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

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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.