotland, a good degree is vital. It can be in Law or a different subject, followed by a Law conversion course or graduate Law degree. After the degree, specific vocational qualifications and in-work training is required to practise as a barrister or advocate.

The in-work training needed to qualify is highly competitive. Gain as much information as possible before considering this route. Try to get relevant experience such as working for a law firm, doing a mini-pupillage or talking to those who are recently qualified.

The route to qualifying as a barrister or advocate differs for each legal system in the UK.

How to become a barrister in England and Wales

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) regulates barristers in England and Wales. It decides what's required to qualify as a barrister and practise.

As a student, you need to join one of the four Inns of Court in London. These historic societies are responsible for 'calling' student barristers to the Bar. They also offer educational and financial support including grants and scholarships, but competition for these is fierce. Membership is for life, so choosing which Inn to join is an important decision. Each of the four (Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn, Inner Temple and Middle Temple) has its own character and offers professional and social networks for when you qualify.

There are three stages to qualifying as a barrister:

  • Legal knowledge: Law degree or Law conversion course
  • Vocational qualification: BPTC and new training programmes
  • In-work training: Pupillage

Legal knowledge: Law degree or Law conversion course

The usual starting point for any legal career is a degree. This could be a Law degree or a non-Law degree followed by a Law conversion course or graduate Law degree. A 'qualifying' Law degree includes all the elements of legal knowledge specified by the regulating body. Graduates of these courses can progress into any legal career.

Good grades are vital. You should choose a subject you think you’ll do well in. Although the minimum requirement is a 2:2 in a first degree, higher grades are more likely to lead to pupillage – the in-work training required to qualify as a barrister. 

Some degrees can be combined with a vocational qualification course.

Vocational qualification: BPTC and new training programmes

Next is the vocational course, which gives a grounding in the practical work of a barrister. The course covers a variety of areas so you gain the specialist skills, knowledge, attitudes and competence to become a successful barrister.

BPTC providers are accredited by the BSB. Currently, there are eight providers, with some running the course in multiple locations. The BPTC takes one year if studied full-time or two years part-time, and may be offered as part of another course such as the undergraduate Exempting Law degree or a combined LLM master’s degree. The latter opens up the possibility of postgraduate loan funding, depending on eligibility. The master’s qualification in itself may not help your chances of a pupillage.

The Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) has been the standard vocational qualification for the BSB, but it’s being replaced by new training programmes in September 2020. The new programmes are either similar to the BPTC in structure or longer courses that include more teaching or studying and lead to an academic qualification such as an LLM.

Courses must be started within five years of completing a qualifying Law degree or graduate Law conversion course. They're then followed by pupillage, the final stage to become a barrister.

The BSB urges you to think carefully before starting a vocational course to become a barrister. There's huge competition for pupillage places and, after qualifying, for a tenancy to practise. Before applying, weigh up your chances of securing a pupillage.

What do the courses cover?

BPTC courses cover the core knowledge and skills required to practise as a barrister. Legal knowledge focuses on civil and criminal litigation (legal action) including evidence and criminal sentencing, plus professional ethics. Practical activities help you develop skills such as advocacy (representing clients within courts or tribunals), writing and drafting (opinions or binding legal texts), conference and negotiation skills. There are also elective options, depending on the provider.

Assessments in legal knowledge are examined centrally by the BSB via multiple-choice exams or, for professional ethics, short-answer questions. Skills are assessed by the provider.

Entry requirements and applications

Entry requirements are a minimum 2:2 in a qualifying Law degree or in a non-Law degree followed by a Law conversion course. Provider entry requirements may be higher. Excellent English language skills are also required (both written and spoken). Applications are made online via a centralised system used by all the providers, the Bar Student Application Service (BarSAS). Applications are open from December to January, with places offered in April.

Following application but before starting the BPTC, you must also pass the Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT), a multiple-choice exam testing critical thinking. It's recommended to take the test in good time, before the start of the BPTC.

You must become a student barrister with one of the Inns of Court by 31 May of the year your BPTC is due to start (this may change).

How much does BPTC cost?

Fees range from £11,000–£19,000 for the course, varying across providers. Fees are often higher for international students.

If the BPTC is combined with an undergraduate or master’s degree, you may be eligible for a loan.

Scholarships for the BPTC may be available from one of the Inns of Court. You don’t need to be a member before applying for a scholarship. Scholarships are normally awarded on merit.
Providers also offer scholarships, which will be competitive.

In-work training: Pupillage

Pupillage is a 12-month final training stage for becoming a barrister. It’s undertaken with a registered training organisation under the supervision of an experienced barrister. The Bar Standards Board (BSB) is consulting on changes for pupillage – please see the BSB website for updates. 

On completion of a vocational course, you have five years in which to seek a pupillage. Pupillage places are advertised on Pupillage Gateway. Vacancies can be advertised up to 18 months in advance and can be scarce and highly sought after. They may be in the 'employed bar' or more commonly in self-employed practice and can focus on different areas of law. Before applying, you should decide which best suits your experience and preferences. Work experience and mini-pupillage can help with this.

The pupillage is in two parts: a non-practising six months where you shadow and work with your approved pupil supervisor, and then six months' practise where with your supervisor's permission you can supply legal services and exercise rights of audience (i.e. appear in court on behalf of a client). Since the second six months are the 'practising six', you must be called to the Bar before starting this. You attend two courses during pupillage: Advocacy Training and Practice Management, organised by the Inns of Court. A Forensic Accountancy course must be completed, either during pupillage or in the first three years of practice.

During pupillage, you apply for tenancy – this is the entitlement to continue to practice from a set of chambers. As with pupillage, securing a tenancy can be challenging. On completing pupillage, you must apply for a full practising certificate in order to commence practising as a barrister. You'll then appear on the Barristers' Register.

How to become a barrister in Northern Ireland

Barristers in Northern Ireland are regulated by the Bar of Northern Ireland, with professional training for both barristers and solicitors overseen by the Institute of Professional Legal Studies (IPLS) at Queen’s University Belfast.

The stages of training are:

  • Legal knowledge: Law degree or Law conversion course
  • Vocational qualifications: PgDip Professional Legal Studies
  • In-work training: Apprenticeship

Legal knowledge: Law degree or Law conversion course

You’ll need a ‘recognised Law degree'. These degrees include eight foundation subjects and the ‘Law of Evidence’ is required – although it can be taken as a separate exam if necessary. The IPLS has a list of acceptable Law degrees on its website. It includes certain degrees from England and Wales, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland (but not the LLB in Scots Law).

To become a barrister, you'll need a minimum 2:1 award.

Vocational qualification: PGDip Professional Legal Studies (barrister)

The IPLS at Queen’s University Belfast is responsible for training the legal profession in Northern Ireland. Courses are slightly different for trainee barristers and trainee solicitors, but both are awarded a Postgraduate Diploma in Professional Legal Studies (Bar or Solicitor as appropriate).

What does the barrister course cover?

You gain knowledge of practice and procedure in a broad range of areas. This includes high court, county court and consumer law, as well as criminal procedures, family law, company law and partnership. You learn about accounts, insolvency and revenue. Trainee barristers receive training in practical evidence and the full trial programme. The course also has elective options.

Skills focus on advocacy and client care, developed through a Citizens Advice Bureaux placement. In areas of joint training, separate tutorials or practical exercises may be given to solicitors and barristers. Other areas are taught separately.

The barrister course runs full-time from the end of August to June next year and includes compulsory work experience. You can apply to the IPLS to study the course part-time.

Entry requirements and applications

Entry requirements are a 2:1 in a recognised Law degree or a non-Law degree followed by a Law conversion or graduate Law degree. Check the approved courses on the IPLS website. International students must prove their English language skills. You can apply online from September to mid-November, and you’ll have to sit an admissions test. 

After receiving an offer of a place and before starting the course, you must be admitted to the Inn of Court as a student. Before the course starts, you should find a ‘master’ with whom you’ll serve your pupillage – the IPLS will provide a list to help.

Fees and funding

In 2017/18, UK/EU fees were £9,350. You may be eligible for a postgraduate loan, and scholarships may be available from universities.

In-work training: Apprenticeship

After the barrister course, you begin a 12-month pupillage with a master. A master is a barrister with at least seven years’ experience. You generally can’t accept work on your own account until the second six months of your pupillage.

Barristers in Northern Ireland must be registered with the Bar of Northern Ireland, the country’s regulating authority for the profession.

How to become an advocate in Scotland

In Scotland, advocates perform a role similar to a barrister. The Court of Session has responsibility for admitting advocates and the criteria for training is determined by the Faculty of Advocates. However, as part of the training covers the same ground as solicitors, if you want to become an advocate you should check requirements set by the Law Society of Scotland.

The stages of training are:

  • Legal knowledge: LLB in Scots Law
  • Vocational qualifications: PEAT 1 (Diploma in Professional Legal Practice)
  • In-work training: PEAT 2 (traineeship)
  • Training specific to advocates

Legal knowledge: LLB in Scots Law

Scotland has a separate legal system to that of England and Wales, and as a trainee advocate you must complete a degree in Scots law. Accelerated courses are available for non-Law graduates. You must take exams in the subjects specified by the Law Society (the solicitors' regulator) to continue onto the vocational qualification, where part of your training will be as a solicitor. You should also be sure to cover the subjects required by the Faculty of Advocates, and achieve a minimum 2:2 degree.

Vocational qualification: PEAT 1 (Diploma in Professional Legal Practice)

Professional Education and Training Stage 1 (PEAT 1) is commonly known as the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (DPLP). It’s taken by both trainee solicitors and advocates, who follow the same path as solicitors – going their different directions after 21 months of in-work training. As elsewhere, in-work training after the vocational qualification is highly competitive. Some firms recruit years in advance, while other places may become available while you’re on the DPLP.

What does the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice cover?

The DPLP is practical in focus. It includes a high degree of skills-based teaching, much of it delivered by qualified solicitors. Courses vary by provider but all cover business, financial and practice awareness, private client work, litigation (i.e. taking legal action), conveyancing and tax. Core outcomes include professionalism, professional communication (within teams as well as the skills required for effective legal work), and professional ethics and standards. Elective modules allow you to specialise.

Six Scottish universities are accredited to run the course by the Law Society of Scotland. The course lasts nine months, or two-years if taken part-time. Assessments are determined by the university. They may include exams, written assignments, online multiple-choice tests or client interview scenarios using actors.

Entry requirements and applications

Entry is via the LLB in Scots Law, assessed on the marks achieved at your first exam sitting in the subjects specified by the Law Society. If you’re an international student you must demonstrate proficiency in the English language.

Applications are open from February to April. You can apply to the university where you completed your Law degree, even if your first choice for studying the DPLP is at another university. Exact requirements vary by provider, so please refer to university websites. You can indicate any university where you don't want to study, and you should make it clear if you’ve secured a training contract to follow the DPLP.

How much does the DPLP cost? Is funding available?

In 2020/21, UK/EU fees range from £7,000–£9,170 (including materials), with international fees from £8,000–£21,670. Part-time fees are pro-rata.

You may be eligible for a postgraduate loan, and scholarships may be available from universities.

Legal knowledge: LLB in Scots Law

PEAT 2 is known as the traineeship, where the skills and values learnt on the DPLP are honed in a solicitors' practice. For trainee advocates, this is for 21 months. The DPLP diploma is valid until the end of December two years after it's awarded, but you can apply for an extension. Before starting PEAT 2, you must apply for an entrance certificate.

Large firms often advertise for traineeships up to two years ahead, so if you’re completing an LLB you may apply during the final year of your degree before starting the DPLP.

The Law Society recommends that trainees are paid £19,500 in their first year of training and £22,500 in their second (figures from January 2020).

Training specific to advocates

After the 21-month traineeship, you undertake a nine-month unpaid pupillage known as 'devilling'. Before this, you must enrol as an entrant with the Faculty of Advocates and then pass the Faculty’s examination in Evidence, Practice and Procedure.

Devilling is under the guidance of a ‘devilmaster’, an advocate with at least seven years’ standing. The Scheme for Assessment tests devils’ written and oral advocacy skills. There's only one intake of devils each year, in late September or early October.

After completing all vocational and academic requirements, you're admitted to membership of the Faculty of Advocates, and by court to the public office of advocate.

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