Criminal barristers are paid £2.40 an hour but I still see why people want to do their job

Legal Cheek‘s Katie King meets a bunch of broke bar rookies — and is charmed

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The criminal bar is suffering a major identity crisis, leading many young rookies to hang up their robes and duck out of the once esteemed profession just a few years after qualification.

Television shows like the BBC’s ‘Silk’ and, going back a few years, ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, have helped shape the criminal bar myth — one that is full of well-remunerated eccentrics living bohemian chambers lifestyles punctuated with long boozy lunches .

But the hard reality is that the criminal bar has changed markedly — for the worse — since the turn of the century, with the rate of decline hastened by government cuts to legal aid made since the 2008 financial crisis.

These days, with earnings in a nosedive, it’s not such a fun place to be. Yet the fight for pupillages remains still highly competitive — around 1,500 students enrol on the Bar Professional Training Course each year (BPTC), despite annual overall pupillage numbers falling below 400 — indicating a continuing strong demand among students to join the criminal bar.

However, a growing trend is emerging: young, bright, wannabe barristers pushing their way through the extensive training process and fighting off the competition to secure pupillage — only to wave goodbye to their QC dreams and move on to something else, often regulatory work, after a few years.

Given that ‘barrister’ is hardly a title acquired quickly or cheaply — the BPTC costs £18,000 — it’s an odd state of affairs. What is happening at the criminal bar that draws so many people in, then spits them out when they finally qualify?

I wanted to find out.

My first port of call was someone who is just heading for the exit door herself. I got in touch with Rebecca Vanstone — a former barrister at 23 Essex Street — to find out why she chose to ditch the wig and start afresh in professional regulation.

Beginning her career at the bar with the intention of staying there for life, Kingston University law graduate Vanstone began to have doubts eight years into practice, when the fallout from the legal aid cuts began to be felt.

Late allocation of work meant she wasn’t able to prepare her cases to the standard that she wanted to. A combination of this and a desire to have a job with more stability led Vanstone to toy with the idea of leaving the bar. Now, a year on, she’s due to start work in the professional regulatory team at a corporate law firm based in the south east in January.

Her move out of the criminal bar to do regulatory work is not unusual: Vanstone notes that she is following in the footsteps of many of her contemporaries.

Daniel Sternberg, criminal barrister at 9-12 Bell Yard, is going nowhere himself, having managed to carve out a sustainable niche in extradition law after surviving a tough few years of early practice. But he has noticed the trend of which Vanstone is a part .

If you look at people five to six years out of pupillage, he told us, at least half are doing some sort of practice outside of crime, and it’s highly prized work. It gives junior barristers exposure to different areas and, crucially, can help them earn some extra cash while building a new career path.

While Vanstone stresses that her decision to leave was not financially motivated, Sternberg explains that the “super tough” part of life of the criminal bar is the money, or the lack of. He reports:

Barristers are paid £70-£80 for a magistrates’ court hearing, maybe up to £100 if you’re lucky. The hourly rate dips well below minimum wage.

Sternberg told us that one of his friends, a fellow junior barrister, totted up her hourly wage for Magistrates’ Court work, and it’s a measly £2.40.

It’s not just money at the bar that’s dwindled since Grayling’s infamous legal aid cuts. Vanstone notices a distinct dip in morale — a point which is elaborated on by anonymous criminal practitioner and blogger the Secret Barrister. He explains:

When you add together the hours (typically 70 hrs p/w plus), the pay (appalling, particularly at the junior end), the effect of the job on your family life, the insecurity of self-employment and witnessing the frequency with which injustices are being caused directly by the financial castration of the legal system (cases collapsing daily due to CPS cuts and so forth), a lot of people are questioning whether [a career at the criminal bar is] worth it.

Small wonder that barristers are making the move out, and the Secret Barrister himself admits to thinking about moving on from his “bipolar” job “each and every day”.

Max Hardy, from 9 Bedford Row, echoes the Secret Barrister’s sentiments. When we asked him whether he’d ever considered leaving the criminal bar, he responded:

If you show me a criminal barrister who has not considered this I will show you a fantasist or a liar.

But Hardy has no plans of leaving. Nor does Sternberg. And neither, I sense, does the Secret Barrister for that matter.

For all its problems, of which there are plenty, there is still something about the criminal bar that fascinates people, draws them in and then pushes them to continue this cold, hard slog.

For Vanstone, it was the excitement of advocacy. For Hardy, it’s the prize and privilege of playing a part in the administration of justice. For Sternberg, it’s working in a profession where no two days are the same. And for the Secret Barrister, well:

I was never that interested in law. I was, however, and remain, an egotistical, attention-seeking show-off. And the prospect of grandstanding in front of a captive 12-person audience was irresistible.

It’s a profession clouded in doom and gloom, yet everyone I spoke to did have something nice to say about it — the human interest, the excitement of advocacy, and the sense of giving back to the community were all common themes.

The Secret Barrister went as far as to say:

The good bits — the perfect cross-examination, the barnstorming closing speech, the impossible acquittal — are better than I could have hoped.

So, for all the wannabe barristers out there still enthused by criminal law, the best thing that you can do is walk in with your eyes open. Vanstone explains:

People just need to be aware. When I was younger, people tried to put me off — but you just don’t take the advice on board… You cannot make a living on criminal work alone. But if you have financial support from your parents or a partner, or another source of income, then it is a great job.

It lacks the glitz of the City, and pays a fraction of the money, but, for all its faults, the picture painted of the criminal bar by the barristers I spoke to is one of charm. Even in this harsh climate, I can see why the career appeals.

People are often so caught up in its rules and regulations that they forget that the law is, for the most part, about people — and what better place to see the best and the worst of people? The problems come when attempting to build a lasting career out of what increasingly has come to resemble a hobby.

30 Comments

Anonymous

I actually quite enjoyed reading this. Keep it up KK, maybe you can redeem yourself!

Or maybe not.

(28)(4)
Anonymous

I agree – I had to double check that Katie had written it.

One point I have to pick up though is this:

“These days, with earnings in a nosedive, it’s not such a fun place to be. Yet the fight for pupillages remains still highly competitive — around 1,500 students enrol on the Bar Professional Training Course each year (BPTC), despite annual overall pupillage numbers falling below 400 — indicating a continuing strong demand among students to join the criminal bar.”

How does an overall increase in students enrolling on the BPTC relate to criminal law only? A good number of those enrolling will be going to other practice areas – no link is shown with an increase in criminal applicants.

(19)(1)
Not Amused

Agreed.

Part of the problem is the commercial bar acting as a lure. Kids think like this:

“oh the commercial barristers earn mega bucks, I don’t think I could get in to those chambers, but if I move slightly down the list then surely my income will still be OK, not massive, but pretty good”

No one tells the kids the truth, that huge swathes of the Bar do not earn a viable living and that once you get out of the top 100 pupillages your earnings do not go down, they fall off a cliff.

(16)(3)
Anonymous

To be fair, any “kids” planning for the criminal Bar do have a responsibility to find out this information for themselves. It is certainly out there for those who look.

(4)(1)
Anonymous

Charlotte Proudman is the answer – Make her Lord Chief Justice now.

(0)(2)
Kuzka's Mother

“You cannot make a living on criminal work alone. But if you have financial support from your parents or a partner, or another source of income, then it is a great job.”

The way it is being described here is not as a ‘job’, it is as a hobby.

(23)(1)
Rebecca Vanstone

That’s true. But what I actually said was that I was fortunate enough to have a private stream of income to support my criminal legal aid work – not from parents or my partner, but private work that I had managed to cultivate. Lots of people are managing to do this, and it makes it sustainable. But anyone thinking they can rely on fees from criminal legal aid alone is, in my view, living in a dream world.

(1)(0)
Rebecca Vanstone

Ps. When I say ‘what I actually said was…’ I’m referring to what I said to Katie, rather than how you’ve read it. Completely agree with your sentiments.

(0)(0)
Not Amused

I don’t see the value of banging on about the fourth cut in legal aid. Why were the preceding three cuts not important? Why did no one campaign against those? Pure childishness.

The criminal bar needs to cease to pretend it is an independent organisation. When 99.9% of your money comes from the government then you are not in private practice. You can ponce around pretending all you like but you are public sector workers without the pension- *slow hand clap*. This stupid, ego driven, stance of refusing to become ‘official’ public sector workers is causing many of these problems (particularly the unwillingness of the senior end to take the inevitable pay cut in order to help the junior end).

We need to form a National Legal Service for all publicly funded lawyers. Set pay rates which are comparable to doctors, raise academic requirements and drive up standards. This Mexican stand-off between the criminal bar and successive governments is tiresome – I have come to dislike both sides in this conflict. In the meantime it is the young who suffer (as well as the public as standards, inevitably, slip).

(16)(32)
Anonymous

I agree there’s a stand off: I don’t agree the problem is the criminal bar’s status.

I’d say the government is impatient with any organisation which gets in the way of its agenda and lacks the attention-span and shared interests to bother about the effects of its decision on those whose votes don’t matter to it. It doesn’t like independent lawyers who question it’s decision – making, and it certainly doesn’t like to lawyers who persuade juries to acquit those the daily mail will judge criminals. Cutting off funding is a no – brainer.

The NHS is an organisational mess that no government has any interest in making effective: the left, because any reform is seen as akin to personally crucifying a nurse and the right because reform would take money and thought. Not a model to emulate in my view.

(7)(2)
Anonymous

The NHS is in a mess I agree but they do not have cuts as we do, their funding model might be worth emulating, their budget is approximately £170 Billion in England alone, they have over 100,000 consultants on a minimum of £70,000 pa and the Government GP contracts stipulate they will get £110,000 pa without over time think what that kind of money and status would do to the criminal bar?

(0)(1)
Not Amused

“I’d say the government is impatient with any organisation which gets in the way of its agenda and lacks the attention-span and shared interests to bother about the effects of its decision on those whose votes don’t matter to it”

Yes yes, another excuse not to change.

I’ve heard this argument before. It doesn’t work because it is predicated upon the idea that *somewhere* in the distant past there was a government that liked being challenged in the court and that *somewhere* in the past there was a population who really liked criminals.

It is nonsense. All it does is cause the current stand off to continue. That is killing the publicly funded bar, hurting social mobility and letting down the public.

Public sector lawyers need to man up and admit they are public sector workers – then maybe you’d get a pension …

(6)(5)
Mr Pineapples

Well said. I am surprised at all the dislikes to your comments.

(3)(2)
Anonymous

How have the CPS done for publically funded prosecutors ?

(3)(0)
Anonymous

You got it Not Amused, you got it baby.

I totally agree with you. I don’t know why everyone’s disliking your comment, bunch of masochists.

(0)(0)
Anonymous

Actually an interesting article, and one with a point. I’m not entirely sure of the ‘noire’ style of writing used at the start though. Nevertheless, an improvement on the normal drivel I have become accustomed to on this site.

(1)(1)
Anonymous

“Daniel Sternberg, criminal barrister at 9-12 Bell Yard, is going nowhere”

(10)(0)
Anonymous

Hmmm yes I noticed that comment too. Three thoughts:
1. I’m sure the statement is inaccurate.
2. Irrespective, Mr Sternberg will be pissed off when he sees this!
3. If the statement is true, then everyone else may as well give up – my understanding is that 9-12 is a top criminal set?!

(0)(4)
Hellofromtheotherside

Surprisingly interesting for Legalcheek, Bravo.

(3)(0)
Anonymous

LC & KK, I’m sure you’re all aware that yesterday’s ‘Inbetweeners’ post hit a new low.

Congratulations on identifying a topic of interest and writing about it relatively sincerely. Perhaps you should frame this sort of article differently- lengthen it by a few thousand words and spin it as an ‘editorial’ or something.

(3)(0)
Anonymous

and research shows that barristers tend to lose against retired engineer litigants in person.

(1)(2)
Anonymous

Almost every criminal barrister I know does this for the justice not the money! Big difference between legal aid barristers and the commercial bar

(5)(2)
Anonymous

“Vanstone notices a distinct dip in morale — a point which is elaborated on by anonymous criminal practitioner and blogger the Secret Barrister”

Not so anonymous now, bro!

(3)(0)
Anonymous

Good luck to rebecca! I’m really happy to hear she is using her numerous skills in a more rewarding way – I came across her at the criminal bar and always thought she was brilliant (both in court and with clients) – the criminal bar is atrophying talented advocates and it is a great loss to the public as hugely limits the quality of representation that remains.

(0)(0)

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