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What is a barrister? How do I become a barrister?

What does a barrister do?

There a two types of qualified lawyer in England and Wales, solicitors and barristers. Both types have different roles and carry out different types of work within the practice of law.

Barristers specialise in representing individuals, companies or institutions in court. These are the people you may think of when you think of lawyers, stood in court, addressing a judge in a wig and gown. This view is mainly correct, one of a barrister’s primary roles if that of advocacy, to speak for the client in proceedings before a court or tribunal.

A barrister will most commonly be instructed by a solicitor to act on behalf of their client to advise on specific legal documents, give their opinion on specific matters, advise on tactics or to attend court for their mutual client. Their role can therefore go beyond just advocacy. If the barrister has the expertise being called upon and the time to carry out the work he is obliged to accept the same from the instructing party.

You may have heard the term ‘brief’ before. This is a document traditionally prepared by asolicitor to instruct a barrister to carry out a certain piece of work or represent a client.  Historically it was rare for a barrister to be instructed by a client directly although now this is occurring more frequently, for example in tax matters barristers are commonly instructed directly.

Some barristers can be extremely specialist in certain areas of work and only carry out work in that area of law. However, some barristers have a more wide ranging practice and may take on work from a wide range of disputes. It is possible for a barrister to prosecute in one case and defend in another.

Barristers Chambers

Barristers generally work in what is known as ‘chambers’.  A barrister is usually self employed and works from an office with a group of other barristers, this place is know as the barrister’s chambers. Barristers can also be employed to work in-house in a legal departments by companies, organisations or government departments.  Barristers often have clerks who run their diaries and look after the administrative aspects of the job such as invoicing clients.

Queens Counsel

Barristers are sometimes referred to as ‘counsel’. It is an interchangeable term. A limited number of the more experienced and senior barristers are given the position of Queens Counsel which is a sign of expertise and status. There are only a small number at any given time and many sets of chambers have a Queens Counsel or ‘QC’s’ as their head of chambers, these barristers being the most senior and skilled. Their gowns are made from silk and this is where their other name originates, Queens Counsel are sometimes referred to a ‘silks’.

How to become a barrister

The first stage of training is the academic stage. This involves studying and obtaining a degree in either law or any other subject. You will typically have to obtain a minimum 2:2 level degree if not a 2:1 to go on to become a barrister.

If you study towards a law degree you can proceed directly to the Bar Vocational Course. If you choose to study any other subject than law you will also have to complete the conversion course called the Common Professional Examination. This course lasts on year in which you must study certain compulsory legal subjects, for example EU law, Contract and Tort which you would otherwise study within your law degree.

The second stage is the vocational training. For barristers this is known as the Bar Vocational Course until 2010 and then will be known as the Bar Professional Training Course. This is completed either full time over one year or part time over two.

All potential barristers are expected to become a member of an Inn of Court before registration on the Bar Vocational Course or Bar Professional Training Course. There are four Inns of Court, Lincoln’s Inn, Inner Temple, Middle Temple and Gray’s Inn all located in central London. It is the Inns of Court which have the power to call a student to the bar. They provide educational facilities, dining facilities and have a role in the discipline of barristers.

During the Bar Vocational Course or Bar Professional Training Course you must ‘dine’ or undertake 12 qualifying sessions with the Inn of Court of which you are a member.

The Bar Vocational Course or Bar Professional Training Course involves studying research methods, opinion writing, advocacy and negotiation amongst other areas and is designed to provide knowledge of key areas required for a barrister.

Once you have completed the vocation aspects of training a further one year must be spent as a pupil. This is generally in a barristers’ chamber or other approved legal environment. The first six months of this time will be spent non-practicing. You will shadow and assist your approved supervisor who will be a barrister within the chambers you are working. The second six months is spent carrying out the work of the barrister under your supervisor’s approval and permission.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.