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
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 barrister 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, the Bar Standards Board has set a minimum payment for trainees in pupillage at £18,866 (London) or £16,322 (elsewhere). 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.
In-house barristers such as Crown Prosecutors 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.
The Bar Standards Board (BSB) regulates barristers in England and Wales. It decides what's required to qualify as a barrister and practise.
There are three components to qualifying as a barrister:
- Academic learning: Law degree or Law conversion course
- Vocational learning: a Bar training course, which may be in two parts
- In-work training: Pupillage
These can combine in any of four ‘pathways’:
- Law degree (or non-law degree and conversion course) plus Bar training course and pupillage
- Law degree (or non-law degree and conversion course) plus Bar training course (taken in two parts) and pupillage
- Law degree that includes vocational Bar training, plus a pupillage
- Apprenticeship that include vocational Bar training and work-based learning.
Apprenticeships aren’t available yet but may be developed; they already exist for solicitors and chartered legal executives.
As a student barrister, you will also 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 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.
Academic learning: 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 Bar training course.
Vocational learning: Bar training courses (formerly BPTC)
After completing academic learning, vocational training covers the practical work of a barrister. From September 2020, a variety of Bar training courses will offer students greater flexibility in training. These have different names, but the important thing is that the provider is authorised as an AETO (authorised education and training organisation) by the Bar Standards Board. Courses are detailed in a factsheet on the BSB website.
Some are one-year full-time courses similar to the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) which they replace; they may be available as a Postgraduate Diploma or LLM. 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.
Other courses may be divided into two parts, with part 1 focused on legal knowledge. Depending on provider, it may be delivered online. Those completing part 1 can progress to part 2 to develop their legal skills – it may be possible to take this with a different provider. Completion of both parts may result in a Postgraduate Diploma. The advantage of this route is that if you don’t progress from part 1, there is no obligation to pay for part 2.
There is also an undergraduate degree – an MLaw Exempting (Bar Course) – that includes the vocational component of Bar training. All years of this course are eligible for undergraduate funding.
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.
Before the recent changes to Bar training, the BSB urged students to think carefully before starting vocational training because of the huge competition for pupillage places and, after qualifying, for a tenancy to practise. While it is hoped that recent changes may open up more pupillages, it would still be wise to weigh up your changes of securing one before you commit to vocational training.
What do the courses cover?
The exact curriculum of Bar training courses will vary, but they will enable you to gain core skills such as advocacy, and complete 12 qualifying sessions of training provided by your Inn.
Legal knowledge focuses on civil and criminal litigation (legal action) including evidence, alternative dispute resolution and criminal sentencing. These are assessed through exams set centrally by the BSB. Where the course is divided into two parts, legal knowledge may be delivered online through a virtual learning environment.
Legal skills are developed in advocacy (representing clients within courts or tribunals) and conferencing. Modules also cover legal research, writing and drafting (opinions, or binding legal texts). These are assessed by the provider, along with a student’s understanding of professional ethics. For two-part courses, legal skills are covered in part 2 and attendance in person will be required.
Depending on the course type – for example, LLM – there may also be elective options, or academic research.
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 direct to providers: you can apply to more than one provider but only accept one place.
Following application but before starting the Bar training course, you must also pass the Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT), a multiple-choice exam which tests critical thinking. It's recommended to take the BCAT in good time, before the start of your course.
You must also join an Inn before you begin the skills element of the course (part 2).
How much does a Bar training course cost?
Fees range from £11,000–£19,000 for the course, varying across providers. Fees are often higher for international students.
If the Bar training course 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
On completion of a vocational course, you have five years in which to seek a pupillage. Pupillage – or work-based learning – is the final training stage for becoming a barrister. It is undertaken with an AETO (authorised education and training organisation, as approved by the BSB) under the guidance of a pupil supervisor, who is an experience barrister.
Pupillage places are advertised on Pupillage Gateway, which opens from the end of November. Vacancies may be advertised up to 18 months in advance and can be scarce and highly sought after.
Around 500 trainee barristers begin their first stage of pupillage each year. 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.
From September 2021 students will need to complete a Negotiation Skills course. There will also be a centralised assessment of Professional Ethics; this will be taken as an open book exam to reflect the way ethical questions may be dealt with in 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. BSB statistics suggest they are increasing but there were still only around 500 tenancies in 2018–19. 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.
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: Bar Course at the IPLS
- In-work training: Pupillage
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 lists acceptable Law degrees on its website in its Information Booklet for Applicants. 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: Bar course
The IPLS (Institute for Professional Legal Studies), based 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 bar advocacy and skills, family law and procedure, accounts and insolvency. Litigation processes include civil and criminal, conveyancing and property, public and client, plus company law. Trainee barristers receive training in practical evidence and the full trial programme. Skills are 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
For 2021/22, UK/EU fees are £10,100. 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.
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.
In-work training – PEAT 2 (traineeship)
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 Intrant 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.