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Tell me about it

Barristers (in England and Wales) and advocates (in Scotland) give advice about legal cases to their professional clients (mainly solicitors and legal executives) and represent clients (individuals or organisations) in court.

The work includes giving legal written opinions - for example, giving advice as to whether a case would be successful if taken to court, reading law reports and witness statements to prepare for a court case, researching similar cases, and representing clients in court, by presenting the facts of the case to the judge and jury, cross-examining witnesses and summing up.

The amount of time they spend in court depends on the particular area of law they decide to specialise in. This could include:

  • Chancery - wills, trusts, estates, taxation and company law.
  • Common law - criminal, contract, family laws and torts. Those who specialise in criminal work probably spend a lot of their time in court.
  • Commerce and industry - giving general legal advice or specialising in areas like employment law.
  • Central and local government - clients are civil servants, ministers, and council staff, elected members or councillors.
  • Crown Prosecution/Procurator Fiscal work – this includes lots of court work conducting prosecutions on behalf of the police.

Most barristers work in offices called chambers. They may have their own office or share with one or more other barristers. In London, most chambers are in the Inns of Court; in other areas they are near to court buildings. Advocates are members of the Advocates' Library in Edinburgh, where they work in groups called stables.

Entry level
In England and Wales, you must either take an approved first degree in law or a degree in another subject, which you then 'convert' by taking a postgraduate qualification known as the Common Professional Examination (CPE) or the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).

You must join one of the four Inns of Court (Gray's Inn, Inner Temple, Lincoln's Inn, Middle Temple) and take the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), a one-year full-time or two-year part-time course of study, which includes practical training in mock trials, drawing up evidence and interviewing clients.  It also covers litigation, sentencing and specialist options. Once you have successfully completed the BPTC, you will be ‘Called to the Bar’ by your Inn. During the BPTC year and before Call can take place you will also have to undertake 12 qualifying sessions (previously known as ‘dining’) with your Inn.

Having completed the BPTC you must, if you intend to practise, complete two pupillages of six months each, working under supervision while you gain experience in all aspects of the job. After this you must find a tenancy in a set of chambers, from where you must work for at least three years while you follow a compulsory system of professional development.  It is not essential to complete a pupillage if you are going to work in commerce or industry but you would not then be able to appear in court.  Most chambers select their junior tenants through the process of pupillage.

In Scotland, after completing a degree of the requisite standard in Scottish law and the one-year, full-time Diploma in Legal Practice at a Scottish university, you must undertake a period of full-time training (usually 21 months) in a solicitor's office approved by the Faculty of Advocates. After you have been formally admitted by the Faculty as an Intrant (trainee advocate) and passed certain examinations there comes a further eight/nine month period of unpaid practical training ('devilling') with an experienced advocate (a devilmaster) and finally a competency assessment, which covers written and oral advocacy skills. Current advice is that you should complete a two-year solicitor's traineeship so that you can qualify and practise for some years as a solicitor before going to the Bar.

Making the grade
Training to become a barrister/advocate is a very competitive and often costly process. At each stage of training there are more applicants than places, and once qualified it can be hard to secure a tenancy in chambers.

During the first three years of practice in England and Wales, you would have to work in chambers or work with another barrister who has at least five years' experience. During the period of devilling in Scotland, you must get experience of both civil and criminal work with an approved member of the Scottish Bar. 

After 10 to 15 years' experience, advocates/barristers may apply 'to take silk' (become a Queen's Counsel) which is necessary to become a Court of Session judge or High Court judge.

Barristers may also become legal advisers in magistrates' courts; advocates may become sheriffs. Sometimes advocates/barristers move into senior positions in industry and commerce.

Personal qualities
As a barrister or advocate, you would need considerable self-confidence, the intellectual capacity to assimilate large volumes of information in a short time, and the ability to work long hours with tight deadlines and high levels of responsibility. 

You must be able to deal with people, to listen to them and then put across a point of view convincingly.  In addition, you would need the motivation and determination to succeed in what can be a daunting profession, particularly in the early years.

Looking ahead
There are more than 10,000 self-employed barristers practising in England and Wales, and some 400 advocates in Scotland. The early years can be very tough, as you work hard – often for a reduced fee – in the lower courts to build your reputation.

All advocates are based in Edinburgh. Many barristers are based in London; others practise in large towns on the administrative circuits - Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Chester, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle.

Approximately 2,500 barristers work as salaried employees for large organisations such as specialist commercial law firms and investment or finance companies, and about 500 work in central government departments.

Alternative suggestions
You might also consider advocates' clerk (Scotland)/barristers' clerk (England and Wales), chartered secretary, civil servant, legal executive or solicitor.

Take-home pay
All pupils must be paid no less than £1,000 per month plus reasonable travel expenses. As practising barristers are self-employed, your later earnings can vary enormously. Typical earnings/receipts for self-employed barristers, before deduction of tax and chambers' charges, range from £40,000 to £200,000 gross within five years of call. Typical earnings/receipts at senior levels range from £65,000 to £1,000,000 gross after ten or more years of call. A top QC can earn well in excess of £1,000,000 per year. Barristers who are employed have the security of receiving a regular wage but may not have the potential for the very high earnings that are possible for the self-employed.

In Scotland, whilst you are working as an intrant in a solicitor's office, you would receive a guaranteed minimum salary.  This would be around £15,500 at present for the first year, rising to around £18,550 in the second year, although some large commercial firms pay considerably more. You would not receive any money during your nine months of devilling.  There are scholarships available but you are more likely to be funding yourself.  As a practising advocate, you would be self-employed so your earnings would vary enormously, depending on the nature and extent of the instructions you receive and the reputation you develop. Salaries can range from £25,000 to £300,000 a year.

Barristers/advocates often work long hours, including evenings and weekends. It might be necessary to prepare a case or a written opinion at short notice. You might also have to attend evening court sessions, and you could spend a considerable amount of time travelling.

Sources of information
Bar Standards Board:   
Pupillage Portal:
Law Careers:
National Admissions Test for Law:
Faculty of Advocates:




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