We are always keen to publish the views of ALL levels of the profession. This is a very down to earth and perceptive account of the realities of life as a pupil and their prospects of a career at the Criminal Bar, or otherwise.
Read it, and please do share it.
AND THEN TELL US WHAT YOU THINK!
Having been called to the Bar in 2009, I was delighted to finally obtain pupillage in 2010, to begin in September 2011. I had been volunteering for free for the preceding 12 months in various places to improve my CV and gain experience, in a situation where the success rate in obtaining pupillage is approximately one out of every four students. I was fortunate to do pupillage at an excellent Chambers where, although we had to work very hard, we had the opportunity for our guaranteed earnings/award over the course of the year to amount to enough money to survive in London (about £20k or slightly over). A mandatory pupillage award and guaranteed earnings can be an expensive and/or intimidating proposition for any criminal law Chambers.
However prior to pupillage, as well as working for free I had paid out tens of thousands of pounds to take the Graduate Diploma in Law and Bar Vocational Course. The latter of these was particularly expensive and of limited value: personally I’d much rather have foregone such an expensive year and undertaken training with genuine practitioners without cost to them, however it seems the BSB know better and would rather that large numbers of hapless students sink vast sums into private entities that don’t benefit the rest of the Bar at all, save for providing shiny glass buildings to walk past every now and then. (This was in addition to already accruing the standard amount of university student debt.)
Going into a job that took so much effort to get into and demanded the majority of one’s waking hours, (and quite a few of the supposedly non waking ones) after fees, books, travel etc. and discounting money I’ll probably never see, I yielded a return in the first year on my feet of roughly £16-17k. About equivalent to a basic cleaner’s salary and lower than entry level jobs in nursing, local government or the police, never mind doctors or graduate schemes, without a pension/annual leave/sick pay etc.
I was fortunate to get a third six at a very successful Chambers with a large amount of quality work. Therefore I have been fairly privileged in my passage so far through becoming a criminal barrister. My earnings might go up slightly, even factoring in the inevitable late and non-payments that mean writing off a certain amount of all the work I do. Being generous, I might get up to £20-22k in the next year – that’s not including accounting for extra expenses that come with being a barrister such as books, shirts, suits, travel that’s not realistically reclaimable, etc.
In addition, as we all know, being a criminal barrister comes with a health warning; the work-load often consists of cases or clients that are troublesome, tricky, difficult or not cost effective for one reason or another – as we’ve seen with the recent North-London CPS circular: – except it’s not just limited to prosecution. Not that I have a problem with that, it’s all part of the job, especially when you’re at the bottom trying to work your way up the ladder.
However the usual mantra in days gone by has been that if you can just stick with it, in a few years things will ease up a bit, and you’ll start earning enough to be comfortable – although you’re never going to keep up with your mates who went into shipping and commercial law but who cares that’s dead boring anyway…
Unfortunately, whilst that might have been true for someone 10 years ago, it’s not true today. Already within the last decade many criminal barristers have seen fees slashed, and at the junior end the problem is acute. Hearings in the magistrates’ court are usually in the £50-80 range and Crown Court work is increasingly scarce, with fees going down across the board and delays in payment longer than ever. Many of us at the bottom end are saddled with student debt, which when added to rising living costs, particularly on the South Eastern Circuit with the extortionate cost of living near London, means the job is simply not economically viable.
That’s why I live with my parents who still support me. Most of the pupils I know also receive help from their parents, or have savings from a previous job, or have some other means of supporting themselves. Of the ones I know who don’t have any of those luxuries, most have either moved sideways into civil practice, gone in-house, or done something else altogether.
I do not come from a rich family (both my parents worked in the public sector) I did not go to private school and come from a diverse, non-exclusive background. None of this has been a problem at the Criminal Bar, which is actually very inclusive and not particularly bothered about who you are and where you come from in my experience, though that doesn’t seem to be the perception in the general public, which is a shame.
I mention this because I did not join the Criminal Bar for the money (obviously) – I went into the Criminal Bar because I believe in it – as clichéd as that may sound. However I also did not join it to become a martyr. I want to be able to live a decent life, given the sacrifices we all make in this line of work – (don’t like doing three child rape cases in a row? Get over it – you’ll have a mortgage to pay, and a cab rank rule to abide by…). I’m also not going to be able to rely on parental support forever, and at 27 don’t want to. I’m at an age where I’m still just about young enough to go into something else, but it’s rapidly approaching decision time, and I’m nowhere near rich enough to be sentimental about the choice. I haven’t been in the profession long enough to remember how it is used to be. All I know is, if things keep going down the same road, the new generation of bright, enthusiastic idealists aren’t going to make it into middle age and beyond at the criminal Bar. Certainly if the ship really is sinking, I’d rather jump before I’m pushed.