Report highlights hard times at the bar over conditions and pay

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By Judge John Hack on

Longer hours, an increasing chance of being bullied and falling incomes — that is the grim picture of modern life at the bar, as painted by the profession’s own leadership.


Bar chiefs today published a biennial tome that shines a light on every nook and cranny of professional practice.

And the findings of the “Barristers’ Working Lives” survey — published jointly by the Bar Council and the Bar Standards Board (BSB) — make worrying reading for anyone still harbouring a rose-tinted view of a profession populated by Rumpole-esque characters using their curmudgeonly sharp wits to battle the establishment. Indeed, if Rumpole still exists, he’s likely to be thinking about a trip to the Temple food bank.

The researchers found that 67% of the self-employed barristers in criminal practice said their earnings had fallen between 2011 and 2013. Another nearly 60% indicated the tumbling pay was forcing them to consider another practice area.

And nearly 1 in 5 was so narked as to be seriously considering leaving the bar all together. The vast majority of those at both the criminal and family bars eying up supermarket shelf-stacking roles among other options cited the government’s hatchet job on legal aid rates as the reason.

However, it is not just criminal and family hacks that are feeling the pain — earnings across the bar were generally down. According to the report:

“There has been an increase since 2011 in the proportion of barristers who report that their fees received (self-employed) or gross earnings (employed) have decreased in the last two years”.

The researchers found that 22% of employed barristers, and 39% of the self-employed, said fees received/gross earnings had decreased, either somewhat or substantially, in the past two years. In 2011, those proportions were 11% and 30% respectively.

Predictably, lawyers at the commercial bar were the least badly affected. Just 18% in that field said their fees had decreased over the last two years.

The report also found that at least the perception of bully was a significant problem at the bar, with race, gender, schooling, disability and even parenthood all targets for abuse.

According to the researchers, 25% of ethnic minority barristers reported experiencing bullying, harassment or discrimination, compared with 12% of their white counterparts.

Barristers with a disability are more than twice as likely as non-disabled barristers to report an alleged personal experience of bullying, harassment or discrimination — 28% compared with 13%.

The old-school tie also featured in the researchers findings on bullying with educational background described as being “significantly associated with reports of personal experience of bullying, harassment or discrimination”.

Researchers found that 9% of the self-employed barristers that attended fee-paying schools reported personal experiences of bullying, compared with 14% of state-educated self-employed barristers. Some 7% of Oxbridge-educated barristers reported bullying, compared with 13% of those that had been to a Russell group university, and 16% that went to other universities.

The survey found that a third of respondents reported increasing workloads over the past two years. Half of all barristers reported working 50 or more hours a week. Self-employed barristers generally work longer hours than their employed counterparts, and the proportions of barristers working long hours are highest in the criminal and family practice areas.

The Bar Council and the BSB were keen to point out that despite grinding away for ever-longer hours for ever-decreasing rewards, barristers remain keen on doing their bit for society more widely. Nearly 40% said they engaged in pro bono work, and 36% were involved in other charitable legal work.

For those with strong stomachs and a spare couple of hours, the full report is here.