How to become a barrister

Fancy yourself as the next Atticus Finch? Career Consultant Steve Carter shares his top advice for aspiring barristers. All of the below is taken from talks given by both junior and senior barristers as well as serving judges.

What do Barristers do?

In essence a barrister ‘crafts legal arguments to persuade a jury/judge of the efficacy of their case.

Barristers have to be practical; can the problem be solved any other way?  They also have to be commercially aware both for their clients and, as they are often self employed, for themselves.

Away from self-employment there are government barristers working for the Government Legal Service.  For this awareness of the wider political context is required as they help to frame legislation.

There are also other public bodies such as the police and local government.

In the private sector large organisations such as banks will have their own in-house legal team which will usually be headed up by a barrister.

The work is varied depending on the area of law practiced.

The call to the Bar.

There are three stages to becoming a barrister in the England and Wales:

  1. Your degree – completion of a Law degree or an undergraduate degree in another area followed by the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). A 2:2 is still the qualifying classification but this is nominal as excellent academic ability is needed. If someone with a 2:2 wants to pursue this career they need substantial experience in other fields.
  2. Completion of the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) – 1 year full time or 2 years part time.
  3. Pupillage – 1 year of practical training with an authorised organisation under supervision of a qualified barrister.

The ‘call to the Bar’, i.e. doing the Graduate Diploma in Law (for non-law students) and Bar Professional Training Course is the ‘easy’ bit, after which, things get ‘tricky’ as it is very, very competitive.


The training contract to become a barrister is called ‘pupillage’, typical pay, £12,000 per year.  Of the approximately 1,500 who pass the BPTC and ‘called to the Bar’; there are approximately only 400 pupillages!

So what do barrister’s chambers look for in potential pupils?

They accept that candidates are not the finished article but must have potential, i.e. problem solving and analytical skills to go with commercial awareness, strong interpersonal skills and resilience.  Your CV needs to be rich with extra-curricular activities such as experience in mooting, volunteering and also relevant work experience such as mini-pupillages.

Typical application questions revolve around situational judgement and evidence of how have you persuaded someone to your point of view. After all, if you can’t persuade a recruiter how can you persuade a judge? You will also be expected to understand what the job entails and what the Chamber is about.

The application forms must be immaculate; no spelling mistakes, excellent grammar.  Standards must be high for the client.

Interviews are usually legally based with further situational judgement questions.

Can I afford it?

Some basic costs:

Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) – £4,000 to £12,000 dependent on provider and there may be some discount if you go on to do the BPTC with them.

Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) – £12,000 to £14,000 outside London, £17,000 in London

Getting work experience via mini-pupillages; some are paid, others aren’t and some are funded.

So, look for scholarships and other sources of funding!

The four Inns of Court are the main ways of getting funding via scholarships and these are also the usual ways of getting pupillage once called to the Bar; again, competitive.  An e.g. of such a scholarship is the Hardwicke Entrance Award.

Tips from those in the profession

  • You need to be able to self-assess and be resilient as you will lose some cases and have to get back on your feet and consider why you lost.
  • Be realistic; it’s hard work intellectually and financially, you are self-employed!
  • Must be excellent to qualify and to make a living, i.e. win cases. You must have a combination of drive, dynamism, intellect and independence of thought
  • When considering how to get your pupillage you need to be strategic: which work experience will get you where you want to go?

Examples of work experience include: a legal internship with the UN; voluntary work with immigrants; legal volunteering; the Citizens Advice Bureau; voluntary work in Thailand; case worker for the refugee council; some have done an MA.

In some cases, this career needs to be regarded as a long-term aim if a candidate doesn’t get pupillage straight away.  All of the barristers stated that you have to really ‘want’ to do the job and not be put off by the barriers or any setbacks.

For more information on legal careers see our website and previous ‘Getting into law’ post. Our annual Law Fair is being run on 30th October 2014, a perfect opportunity for you to promote yourself to leading firms.

Further resources

Law Careers

Law Cabs (for the GDL)

The Bar Council

The Bar Standards Board

Gray’s Inn

Inner Temple

Lincoln’s Inn

Middle Temple

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