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All About Barristers and Advocates

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What do barristers and advocates do?

The principal function of barristers and advocates is to appear in court and represent clients and plead their cases, although they also advise generally on legal problems. They cannot take instructions direct from members of the public, and they have all their work referred to them by solicitors (where litigation is involved), or other approved professions.


They are generally regarded as the specialist members of the legal profession, although some solicitors also become extremely specialized, and many members of the Bar maintain wide-ranging practices throughout their careers, being equally prepared to undertake criminal or commercial cases. Usually, solicitors help and advise the client from start to finish, and counsels are only called in to represent the client when the case comes to court.

Again this is a generalization, as solicitors can, and do, represent their clients in the lower courts. Equally, barristers and advocates may be asked to advise at relatively early stages in cases which may, in fact, never come to court, and some counsel, (for example, those involved predominantly in chancery work) make comparatively few court appearances.

However, the majority of barristers and advocates, as well as spending time drafting written opinions and pleadings and other documents necessary in the judicial process, also spend a considerable amount of time representing clients in court. Therefore, at the Bar you will have a rather different kind of working day from that of the average solicitor. All your researches, conferences and paperwork will have to be before and after court and, as most courts sit between 10am and 4.30pm, the working week for a barrister or advocate may consist of many early starts and late nights. However, you may not have enough work, particularly at the beginning of your career, and it is also difficult to cope with days when you have nothing to do.

Skills Needed For the Job

In all three jurisdictions, the job demands more from its practitioners than mere legal knowledge. A degree of physical and mental stamina is needed to keep up with the lifestyle and to withstand the pressures involved. You need to be determined to succeed and must be ambitious, as there has always been an element of healthy competition at the Bar.

To enable you to be in court most days, with a limited amount of time for preparation, you will have to develop an ability to assimilate facts quickly and also learn to be flexible enough to change from one job to the next with ease. You will also need to be able to think quickly on your feet. The exciting side of the job - the court appearances - hinges on mundane and thorough preparation, and to prepare well you will have to teach yourself to be painstakingly accurate.

Being self-employed

A factor to note, if you are considering a career at the Bar, is that barristers and advocates in practice are self-employed. Being self-employed has both advantages and disadvantages. Barristers and advocates are thus answerable only to themselves for the way they occupy their time, and they are able to assess directly the fruits of their labors. Theoretically, provided the work is available, an individual who wants more money simply works harder, and it is true to say that barristers and advocates, like solicitors, can earn more than most people. The corollary is that there is never a guaranteed income, and this can be a primary concern in the early years. Sometimes you will worry because you are too busy, sometimes because you are not busy enough. And even when the money is earned it may not be paid for a considerable time, sometimes for years. Yet right from the start, barristers and advocates have to pay all the expenses of running their own business. These include the costs of travelling to and from court; buying the correct clothes, including a wig and gown; buying books and periodicals; paying hotel bills if they are required to represent clients in other parts of the country; contributing to the running costs of the chambers from which they work; and paying a clerk. Being self-employed, barristers and advocates usually need the services of accountants to help sort out their financial affairs and ensure that all the necessary returns, including VAT, are made. All expenses are tax-deductible but this is of little consolation when bills have to be paid far in advance of receiving any fees.

Working in private practice

In whichever jurisdiction you qualify when you start working in practice you will be referred to as a junior'. Some barristers and advocates remain juniors throughout their careers and the expression junior' is in no way a derogatory reflection on the individuals experience. However, some barristers or advocates decide after 10 or 15 years in practice to apply to be allowed to become a Queen's Counsel (QC),also called Leading Counsel or 'silks' in England and Wales, 'silks' and Senior Counsel in Northern Ireland, and Senior Counsel in Scotland. The application in England and Wales is made to the Lord Chancellor; in Scotland to the Lord Justice General; and in Northern Ireland to the Lord Chief Justice. Applications arc considered on the basis of the applicant's proven ability during his or her career, bearing in mind the number of QCs already practising in the applicant's particular branch of the law. A balance has to be kept between the number of juniors and QCs working in different fields, as the nature of the work they undertake, and the fees they are paid, are different.

Having 'taken silk' (the expression arising from the fact that QCs are entitled to wear silk gowns), the QCs' fees are increased by about two-thirds and they become engaged principally in advising and court appearances. Junior counsel are usually engaged to assist QCs since barristers generally stop settling pleadings (that is, drafting the formal written statements which set out a party's case) after taking silk.

When a client goes to a QC, he or she is sure of obtaining the advice of an acknowledged expert in a particular branch of the law. Taking silk will help to confirm the reputation of a barrister or advocate, but the competition for work of the appropriate quality will be intense. Initially, because of the drop in the amount of work coming in, the QC may earn less than a busy junior.

The range of work for a barrister or advocate

As with solicitors, there is a wide range of work to choose from as a barrister or advocate. In Scotland, advocates tend to be less specialized and have to be prepared to deal with the very wide range of cases that are referred to them. This is also true of the practices of many barristers in England and Wales and Northern Ireland but, particularly in London, there are specialist chambers in which all the barristers are engaged almost exclusively in cases in one area of the law, such as chancery work or building cases or copyright matters. Barristers in specialist chambers often find it takes longer to build up a practice, but in the end the rewards can be greater. If you start work in criminal chambers, because there is a large amount of work available in that field it usually means that you will start to earn more at an earlier stage. As you are studying you should try to work out which areas of the law interest you in particular, and whether you are the sort of person who prefers to be in court every day dealing with a mixed bag of cases that might affect any individual, or whether you prefer to deal with large commercial matters which will involve you in research and bring you into contact with clients who are probably quite well versed in their field.

Case Study

Peter is a barrister.


"I started my pupilage in 1986 in chambers in a provincial city. Choosing to work outside London was not a conscious decision, but pupillages were in relatively short supply and, from what I could gather at the time, the chambers that made the offer had a good reputation. Today I am still there and I have not regretted my decision at all. I have now grown to realize that, for many people, working at the provincial Bar has considerable advantages over London (for example, living expenses) while still providing rewarding work and the opportunity to build up a substantial practice.

My work now is generally commercial, with an emphasis on sale of goods and consumer credit, but that was not always the case. During my first years in chambers, like all common law pupils, I did whatever work came my way. This included criminal and matrimonial cases, which now form no part of my practice. It is only when you have done different types of work that you can make a proper decision as to whether or not you wish to specialize and, if so, in which field. My advice to any prospective barrister would be to keep an open mind to start with and not aim for one given specialization from the outset. It would be no good deciding that you want to do crime all the time and then to discover that juries scare you rigid.

The type of work which I do now does not fall into the general public's common perception of a barrister's function. Many people, on hearing that I am a barrister, will ask me whether I prosecute or defend, when in reality I do neither. Instead, I spend many days working from home doing paperwork. That means drafting pleadings (the formal court documents which set out each party's case) or writing opinions to enable clients to assess their chances of success in a case, or what further preparation is needed before a case is ready for trial. I do near-ly all of my work on a personal computer. Those days when I am in court may consist of an application before a District Judge which will last maybe an hour. For me, a fully contested trial is the exception rather than the rule.

It would be a foolhardy person indeed who is not nervous just before his or her first case. But after a few weeks' practicing I had gained considerably in confidence and started to enjoy appearing in court and dealing with 'real cases' for 'real people'. After about six months I was receiving sufficient fees to enable me to support myself financially. After about six years I am thoroughly happy at the Bar and cannot imagine doing any other job.

As the Bar moves towards a more modern outlook and starts to understand that it is there to offer a public service rather than to exist in its own right, there is an increasing opportunity for practitioners to develop a practice which suits them rather than having to adopt pre-conceived notions about what a barrister should do and how he or she ought to behave. If you are considering the Bar as a career, spend time in different sets of chambers while you are still at university or college if you can. This will give you an idea of the different types of work that barristers do."


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