Crime doesn’t pay: Students who opt for bar glamour careers will always earn way less than kids who choose safe corporate route

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Thinking of a career at the criminal bar? You could be over £40,000 better off working in Aldi


A government report has revealed that some junior members of the criminal bar are barely earning minimum wage — and while the money will improve a bit, it will never be great.

The latest stats produced by the Bar Council and the Ministry of Justice show that the median fee income for a criminal barrister in 2014-2015 was £56,000. However — before the uninitiated break out into chants of “fat cats” — after deducting expenses and chambers fees, that leaves those in crime walking away with an equivalent salary of just £28,000.

Examining the structure and level of pay for junior barristers conducting criminal legal aid work, the report also revealed that over a three-year period between 2012 and 2015 fees dropped by 8%.

Things aren’t much better for the more experienced members of the criminal bar. The report suggests that for every five years of additional experience a barrister has, this will reflect in just a 2% increase in fees received.

Alistair MacDonald QC, chair of the Bar Council, is concerned that some barristers are earning “little more than the national average wage”. Worried that the level of remuneration will mean that working at the junior end of the criminal bar will simply become “unaffordable”, he continued:

The payment structure provides little scope for career progression for criminal barristers. It takes many years of practice and training at the bar to prosecute and defend complex criminal cases, but if it is unaffordable for young barristers to pursue this line of work, we will find cases collapsing due to a lack of experienced counsel.

The figures make for even more depressing reading when compared to other options open to students leaving university.

For example, budget supermarket chain Aldi pays graduates £42,000 in the first year of its management training scheme. Pay then rises to a whopping £70,000 after just four years — and Aldi even throws in a fully-expensed Audi for good measure. Meanwhile, at the leading corporate law firms you can be on £100,000 after just two years in the job.

The report also reveals that almost 40% of criminal barristers had annual fee earnings of less than £50,000 — putting them on an equivalent salary of under £28,000. So it’s obvious why there are major concerns that the legal aid-funded bar is increasingly becoming a profession reserved for those with additional means of financial support.

With a 25 year-old supermarket manager with his flash German company car taking home over £40,000 more than some of the criminal bar’s future stars, no wonder the Bar Council big wigs are nervous.



Of course, you presume that those more lucrative jobs are options for those pursuing the criminal bar when those roles may not really be all that open to them



hmm – if a person has made it to the criminal bar, i would think they would make for a very strong contender applying for a graduate scheme.



Unfortunately, you haven’t made it to the criminal bar, so, no graduate scheme for you.



I would disagree. Being a barrister and a business person is very different. When I say “business person”, I mean anyone working in the City, e.g solicitors, bankers etc. Being at the bar requires an aptitude for advocacy, arguments and problems. These three things have variations on a graduate scheme but those schemes are looking for strictly business minded people, which barristers (especially criminal barristers) will not be. I’m not suggesting that they don’t have the aptitude but it is very easy to underestimate how hard it can be to switch between what are very different paths. I can imagine someone being interested in crime and social policy for the most part of their day and suddenly they have to understand bonds, equities, derivatives, M&A etc.



Except that the idea commercial firms look for ‘strictly business minded people’ is essentially nonsense. Large, corporate firms look for exactly the sort people who have an aptitude for advocacy, arguments and problems. If you can’t put a cogent argument together to present to a client that deals with whatever problem you’ve been presented with, you aren’t going to get very far. You need all of that and the commercial aptitude to actually understand what the client wants, and why. Obviously the kind of skills you’re describing are more prevalent in advisory departments, but they’re still required on the transactional side of commercial law firms.

What it seems you’re trying to get at is the difference between practice in commercial law (including the criminal side, e.g. white collar crime) whether at the bar or as a solicitor, and in other areas such as public law or human rights. In that sense, you’d be more on the right track.



I wish you were right. But you forget that city firms are strictly businesses. You can have great advocacy skills and still fail there because you have no clue how business and financial markets work. Advocacy is a plus, but it won’t do you any good if you’re losing money.


I’m sorry, why is this news? No one in legal aid set out to be a millionaire. We do it because it is simply the most fun job ever.



”the most fun job ever”

This year’s Xmas piss-up is well and truly underway I take it?



I think he may be referring to the clientele.



You clearly haven’t done much of it then.



My theory is that a career at the criminal bar is much like becoming a full time musician, comedian, author or actor – people are willing to spend years slumming it and working extremely hard for low pay because they are trying to have a shot at the big time.

Most fall at the first hurdle as they don’t even get pupillage, more fall at the tenancy stage, and more still give up during those difficult early years. But the possibility of career fulfillment and relative prosperity await those who stick it out long enough and have the right combination of what it takes to make it at the top of the criminal bar.



But if this article’s 2% figure is correct, surely we can conclude that relative prosperity is not guaranteed for all who manage to stick at it. This is precisely one of the reasons why people are not sticking it out.


Not Amused

The Criminal Bar used their superior numbers to push through change in how the practising certificate is paid.

In the old days it was paid by year of call. So senior juniors and QCs in Crime had to pay the max. Now it is paid based on earnings. There has yet to be a breakdown of the figures, but it seems pretty obvious that the change was pushed through to benefit the old practitioners in crime.

The babies in crime had always paid the lowest rate. The new system means that QCs and senior juniors (50 year old individuals) can for the first time ever pay the minimum amount (a few hundred). While juniors of a few years call at the commercial bar pay well over a thousand to subsidise the practice of those people you describe as having ‘made it’.

If you need kids to subsidise your work then you haven’t ‘made it’.

I suspect that when the figures eventually leak or are released we will see a tiny minority of criminal silks making decent money. Most of the rest of the silks and the senior practitioners will probably make little more than the £28,000 average.

The independence of the Criminal Bar is unsustainable. It is a stupid matter of pride which hurts the vast majority of practitioners who would be inevitably better off if they just admitted the truth and became public sector employees. In the meantime it is not obviously fair that other barristers are paying to keep this charade going for another few years.

If this were industry the Criminal Bar would be described as a Zombie Business. Killing it now would be an act of kindness – but regardless, no wide eyed naïve young person should flirt with the idea of pursuing it at all.



I would speculate that, if the criminal bar were all employed by the government, and didn’t have to pay for a practising certificate (ie they were exempt for some reason), the average cost of a practising certificate would actually rise (for all those commercial barristers you claim are subsidising crime).

This is because the overall costs that the the practising certificate fees cover would not change substantially (pretty much the same administrative structure would be in place), but there would be far fewer people to contribute to those fees.

I’m sure that most people think it reasonable that they pay based on earnings, rather than number of years call. Just on a single point, for those working part time (most likely to be working mothers, the wife of a film star or a politician) would find it much more equitable, and this would clearly help retain women at the bar.


Not Amused

1) I doubt your argument works on its own terms. We have ‘risk based’ regulation. Almost all commercial sets have been deemed as low to no risk so we aren’t being regulated now. Plus QASA seems to be quite expensive and would go.

2) of course your premise was also absurd – why on earth would we keep the same system.

3) I don’t think you should engage in the falsity of knowing what most people think – particularly when comment bar spoke against the move. I personally feel it is disgraceful that failed businesses are being subsidised by successful ones – particularly when a lot of those failed businesses are comfortable, London home owning hacks and those successful businesses are our nation’s best and brightest, trying to buy a home and crippled by debt.

4) I wouldn’t hide behind the women at the Bar if I were you. They are just as capable of being successful businesses as anyone else (and are statistically more likely to be young and thus to be paying the subsidy). The recipients of the subsidy are much more likely to be pale, male and stale.

There is no obvious virtue in a bunch of middle to older aged men taking a subsidy from successful young people. Particularly when they usually sit on substantial capital in the form of their houses.

The system on both sides – what successive governments have done and the behaviour of the criminal bar – is rotten to the core. I wouldn’t feign virtue if I were in their shoes – taking subsidies from kids.



Completely agree. Why should I have to pay subsidies for woolly jumpers doing Crime who mock and belittle the work I do. Stop moaning and go and get a proper job.



The best bet at the criminal bar is to go in-house.

At least then you have no overheads, decent salary and a modicum of security.

You’ll never be rich, but it’s a less risky way to do Crown Court work, which is (as previous posters have said) capable of being great fun.


Father of Counsel

I blame CBBC for giving children a false impression of life at the Bar



Can we PLEASE stop calling university graduates “kids”? It’s incredibly patronising.


Not Amused

It is a useful phrase for embarrassing those (many) people who seek to prey upon them.

Once they understand that I am sure they will forgive me.


Thumbs up for Not Amused

OK, we’ll start calling them grown-ass men and women.


Lord Lyle of the Isles

in what way is the criminal bar glamorous?


Lord Harley of Nonsense

Criminal barristers piss all over commercial barristers who are largely useless twats and chinless wonders living off daddy’s money.

I bet Not Amused couldn’t cross examine to save his life.


Lord Finley of Afghanistan

It’s time to ban state school students from studying Law, they clearly do not have what it takes.


The Brownsons

Wow, and we thought we were poor!



I’m a practising junior junior – all areas.

For what it’s worth, I think this is a good article; it’s always worth keeping an eye on the macro. But I also think that you get out what you put in, regardless of what job you do. My experience is that if short-term financial reward is your main aim, there are easier ways to achieve that than through law – regardless of whether it’s as a solicitor/ barrister/ civil/ crime or otherwise.

I totally disagree with the notion that criminal barristers are somehow ill-equipped for business or that the skills an individual criminal barrister possesses places them at some disadvantage when applying for jobs in other areas of law or employment sectors. Everyone’s CV is different. I worked inhouse in legal tech for 3 years before starting pupillage and wouldn’t be put off applying for any vac scheme or job opportunity just because I now do work in criminal law.

Also completely disagree with the suggestion that the independent Bar is unsustainable, is a matter of pride or that it’s nationalisation is inevitable.

Bottom line, there are always exceptions: be one.


Not Amused

I think that we should all be more conscious of the messages we send to young people. I am not sure how your message really helps.

If a young person is thinking about whether to go in to crime or other areas of law then it seems to me that earnings data is what they need in order to make a fully informed decision.

What can hamper young people is unnecessary positivity or attempts to detract young people the cold hard truth. Crime usually pays at or near the minimum pupillage award. We know from the government’s stats (although they were presented in a misleading way) that the average earnings in crime equate to a £28,000 salary.

So £27,000 debt for degree. Say 12 in living costs? £18,000 debt BPTC (LPC is a bit lower). Say 7k living costs? = £64,000 debt

In order to earn £12,000. Which will then rise slowly (with unreliable rates of pay) to £22,127 after tax.

I just don’t think it is fair to young people to attempt to distract them from those realities. No matter how much you love your job/life.



I agree people should be provided with sufficient information to make an informed choice but to my mind:

(1) there’s no good reason why provision of that information should be limited to young people as opposed to any person considering entering the profession whatever their age;
(2) stastistical information should be scrutinised, especially if you’re making career choices based on it;
(3) there is more to life than money.

Plenty of people at the criminal Bar are clearing more than £28k.


Not Amused

My figures came from the government. I further note the Guardian article linked in the morning round up today – that you cannot make a living on legal aid.

I remain of the view that it is grossly irresponsible to say anything which implies otherwise.



Also – the rise from 12k to 28k is slow? Not sure what your authority for that is.


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