When I first set out to become a barrister, I knew that I had chosen a career path which was not only unfamiliar to my family (almost all of whom were teachers), but which did not typically afford the securities of employment – salary, paid holiday, pension, and career development – with which I was familiar through their work. Even at University during a fortnight of work experience talks and presentations, only two were about the Bar, and neither were from the employed Bar. Trying to learn how to start a career as an employed barrister was like trying to learn how to become a TikTok sensation – it doesn't happen when you are attempting to do it, and then one day you suddenly find yourself in the role, not sure of how you got there.
The employed Bar
Today, around 18 per cent of all barristers are employed – although interestingly, a smaller proportion of employed barristers are 'young' i.e. in their first seven years of practice, as compared to the self-employed Bar, according to the Bar Council’s Life at the employed Bar report published in February 2023. This suggests there remains a lack of clarity about how to start a career at the employed Bar, rather than transition across from self-employed practice later in life.
Demystifying the process
To demystify this process, one must start by demystifying the perceived differences between the self-employed Bar and the employed Bar. The difference is not in the substance of the role. Many in-house advocacy models operated by law firms are effectively chambers models, with barristers conducting written and oral advocacy on instruction from fee earners and direct clients rather than handling their own caseload. Other employed roles may have a lesser focus on courtroom advocacy, but that is not dissimilar from some self-employed barristers who have a papers-focused practice.
Whilst the employed Bar is rightly praised for its financial security, supported career development and flexible working patterns, being a barrister often requires hard graft at unsociable hours with an unavoidable impact on work-life balance to at least some extent. Arguably being a barrister – whether employed or self-employed – and wanting a 9-5 job you can leave at the door when you finish work, are incompatible. Not that 9-5 office jobs exist this side of the pandemic…
In my view, what distinguishes the employed Bar from the self-employed Bar is the greater need for two main skills:
Commercial awareness in this sense means being smart about how your role feeds into the interests of your employer. Your success is your firm's success, so if an employed barrister gets a successful result in a particular case, they may then need to consider: can this be a useful training opportunity for my colleagues? Can we publish something about this result to showcase our firm's talents? Will our clients benefit from more tailored feedback about this result? Seeing the wider effect and impact of your work on clients and colleagues is key to maintaining motivation and a drive to achieve.
Teamwork takes on extra importance as an employed barrister because you are working with clients, colleagues and friends. These are relationships you will build quickly, and which will be sustained over time, if nothing else because they have to, given your close ongoing working proximity. Working on a particular instruction might mean liaising with your instructing client, an insurer or other interested body, your professional client, a support team, a strategic oversight team, a business development team – all of whom will have valuable input, but in relation to a task which ultimately remains yours to complete. The nature of this support network is different at the employed Bar; we are all driving for a shared success as a team.
What does the process involve?
These skills are heavily tested in our pupillage process at 8DB. As to how those skills are tested, the precise nature of pupillage at the employed Bar will differ depending on the nature of the employer. The Crown Prosecution Service will offer a different experience to the Government Legal Service, which will in turn be different to pupillage at a law firm. However, each will typically start the same way: a written application with a follow-up interview, often with a mock exercise element.
Each employer will want to know the same thing: why them, and why you? Make sure you have researched the employer you are applying for a role with but have also considered what it is about you which makes you an attractive proposition for their business and your shared future success. Experience in other employed roles is welcome, as are examples of extracurricular activities which showcase the two skills above.
What do they look for?
I am fortunate enough to be part of the recruitment process for our pupil barristers and am a pupil supervisor myself. For my part, I want to see someone who is dedicated to the cause, someone who welcomes the advantages that employment brings. I want someone who sees the incredible opportunity to develop your practice quicker within a supported environment. I have personally had the opportunity to take leading roles in cases from a very early stage in my employed career at the Bar.
Why did you apply, and can you talk through the application process?
I was motivated to apply for pupillage due to my positive experience with DAC Beachcroft as an advocate. I applied with an application form and was invited to the first-round interview. This consisted of a debate task on current topics. It was an enjoyable first round as I found it very engaging for both parties, as of course, I was subject to intervention. I was then invited to the final round interview which consisted of discussing recent judgments, making an application before the panel and then questions. The panel consisted of different members of 8DB including the Practice Manager and pupillage supervisors. I found the two-stage interview process enjoyable.
I started my general civil pupillage promptly. The structure of pupillage allows for two pupillage supervisors. The first six is split between each pupillage supervisor, allowing me to experience each barrister's practice, from personal injury to property. As my pupillage is general civil, the work can often include underlining areas of contract law and costs. I am also able to shadow different members of chambers, with each member being very welcoming and supportive. In addition to court hearings, I have gained experience of the paper practice of 8DBs barristers. This includes skeleton arguments, statements of case as well as research tasks for members of the team. Following any paperwork task that I complete, I am provided with written feedback, including formal feedback on various pieces of work throughout pupillage.
How are you finding employed pupillage?
I am currently three months into my second six and have enjoyed my pupillage so far. 8DB are a supportive and friendly set and I have found each member more than happy to add to my learning experience. In my first six, I shadowed interlocutory applications, client conferences, fast track, multi-track trials and JSMs. Attending these matters can often require long travel but this is balanced by my supervisors with remote working days. An added benefit to an employed pupillage is that, subject to pupil supervisor approval, pupils are permitted to conduct court hearings as a 'solicitors' agent'. This has allowed me to maintain my advocacy skills throughout my first six. Attending hearings with members of 8DB other than just my pupillage supervisor has meant I have seen a variety of cases and styles of advocacy. A highlight for me were the trips to the Royal Courts of Justice.
My second six diary was mapped out with thought from the Practice Manager and my supervisors around my learning and development needs and my interests for my future practice with the team. I have conducted some complex interlocutory hearings, Small Claims Hearings and Fast Track Trials.
The employed Bar has so much to offer prospective pupils. To date, it has typically been able to sell itself with financial security, support, and a greater work-life balance benefits, but there is so much more that can be taken from a career at the employed Bar, starting with pupillage. Check out the other employed pupillage blogs on our website, including Crown Prosecutor Alice Holloway's blog where she discusses the benefits of working for the CPS and lays out what she gets up to in a typical day.