Advice

‘Will doing a PhD damage my chances of a career at the bar?’

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I have a fully-funded offer from Oxford Uni

In the latest instalment in our Career Conundrums series, one barrister hopeful has concerns that completing a PhD will damage his chances at the bar.

“I have an offer to do a fully-funded DPhil (PhD) at Oxford University in History. Having just finished my undergraduate degree in history (at Oxford) and being about to finish my masters in history (Oxford again), I have been considering the bar as a potential career. I have got some work experience and extracurricular stuff lined up which I think would make me a legitimate candidate for pupillage down the road.”

“Is doing a PhD in a subject which I enjoy ultimately damaging to a legal career? Would I be better off trying my luck with scholarship applications next year, rather than taking three/four years to pursue something that has no immediate relevance to what I want to do in the long-term?”

If you have a career conundrum, email us at team@legalcheek.com.

55 Comments

Kirkland NQ

Why do a PhD when you can do Pretty Huge Deals?

(78)(9)

Bombay Bad Boy

Indeed, your Dr Stephen Lucas would be a major City player if he hadn’t taken time out to do a PhD.

(18)(1)

Truth Serum

Did he do his PhD full time? Or did he do it part-time? The PhD is also not the reason why he achieved what he has. Complete waste of time tbh. He didn’t need it.

(3)(8)

Bombay Bad Boy

May I suggest you change your name from “Truth Serum” to “Bleeding Obvious Potion”?

(4)(1)

Non-oxbridge

Alright, show off.

(31)(4)

Engerlish

Hardly. The worry here is that he does not mention winning any prizes at finals. We can assume he has a first, but if he has a basic first with no prizes then the DPhil is going to really harm his chances.

(3)(2)

Some guy on the internet

You’ll walk into Pupillage

(22)(5)

Trainee

I’m a trainee solicitor with a non law PhD. I am sure it was actually what made me stand out in my applications. You’d still be young and careers are very long now. Also in my field it’s very hard to go back and do one one leaving academia so if you have an interest I’d say go for it! Good luck

(32)(2)

A non-knee mousse

Lol no it didn’t.

(4)(8)

Rav

No. In my set of about 60, we have 4 PhD/DPhils. It may confer a small advantage in getting pupillage but is ultimately not relevant one way or the other.

(15)(9)

Lawyer

I would agree with this (I am in a commercial set.). All things being equal, it might assist you at the paper sift staff in terms of getting an interview for a pupillage, but at the interview stage it all turns on how you approach the interview exercise ie at that stage, the fact you have multiple qualifications is irrelevant. & as Rav notes, once in tenancy, it has no bearing on how successful your practice is.

(8)(0)

Senior paralegal at injurylawyers4u

No doing a PHD at Oxford will mean you amount to nothing.

Sorry

(32)(15)

Rubyshire

Only because PhDs dont exist at Oxford. DPhils are the Oxford way.

(23)(3)

Anonymous

You sometimes have to translate into red brick or even old poly on here. Remember the discussion about Cambridge LLMs and BCL, when they came on and said “well Cambridge is Masters and the Oxford course is just a Bachelors.”

(4)(2)

FlourPour

Yes I do. One of those moments that really justifies your sense of superiority and almost helps me forget I’m wasting my precious (and more valuable) time posting comments on a narrowly read legal blog written for students.

(0)(0)

Martin

If Sumption can continue to be a historian whilst he is a judge, and Sedley can write books on history post retirement, then I’m sure you’ll be fine. Interviewers may want to know what your PhD brings to your practice, but you’ll have an answer for that after four years.

(19)(1)

JS

Although Sedley’s books are not vey good history…

(0)(0)

Triot

It will increase and improve your chances at the Bar. Plenty of barristers (particularly the new entrants these days) have doctorate degrees in this competitive market.

(16)(4)

Anonymous

For 90% of sets it won’t help at all. Of those for a decent few it will be seen as a potential negative.

(2)(9)

History finalist and aspiring commercial barrister

From memory, there are a couple of barristers at top commercial chambers with history phds and some even spent a little time as junior research fellows etc. Shows you’re analytically astute and can handle synthesis of vast quantities of information, and in general that you have the level of intelligence that top sets demand.

(17)(2)

Just Anonymous

Completely agree.

All the questionner (if he exists) needs, is a sensible answer to the following question:

Why the Bar rather than a career in academia?

(11)(4)

Angry

The fact that you assume the questioner, a person who has attained academic success at a high ranking institution is male says all you need to know about sexism in this country.

Please apologise immediately.

(5)(46)

Right Cause Wrong Target

“In the latest instalment in our Career Conundrums series, one barrister hopeful has concerns that completing a PhD will damage his chances at the bar.”

No assumption was made.

Combatting systemic sexism is important, but so is identifying it accurately, rather than just looking for a strawman to burn.

(34)(2)

Janice

There is literally no excuse. Poor choice of words from JA.

Right Cause Wrong Target

@Janice, it WOULD be a very poor choice of words, and worth calling out, without the above quote from the article’s introduction. The questioner was explicitly identified as male. JA didn’t make an assumption. Not all masculine pronouns are misplaced and sexist, and trying to find fault everywhere trivialises calling out situations where doing so is actually necessary.

Anonymous

Although to be fair, at the very high end of IQs there is a heavy over-representation of men. (And at the very low end too).

Dave

“one barrister hopeful has concerns that completing a PhD will damage his chances at the bar.”

Just read the article.

(2)(1)

Anon

Because girls don’t like boys, girls like cars and money.

(14)(2)

Angry

Still waiting non that apology. Comment reported.

(0)(2)

Anon

When was it you first realised you did not have a life?

(1)(0)

Alan

There is that received wisdom that the Bar can be a bit sceptical about additional academic qualifications; and there are some articles and commentary that seem to bear that out. However that appears mainly to be in regards to legal subjects. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s that slight suspicion of ‘academics’ vs ‘practitioners’?

But counter to that is the thing that the Bar also appears to like people who are a bit more rounded; so showing you have interests beyond the law can be an advantage perhaps.

So whilst a PHD might not confer much of an advantage, there’s no reason it should be a handicap.

The key thing is perhaps to be able to answer two questions:

Why did you pursue this option?

Why do you want a career at the Bar rather than one where you can directly apply your love of history?

(6)(1)

Bryan

The skepticism seems to come from the lower to mid end barristers. My experience is that most of the more senior members think it’s great, but it makes a lot of the more average barristers get very insecure.

(3)(3)

Barely Legal

What nonsense. The junior end of the top end sets tend to have far stronger paper qualifications now than the senior end. There are no insecurity issues. Speaking as one long in the tooth, I’d look at three history degrees ending in a PhD and I’d be skeptical unless there was a lot of other added value on the CV.

(2)(0)

Frank Delfino

It won’t harm your chances, but it won’t confer any major advantages either. As other posters have pointed out above, a PhD (or rather, a DPhil at Oxford) demonstrates strong skills in research, analysis, written and oral communication. There are barristers and solicitors who have bagged doctorates before joining the legal profession.

However, you will still need a convincing answer as to why you want to become a barrister, rather than an academic. After all, in the 3-4 years you will spend doing the DPhil, other budding barristers will be gaining practical experience in the legal sector, earning money and building their network. If you already know now that you want to be a barrister rather than an academic, then why delay the preparatory work you will need to undertake?

(17)(3)

Anon

“Why did you do the Oxford DPhil?”

“I was offered full funding to spend 4 more years at arguably one of the best, if not the best, university in the world studying an interesting subject in a challenging environment. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and was a fantastic detour before pursuing my professional ambitions.”

“Fair play.”

Just be honest. No one will hold it against them. Congrats to the questioner on a fantastic achievement – stay in university and out of the misery that is the British economy as long as you can.

(24)(0)

Anonymous

The PhD will be of no help at all. For some sets it will be a red flag about commitment and therefore a negative and probably more than you would think. You did not mention election to All Souls, so I’ll assume that is not a factor.

(10)(10)

Not a barrister

This seems like a very circuitous route.

(0)(4)

Spam Hamwich

My heart bleeds for the Oxford grad who can do no wrong.

(1)(1)

Trainee

I’m a trainee solicitor with a non law PhD. I am sure it was actually what made me stand out in my applications. You’d still be young and careers are very long now. Also in my field it’s very hard to go back and do one one leaving academia so if you have an interest I’d say go for it! Good luck

(7)(1)

Pun Guy

Unless you work in IP/Life Sciences or are angling for a job in public international law, I’m sure no one was impressed and some were concerned even if you don’t hear about it. As a solicitor a PhD in anything is a waste of time. As a barrister, it isn’t so bad but is not great. Do two masters if you must, maybe masters in history then masters in law after you converted. Or do the BCL then an LLM in the US. But honestly 4 years just doing a PhD when you can get 4 years of work experience earning money and progressing your career is a complete waste.

(7)(9)

Faisal

Ah, history, the subject of pomposity!

(2)(7)

Reply to Faisal

Says the individual who starts their sentence with the phonetically written ”Ah”, and used an exclamation mark when it wasn’t needed.

(9)(0)

Not Faisal

Ah, feck off!

(2)(0)

Lawl

How is understanding the past “pompous”? I’m pretty sure that a subject in which students use “inter alia” and other such BS is far more pompous.

(0)(0)

Anonymous History

I say do it 100%.

Firstly, having experience of the DPhil/PhD process in your subject of History I can relate to you so congratulations on having your proposal approved and receiving funding – not an easy feat.

Secondly, a minority of comments on here are quite dismissive of you so I will set out my argument.

Having a DPhil or PhD will distinguish you on paper sifts that most pupilage committees employ, meaning you are more likely to be invited to an interview (and showcase your experiences/talents verbally) which raises the prospects of achieving pupilage. As important is how this can be ‘sold’ to instructing law firms who will no doubt think it valuable that you hold a DPhil/PhD.

The thesis and structure of your doctorate mirrors that of being self-employed even if you’re a graduate teaching assistant – meaning you can draw on this when persuading barristers why you want to join the profession. Most applicants will not have experience of being self-employed so even if it’s doctoral study you can argue this is evidence of self-motivation, working to deadlines etc.

Some more technical skills:

(i) research of primary sources and its transferability to researching case law/primary legislation.

(ii) your consideration of historiography and how it can connect to the type of legal research you will conduct as a practising barrister.

(iii) assuming it’s a standard DPhil you will be expected to publish at least 2-3 articles over the duration of your study meaning as a barrister you will be comfortable with publishing in books/articles etc. Once again not something most applicants will have any experience with.

Ignore what some comments have said about the DPhil/PhD relevance or it being a “red flag” in the legal profession. Such people are clearly more comfortable discussing NQ salaries until the end of the Kali Yuga. There is no conventional route to the bar or bench; don’t take my word for it look at the profiles of practising barristers at top sets.

Lastly good luck on your doctorate!

(14)(0)

The Pontificate or Not

I think that rigid adherence to a set of dogmatic beliefs is the true hallmark of a flexible intellect; One can surge forth whilst remaining entirely still. Tally ho my good man; tally ho.

(2)(0)

His Eminence the Rt. Hon. Dr. The Lord Harley of Council, PhD, Pg.Tip, LL.B (Hons) Oxon-Cantab-Hull, O.B.E. Order of the Panty

I never found that too many qualifications and honours harmed my career at the Bar.

(16)(0)

Pupillage Committee Member

I sit on a chambers’ pupillage committee. A PhD will make you stand out and, on our scoring system for the first round of applications, could garner you a number of bonus points for demonstrating academic excellence. Be prepared to explain (I) what skills from the PhD are transferable to the law (crucially research and heavy data analysis) and (ii) why you decided against a career in academia, but otherwise it would certainly not be a drawback for your application. On the contrary.

I’m not sure where these people who say it would be a mark against you are getting it from. Can’t rule out that different sets have different approaches but it surprises me to see that.

(20)(19)

Head of Tier One Commercial Chambers

Is that you Simon? You’re not on the Pupillage Committee mate!! Nice try though!

Ps – could you make sure you clean the Chambers kitchen better next time please.

(16)(5)

Terry Kenny

Hang on, does he have a law degree, helpful for the Bar?

(0)(0)

Bob

This person, to the extent they exist, is not asking whether the Phd (or DPhil or whatever) will improve their chances of getting a pupillary, but whether it will harm it. A lot of the answers seem to assume that the question is whether it will help.

(0)(0)

Not J Sumption

No, it won’t harm prospects of pupillage. Do be aware however that that is not the only relevant issue. 1) Doctoral funding may have become more generous, but by the time you get to the end of first a D.Phil and then a law conversion you may be in significant debt (I was). 2) doing the GDL (if it still exists then) and the BVC (as it is no longer called) after a doctorate can be a surprising change of routine – you will find yourself with a cohort most of whom will have more recent experience of doing exams under time pressure, attending lectures, doing weekly tasks etc. 3) you may decide you want to do something else in the meantime, and then change your mind again and decide to head for law – at that stage there may be questions from at least some sets about what you have been doing and how firm your choice of law is.

All this said, I don’t regret either the D.Phil or the move to law.

(1)(0)

Justice Scalia

Go for it OP. Feel free to become another useless twat in the legal profession who doesn’t actually have a law degree and therefore has an inadequate knowledge of the law.

(0)(2)

Historian

Because Lord Sumption and Lord Neuberger are totally “useless twats” aren’t they…

(1)(0)

Anon

Considering what the economy is going to look like soon, spending 3-4 years out of the job market is for the best.

(0)(0)

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