What does a barrister do: overview of the barristers’ profession

Overview of the barristers’ profession
Barristers offer expertise on legal matters to different parties and speak in court when necessary.

Barristers give advice to clients about how the law applies to their situation. Barristers are normally contacted and instructed by a solicitor who seeks specialised legal advice in a particular field, such as criminal, family, commercial or public law.

Depending on the area of law practised, the legal advice that barristers give may take the form of a written document of suggestions (known as a ‘written opinion’), a discussion with clients and solicitors about the situation of a case, or a formal negotiation about a topic with the view to finding the best outcome. In court, a barrister represents a client in front of the judge and makes arguments, asks questions of witnesses and summarises relevant information.

What are chambers, tenants and clerks?

The majority of barristers are self-employed, which is a key difference from other legal professionals. Self-employed barristers normally have to join a ‘chambers’ (a collection of offices) and once fully qualified are called ‘tenants’. Just as the term suggests, tenants have to pay ‘rent’ to chambers in the form of fees. This money contributes to the upkeep of the offices that barristers work in and to the wages of support staff. Staff, such as ‘clerks’, maintain contact with solicitors, clients and other professionals. There are a few openings for barristers who do not wish to be self-employed; these are predominantly jobs in government or at large law firms.

Qualification and training: what is pupillage?

Barristers need either a law degree or any other degree followed by a graduate diploma in law (GDL or law conversion course). Once you have graduated, there is a further year of advanced law study specific to the profession, called the Bar course, before you are eligible to apply for a year of paid training at a barristers’ chambers.

This period of training is referred to as ‘pupillage’. For the first six months (called a ‘six’) you will likely be shadowing a senior barrister and learning how everything works. In the second six you may be able to take on your own paid work.

Once you have successfully completed your training you are eligible to apply to chambers to become a tenant and begin your career as a self-employed barrister. However, the stiff competition and high entry standards mean you’re not necessarily guaranteed to be taken on.

School leaver routes and apprenticeships for barristers

There are currently no plans in the pipeline for apprenticeships or school leaver programmes related to the Bar, though degree apprenticeship opportunities might be introduced in the future. However, many clerks are taken on by chambers straight out of school and entry requirements will depend on the job role, but typically ask for either GCSEs or A levels (or equivalent). There is a clerk-specific qualification in law that you can be sponsored for.

To find out more about the qualifications you need to become a barrister, check out our graduate law careers site TARGETjobs Law.

How do you become a barrister?

Competition is tough for aspiring barristers, with around 1,200 candidates competing for around 450 training places in chambers each year. A career in this branch of the legal profession is exceptionally challenging, requiring A*/9 and A/8 grades at GCSE (or equivalent), As and Bs at A level (or equivalent) and a 2.1 or first class in your degree.

Key skills for barristers

The key skills that barristers need are:

  • a good attention to detail
  • a talent for public speaking
  • common sense
  • a strong sense of responsibility and commitment.

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