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Incoming bar chief expresses concern over lack of young barristers as Pupillage Gateway reopens

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‘We will not have a sustainable, separate profession’ Andrew Walker QC warns

The incoming Bar Council chair has expressed his deep concern over the dwindling numbers of junior barristers, going as far as suggesting that it could spell the end of a “sustainable, separate profession”. The bleak warning comes as the Pupillage Gateway quietly reopened for a fresh round of applications.

Andrew Walker QC, a commercial chancery barrister at London’s Maitland Chambers, said that while numbers at the senior end of the bar had “rocketed” over the years, the picture was “less rosy” among rookie ranks. He said:

“To put it bluntly, we are recruiting and retaining ever fewer new tenants, and have been for over a decade, and the bar is steadily growing older.”

Delivering a keynote speech at the annual conference of the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks earlier this month, Walker reinforced his warning with some depressing stats.

The 2017-18 Chambers Most List

He revealed that since 2005 the number of barristers between six and 10 years’ call had decreased by nearly a quarter (24%), while barrister numbers with 5 years’ call and under had fallen by more than a third (36%).

Walker — who takes over from outgoing Bar Council chair Andrew Langdon QC on 1 January — continued:

“Perhaps most worrying of all, the number of barristers of up to 5 years’ call was actually higher in 1990 than it is now. The number has dropped by more than 10% compared with 1990 : 27 years ago.”

So what appears to be the source of the problem? Well, according to Walker anyway, senior barristers are undertaking work that “a decade or so ago, would have filtered down to the more junior ranks,” while other junior-level matters are now being taken on by “solicitors and by litigants themselves.”

Walker argued that this depletion in junior talent could have serious ramifications for the bar. He said:

“We will not have a sustainable, separate profession of barristers in the medium term, never mind the long term, if we are not recruiting and retaining a cohort who can learn their craft of advocacy and specialist advisory work from the outset, and then move on to become the top advocates and silks of the future.”

The soon-to-be bar chief’s damning assessment comes as the Pupillage Gateway officially reopened this week. Wannabe barristers are now able to browse pupillage vacancies but will have to wait until 8 January before submitting applications.

But it’s worth noting that there are some minor tweaks to this year’s application process. “Changes this year include the replacement of the five compulsory candidate questions with two optional questions, which are intended to produce more useful answers, and speed up marking time for chambers,” according to the Bar Council.

Bar Standards Board figures show that pupillage numbers decreased in 2016 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), dropping from 437 to 424.

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60 Comments

Anonymous

‘Shock’.

(7)(0)

Anonymous

The bar is dying a slow death. People are leaving in droves. The silks are doing work that used to be done by senior juniors. Gone are the days when silks used to work on a case with a junior. Natural evolution. First the criminal bar experienced it now the chancery bar is experiencing it, see the collapse of recent chancery sets and the desperate rush in some sets to recruit established practitioners to shore up a terminally ill structure.

(17)(2)

Anonymous

Which sets?
If you mean 11 Stone, they were not in difficulty – there was simply an internal disagreement on extending the lease.
If you mean stone buildings then the turn in the shipping market did them.

(5)(1)

Anonymous

Sets may collapse, doesn’t mean their members leave the bar. Almost everyone from 11SB and Old3SB is still in practice in the UK. Ultimately the wobbliness of some chancery sets is down to the expansion of others.

(3)(3)

Anonymous

Too many barristers, not enough briefs. HMRC stats show that earnings overall are down.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

“internal disagreement about extending the lease” wtf? Sounds like politics-speak. Isn’t that the same as collapsing? “We’re not folding, we just have an internal disagreement about extending the lease” 😉

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Fact is that a lot of traditional junior work is so poorly paid and/or being kept in-house that many juniors without family money can’t make a living from the Bar.

(22)(0)

Anonymous

You have to be a mug to join the Bar.

(9)(4)

Teapot

What about me?

(22)(0)

Cecil the Poof

You’re short and stout, like most counsel. You should fit right in.

(12)(0)

Anonymous

Since 2005 there have been successive cuts both in the availability and the level of fees paid for publicly funded work. This has significantly reduced the work which was previously available for the junior bar, particularly those in pupillage and the newly-qualified who depended on this work to gain experience and income in their initial period at the bar.

The legal aid cuts coincided with a significant increase in solicitor HCAs who now undertake much of the routine Crown Court criminal work. Many juniors saw the writing on the wall and either left the profession or moved to the employed bar rather than wasting time chasing fewer briefs where they often didn’t cover their costs, let alone have a reasonable return for several years of studying. Those who could make the transition to the commercial bar or other areas have done so but did not leave many openings at the publicly funded bar for newcomers to fill.

The future? A reduction in numbers both of pupillages and at the junior bar was inevitable. If this resulted in a reduced cadre of the most dedicated and able, that might not be a bad thing, but if it means the most able leaving, or choosing to go to MC firms as solicitors, it does not bode well. If the junior bar cannot reform and adapt, the gloomy outlook will be self-fulfilling.

(9)(1)

Anonymous

‘Most able’, ‘most dediated’ – jeez, wake up. Your most able and dedicated realise after a year or two that A*’s and 1st’s don’t make them excellent advocates. This kind of snobbery is what makes young people avoid the profession.

(19)(12)

Anonymous

Yeah, barristers are just odd, I was at the commercial chancery bar for 15 years. Its kinda like, “I’m a barrister, therefore I’m better than any solicitor” BULLSH!T. So you struggle to pay your chambers expenses, you struggle to pay your taxes, forget it about sending your children to decent fee paying schools, your social life is non-existent cos you get instructions at the last minute and have to slave to prepare for a hearing the next day or 2 days away and you tell yourself its worth it cos you’re part of the most dedicated and able out there. That’s some self-delusion.

(19)(8)

Anonymous

Yep, remember you from the last moan about the chancery bar. Funny, not everyone on £350k+ is struggling to pay chambers rent and tax.

If you want to go offshore (where careers die) or in-house as you couldnt hack running your own business, more power to you. But let’s not peddle the myth that it’s all doom and gloom. It’s a great, fantastic career but you have to live it. It becomes your life. If you want to clock off work at 5.30, then do something else.

It doesn’t matter whteher you are running your own newsagents, consultancy, recruitment agency etc…, if you run your own business, you have to give it your all. Unfortunately, some people will just join the chancery bar because they have a first and fancy wearing a wig and seem to forget that they are also running their own business.

(20)(24)

Anonymous

I wouldn’t get out of bed for 350k pa fighting other people’s disputes, let alone give up my life for it.

(16)(7)

Anonymous

Left the chancery bar 5 years ago, now making over a million a year in recruitment, never looked back.

(12)(12)

Anonymous

Former Clerk? Good on ya

(9)(0)

Anonymous

No. Major public school with a First in law from Oxford. It was partly that kind of myopic thinking about background that permeates the chancery bar which made me ditch it.

(13)(4)

Anonymous

Chancery barristers – always dealing with clients whose net worth is greater than their own.

Anonymous

Imagine having to have your self worth derived from making money…. What a sad life.

(9)(0)

Anonymous

That’s the life of a typical chancery barrister …

(17)(0)

Anonymous

I am a mid level junior barrister, doing chancery work, and am considering a move offshore. I was interested in your view that careers die offshore. Can you please explain what you mean/why this is the case? Genuinely want to know as it is clearly a huge move.

(1)(1)

Anonymous

Before you make the decision, I recommend you visit the jurisdiction and spend two weeks there even if it’s on holiday. Offshore is not right for everyone and the recruitment agents are not a reliable source of info.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Depends what you’re looking for. Some guys I know have gone offshore and have made tens of millions, especially if they get full equity and an interest in the corporate services provider. Others go for a year or two and hate it. It can be difficult to make it back into the bar after leaving but that’s mainly because barristers look down on offshore. However, you go, you like it, you make tens of millions, you can retire at 50 and stick two fingers up to your contemporaries who will be working into their 70s, like many silks now have to because they didn’t make real money in their 40s.

(5)(3)

Anonymous

Offshore lawyers are failures. People only move to Cayman, BVI etc when their careers have tanked. So if you fancy working in a graveyard of ambition, among people who are only there because things haven’t worked out for them professionally, go ahead. Plus, you have to put up with the ignominy of knowing that the onshore legal community looks down on you; and that the practical reality of your professional life involves a limited diet of work involving the winding up of hedge funds, that most of your cases (if heard in the UK) would be before a circuit judge in a district registry or a registrar, that the local judiciary are pretty hopeless and would (at most) be district judges in the UK, and that you are treated by the onshore lawyers as a post box, with all the strategic decisions, drafting and advocacy being undertaken by the lawyers in London or wherever. It is just as well you pay no tax in Cayman: nobody would bother living or working there if they had to pay tax, and the extra money is viewed as – literally – compensation.

(9)(8)

Anonymous

That might have been the case for a while but no longer. It’s now criminal offenses in most of the offshore jurisdictions for onshore lawyers to be doing the work and the London offshore work has dried up as most offshore firms are now doing the work themselves. Work from London litigation is less than 10% of the market, 90 percent of the offshore diet comes from Asia and China with no London lawyers involved.

(5)(6)

Anonymous

Fu€k mate, you need to sort your life out. So much prejudice and hostility. Are you a chancery barrister or practice director that isn’t get enough?

(2)(3)

Anonymous

Only fake, insecure and weak people care what others think, real people don’t give a fuck and get on with living their life.

(4)(3)

Anonymous

I moved offshore about 10 years ago and I was concerned about what my colleagues would think. I’m not concerned any longer. I now have a beach house and town house in Cayman, 2 luxury yachts, I keep a place on Virgin Gorda to use when I’m in the BVI, I have a Harbour front penthouse in Hong Kong and a home in Chelsea. Kids are all at international school in Switzerland. The colleagues I left behind in Chambers can’t even afford to live in a decent part of zone 1, so it amuses me to think that some believe that my career failed 😂

(7)(8)

Anonymous

Being an offshore lawyer is the definition of professional failure and no number of yachts can save you from that. You should have the intellectual honesty to admit that you sold out and do not care about prestige. The simple truth is this: offshore lawyers earn money out of all proportion to their actual abilities and professional standing. To command the equivalent income in London of a partner in a Cayman or BVI firm, you would have to be a leading Commercial or Chancery Silk, or a partner at a Magic Circle, Silver Circle or top US firm. In other words, you would be at the very top of the profession, working at the forefront of the most complex cases and in the toughest, most competitive environment. Rather than providing a back office function for litigation and deals in a post box jurisdiction, surrounded by other mediocrities.

(9)(6)

Anonymous

The only failure in life is to stay put in a job that you don’t enjoy and doesn’t give you the best remuneration possible for the least effort. If you are happy in chambers then you wouldn’t be thinking about making the move elsewhere. Never let other people’s opinions determine what choices you make. Most of the people out there as partners in the magic circle/silver circle hate it and are only putting their time in to collect in on pensions. The amount of lawyers out there who self-medicate on anti-depressants, alcohol and cigarettes is staggering and they all get to their early-50s and wonder what the heck they have done with their lives and wish they had got off the treadmill and done something different and for themselves rather than letting what others might think stand in their way.

Anonymous

This is their own fault. With the shite pay and oxbridge bias why would anyone with half a brain ever try and become a barrister?

(12)(6)

Anonymous

Not to mention extortionate costs of actually passing the Bar. Of course, individual barristers/sets can’t be blamed for the cost, but en masse they could surely force a permanent change in the system?

(8)(0)

Future Pupil (specialist civil set)

I would be grateful to hear some optimism from barristers who do not generally ply their trade as criminal or family barristers.

I don’t need to make as much as a MC sol, as I don’t see the trade off in type of work as worth it, but I do want to be in a position not to have to worry about money and have the odd indulgence.

(8)(0)

Anonymous

Was at the independent criminal Bar.

Went in-house.

Still earning higher-rate salary.

Still doing the job I love without the overheads of being self employed.

Haven’t looked back.

I’ve not had to become a solicitor to do the above.

(13)(2)

Anonymous

I think he/she specifically requested comments NOT a family or criminal practitioners.

I’m 5 years in at a specialist civil set. Best job possible if you genuinely thrive on independence.

(7)(1)

tenant at specialist civil set

I’m at a specialist civil set. The work is very interesting and intellectually challenging, although there is a lot of travel (if you get lonely easily, it’s not the job for you). The per-hour fees for the work I do are not remotely comparable to chancery or even claimant PI work, but I still receive maybe £200k a year (excluding VAT)–although this requires hard work. The work feels meaningful and important. I do take considerably more time off to travel than an employed person could, which is a major perk of the job. Overall, I’m happy enough and know that I wouldn’t trade it in to become a solicitor or an employed barrister (I’ve had a few lucrative offers to cross over before) just because I’m used to the independence.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

May I ask what your practice area is?

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I’d echo the above question, and also how many years’ call?

(0)(0)

tenant at specialist civil set

I’m around 6 years in practice. I’d rather not identify the exact practice area, but I do work primarily for public sector bodies and am also on the Attorney General panel of counsel. I don’t usually post here, but felt compelled to try and deal with some of the negativity in this thread which might deter some less well-off candidates from the civil Bar (as I was one of them).

(2)(1)

Anonymous

Appreciate your input and understand your not wanting to identify the practice area!

(1)(0)

Young civil barrister

The 1990 figures pre-date the Civil Procedure Rules by quite some period.
In the CPR-era, litigants are not only encouraged to settle their cases – they are given hard-edged incentives to do so, and are severely punished in costs via Part 36 for failing to achieve settlement at least as good as judgment.
If any of us modern practitioners were to take a step back into the litigation environment of the early 1990s, we’d probably be astounded by the amount of civil matters which litigated – there simply not being incentives not to do so.
There’s therefore an extent to which it was a policy objective of the CPR to reduce the amount of litigation, which has succeeded.
Add to that (a) the removal of civil legal aid in almost all fields, and (b) the changes to recoverable costs in personal injury matters (even just five years ago, it was possible to recover all of your costs in relatively trivial disputes, PLUS a success fee – compare that with the fixed costs regime under Part 45 today) – there are lots of matters which aren’t getting through the filter of insurers/claims handlers, solicitors, to the bar.
The main downside that I see in practice is that there’s an absence of recent authority in a number of fields, because sensible litigants settle and don’t fight. This means that our common law system is going to be prone to ossification. Consider industrial disease cases, for example – the medical science moves on quite quickly, but judicial decision making is bound by cases handed down when scientific thinking was rather different (even e.g. ten years ago is a huge period of time in oncology).
Beyond that, though, whether a lack of litigation is in itself a bad thing for *society* is not as open and shut as the new Chair of the Bar may think.

(10)(0)

Anonymous

This is hardly surprising, is it? The Bar is in dire need of re-design and revitalisation for law graduates to even consider it these days. Applicants are restricted principally by the obscene cost of the BPTC, and then once in practice (if you’re lucky and/or talented enough to obtain a pupillage) are subject to extremely poor wages (particularly within certain practice areas), a dreadful work-life balance, and unsociable working hours and working environments. Whilst it’s still attractive in some ways – the opportunities for advocacy and self-employment for example – it needs to modernise, rapidly, if it wants to survive in the current environment.

(15)(0)

Anonymous

Even Sumption went on the record to say that the working conditions at the bar are “appalling”.

(7)(0)

Anonymous

Why is this a surprise? The BPTC is extortionate, and plenty of us know someone who completed it and didn’t get a pupillage. It’s a lot of money, especially if it was for nothing.

(7)(0)

Anonymous

Clients are no longer willing to pay an inexperienced twenty-something for their advice or advocacy skills. That’s the bottom line.

It used to be different, because of class deference and ingrained power-structures and so on, but most of that has slowly but surely been removed. Giving higher rights to solicitors in the 1990s obviously didn’t help.

I think we’ll probably end up with a bar like Australia’s, where I’m told barristers are all former solicitors, and generally the best of them.

(4)(5)

Anonymous

I’d add to this the fact that there’s clearly an increasing trend amongst certain sets to hire pupils from a pool of more mature applicants – notably people from other common law jurisdictions (e.g. Australia) who have already qualified and practised in their home jurisdiction before trying their luck at the English Bar. It makes sense, really: 1) Members of a set know that the money they contribute to pupillage awards is more than likely *very* well spent if used to train people who are already lawyers; 2) Solicitors are no longer instructing junior tenants with no experience, simply junior tenants with limited experience at the *English Bar*.

(6)(0)

Aussie

Yes, absolutely right. The Australian bar is far more sustainable and offers a way forward for the English bar.

First, only those who have established profiles, outstanding credentials and/or 4 to 5 years of solicitors’ experience successfully make it to the bar. In essence, there is a self-selection process because you only end up at the bar if one has a good business plan.

Second, most interlocutory work is now firmly in the grips of the law firms. Barristers are thereby brought in for specialist purposes only. The best partners and senior associates typically undertake their own advocacy, leaving only the longest trials and most complex advisory for the bar. That is probably the way it should – a truly specialist part of the profession.

Third, the entry barriers are far lower (e.g. no equivalent BVC costs or need for “tenancy” or pupillage” etc). The result is that if the new barrister can’t make a living (e.g. through the support of their former firm or “drippings” from more senior colleagues), he or she quickly leaves. The mere fact that one has a first from OxbridgeLondon and ended up in a good set is not enough – one needs a following.

(5)(2)

Anonymous

I can’t think of anything worse than not having any dealing with a case until trial. Good firms will know that barristers serve a distinct purpose and bring fresh perspective to a case that can be lacking if all done in-house. Even excellent solicitors may start a case down the wrong direction or get lost through the trees without seeing the bigger picture.

Yes, work has dried up. The law is so specialist these days that common law sets are really defunct. If you want a sustainable practice then you must be aiming for High Court work. Given the sums involved, can you blame a client for wanting to instruct a company specialist from a company set? If you don’t specialise, then you are in trouble.

(6)(0)

Anonymous

Bar School has been an outrageous waste of time and money for at least fifteen years. Everyone has known it, and nothing has been done.

I genuinely don’t know how the providers have been able to get away with it, but the answer can only be some form of corruption.

Every institution of the Bar – the Inns, their committees, the BSB, the Bar Council, judges, individual chambers – wrings its hands and bleats on about “accessibility”, whilst continuing to allow the appalling, dishonest scam of the BVC/BPTC to continue year after year. It’s an absolute disgrace.

(24)(2)

Anonymous

The difficulty is in two broad areas, for very different reasons.

In legally aided work, especially crime, cuts have made a living income at the bar uncertain.

In general common law work the rise of the solicitor advocate has taken away a lot of bread and butter instructions.

Neither of these developments is good for clients or the taxpayer. The growth in LiPs in the family courts, for example, is dragging the system down. And sol advocates are often poor.

We can probably wave goodbye to properly funded criminal and family justice forever. But I retain hope that restricted rights of audience might make a comeback.

(5)(0)

Anonymous

In 1990 London sets in particular took on 10s of pupils and might offer 1 tenancy. There was no requirement to pay for pupils and they were seen as researchers/cannon fodder…

Times have changed dramatically! Pressures on those higher up mean they can’t afford to pay for pupils. There isn’t the work and fees are much lower. There is no surprise in a lower number.

It’s the lower numbers in crime and family that matter! Where are the judges in 20 years coming from. They are struggling now to get appropriate people what chance in a decade or two…

(4)(0)

Benny Goodman

If you’re a barrister or solicitor doing principally legal aid work, particularly civil, things are more difficult because of the cuts; less money/ less work to go around.

However, if you’re in practice at a good set with a decent proportion of your work being privately paid or for public authorities then the Bar offers an excellent income, independence and fascinating work.

I do wonder how many of the despondent comments above are from people who were actually in practice; and if so, it might be helpful for people to indicate what kind of chambers they were at. Otherwise the comments read as slightly misleading general comments about life at the Bar. Certainly nobody I know at a good Chancery set is struggling for money!

(4)(1)

Anonymous

Ever gone drinking with a chancery barrister? Tight as …

(6)(0)

Anonymous

Everything is relative. There are people earning 2+million a year that are “struggling for money” conversely there are people earning 100,000 who think themselves blessed. Depends on the lifestyle you lead and desire. If you are comfortable with a middle class existence the chancery bar is a fine place to make it. However, if you want or need to be super rich, look elsewhere.

(4)(1)

Anonymous

Personally speaking, in the circles my clients move in, if you don’t have liquid assets of 30+million, you’re considered piss-poor. They just see barristers as the equivalent of waiting staff.

(5)(0)

Anonymous

To be honest, you could say that about any number of traditional professions in the UK. We have encouraged the global elite to come to London. Is it any surprise that cottage industries develop to cater for their needs?

(1)(0)

Anonymous

The chancery bar as a cottage industry servicing the needs of the global elite is pretty much what the chancery bar has become.

(6)(0)

Anonymous

You should hear what the clients say about city solicitors.

(0)(0)

Ian Dodd

It might be a good idea to have some numbers here.

Of the 15800 barristers in England & Wales (Bar Council figures 2016)

2055 (13%) earn less than £30k/year
2965 (19%) earn £30k to £60k/year
3058 (19%) earn £60k to £90k/year
3412 (22%) earn £90k to £150k/year
1748 (11%) earn £150k to £240k/year
2562 (16%) earn over £240k/year

In the last ten years (Bar Council figures)

* The value, in real terms, of criminal legal aid work has fallen by 20%
* The volume of criminal legal aid work has fallen by 25%
* The numbers of barristers working in chambers and practicing criminal legal aid work hasn’t fallen
* The proportion of the total number of all cases in criminal legal aid work handled by solicitor advocates has risen from 10% to 50%

The criminal bar still operates the same business model. Any other ‘business’ would have altered the way it works to meet market conditions long before now. Especially when it is obvious that there will be no more money for legal aid work.

(1)(0)

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