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Raising the bar - a legal challenge

Dream sequence: eloquent, glamorous (a wig works equally well for both sexes) young barrister convinces jury and stuns famous judge with previously undiscovered legal precedent. Courtroom silenced, innocent party acquitted and said barrister firmly on legal ladder. 

Unfortunately, the scenario above belongs on the silver screen and the law is not a career choice for the stage-struck, the faint-hearted or the undecided. Before you enter the starting gate you need a very good (preferably first class from Oxbridge!) degree, a jaw-droppingly, exciting c v including a spell breeding alligators and working for the UN and the ability to rival the eloquence of an Irishman at Cheltenham races.

Your parents may know a lot of lawyers but the days of obvious nepotism are behind us, all pupils are assessed by the same structural process. It can still be an asset to have a judge as a referee but fairly stellar qualifications are essential. The odds are approximately 3:1 against that you will get a pupillage and after that about 6:4 against that this will lead to a tenancy, your first chance to pay the rent and possibly eat as well.

Degree, mini-pupillages, pro-bono work and possibly work placements ticked, all potential barristers face the same set of hurdles, BPTC, pupillage, and then acquiring a tenancy. Even the exceptionally qualified can struggle, one candidate, known to us, with a double starred first from Cambridge and a PhD in philosophy from Princeton who applied through the pupillage gateway to about 12 chambers said that she had “three offers in the end”.

This might appear pretty daunting, but a slight help could be that Chambers now take 50% of applicants whose first degree is not in law. In fact, some pupillage panels state that law undergraduates can be too academic in the way they approach cases and experience gained outside the law is an asset. If your degree is not an LLB you will need to demonstrate why you have changed direction, apparently scientists, engineers and mathematicians make good barristers presumably down to their analytical training as this is a career which requires great mental discipline.

The brain exercise is not matched by the physical version; it is definitely a “sitting” profession, don’t be led astray by images of striding round courtrooms tossing out witticisms, you’re more likely to be sitting in a corridor clutching a tepid cup of coffee. Life might also become more interesting for junior barristers if one of the Artificial Intelligence systems being trialled now begins to take some of the drudgery out of research. These cognitive computing tools may herald a big change, which is not to say that they will replace lawyers, weighing data, drafting documents and making arguments will still require humans.

Don’t forget the cash flow needed for this long process, maybe a reason why more people are applying later as it gives them a chance to build up a kitty and hope that their wider experience will make them stand out. From the female perspective, the flexibility of self-employment, working from home and being able to take long holidays can make it easier for women than other professions. Also, you can make an individual choice as to how you want to run your practice, which allows for you to take long breaks if necessary and makes it easier to combine the challenges of working and bringing up young children. A young barrister who has two small children thinks that” it is doable and the balance is ok.


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