Home » Uncategorized » Start the bilge pumps or abandon ship: is there a future at the Criminal Bar for those just starting out? By James Jackson, third-six pupil barrister.

Start the bilge pumps or abandon ship: is there a future at the Criminal Bar for those just starting out? By James Jackson, third-six pupil barrister.

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.


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.


12 thoughts on “Start the bilge pumps or abandon ship: is there a future at the Criminal Bar for those just starting out? By James Jackson, third-six pupil barrister.

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  5. Could it be this way because when they came for the vulnerable junior practitioners, neither the senior bar nor the bench stood up for them?

    This perhaps is the reward of a profession comprising the self-employed and self-interested: no-one higher up the ladder has ever, even once, considered the prospect of the junior end as being their immediate concern or, more importantly, responsibility. Those at the junior end are in no position to do anything about their lot. Everyone has their own concerns and divided we fall.

    Two examples:
    1. Churning magistrates’ court work to attract Crown Court briefs: benefit reaped by senior members of chambers; costs borne by junior end.
    2. Lord Judge in a recent interview with Young Bar magazine said that the exigencies of the junior bar were the means by which the meritorious counsel were selected: is he ignorant or stupid?

    Ultimately, the only conclusion of the way in which funding for criminal procedings is being cut is that the government of the day do not care for the rule of law in the criminal courts (and surely it stands or falls in the magistrates’ courts where, after all, the majority of cases are resolved). But the diminishing power of the bar is because the top has not tended to the bottom end and it is dying beneath their feet.

  6. This reaffirms all my fears, and reminds me why I’m attending a sales job interview next week. Seems ridiculous that I can’t use my law degree in the real world. I can’t afford to apply to the BPTC and so the criminal bar dream seems to be drifting ever further out of sight. Thanks for posting, though!

  7. @Darren Williams – thanks for your comments.

    To qualify as a barrister, you have to have a law degree (or a post graduate legal qualification), then study for a year on the Bar Vocational Course before having a one year ‘apprenticeship’ which is called a pupillage.

    The first six months is spent shadowing a senior barrister to learn from them. The second six months the ‘pupil’ is allowed to go to Court and represent people, but there is a higher level of supervision.

    After this twelve months, someone can practice in their own write. But, you have to find a place (Chambers) where you can work from. Many places nowadays make somebody to further time as a pupil – they will then allow them to work for a period of time, usually a further six months, without making a permanant guarantee.

    Such a person is called a ‘third six’ or ‘third sixer’. Hope that that makes sense?

  8. Not being from the legal profession I still find it interesting, hence why I’m here, this is scary stuff. A modern, civil society depends on justice. Justice depends on a good system of justice and for that we obviously need good criminal barristers.

    We cannot end up with a system where all the barristers end up in shipping/commerce as you say but even as an outsider I can see the attraction.

    What is a third-six?

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  10. I’d love to be able to tell you that it will be alright, but we’re heading straight towards the iceberg and it’s hard to see there’s a future. Think carefully.

    Sadly, the message to take from the Government is that you can succeed at the Bar, provided your trust fund is big enough.

    But great post – thanks for doing that.

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