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Top commercial chambers rally to save criminal pupillages cancelled due to pandemic

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Group follow Keating’s lead in offering emergency funding for training spots

A group of leading commercial chambers have come together to provide emergency funding for criminal pupillages that have been postponed or cancelled as a result of the pandemic.

The cohort have followed Keating Chambers, which in September pledged £20,000 to fund a pupillage that a criminal set has had to withdraw due to COVID-19.

The group, under the guidance of the Bar Council, is made up of Twenty Essex, Atkin Chambers, 3 Verulam Buildings, Matrix Chambers, Brick Court Chambers, as well a members from 4 Pump Court and Blackstone Chambers. Quadrant Chambers is also lending its support via another route.

“It has been clear from an early stage that the pandemic will have a disproportionate effect on certain areas of the bar”, said incoming Bar Council chair Derek Sweeting QC. “We know that whilst many criminal sets have prioritised the funding of pupillage, there have been and will be gaps.”

The 2021 Legal Cheek Chambers Most List

In his inaugural speech yesterday, Sweeting went on to thank those sets that had stepped in so far to prevent the “exclusion of bright talent” from the bar. He continued:

“Special thanks must go to Keating Chambers and Lucy Garrett QC who started this ball rolling in September and have been instrumental in gathering support from across the commercial bar.”

The group is now calling on criminal sets that would like to take up this offer to get in touch with the Bar Council. It is also stressing that any communications on the subject and the identity of any set taking up the offer will be kept completely confidential.

For more information, or to apply, please complete the form which the Bar Council will provide and email it to pupillagegateway@barcouncil.org.uk.

News of the initiative follows a report published by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) that forecasted a drop in pupillage numbers over the next two years as a direct result of the pandemic, with training spots in criminal and family law predicted to be hit hardest.

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59 Comments

Laz

Great work 👏🏻

(10)(2)

Anon

No help from Fountain Court or Essex Court?

(15)(1)

Anonymous

Mini-pupillages should count towards pupillage.

(5)(48)

Anon

How much does an average commercial barrister at a good London set actually earn?

(1)(1)

Anonymous

Earn or get paid?

(0)(0)

Anon

Either. Would be interesting to know if aged debt is much of an issue at the commercial bar.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

They earn about 10% of what they get paid. Age discrimination against debt is not publicly encouraged.

(9)(9)

commercial junior

There is obviously quite a range (depending on how rent is structured in any given chambers) but an informed guesstimate would be 60%-90% gross (with income tax on top of that) for most: if you are a super star silk and there is a cap on rent it could be much higher and if you have no practice and the rent structure has a minimum for a room than you could be losing money but neither of these would be common…

As to aged debt it is in my experience extremely rare not to get paid (has happened to me once in 10 years as solicitors went insolvent after sending the cheque).

Anonymous

60-90% of what, sorry?

Solicitor

In the hundreds of thousands after a few years, I believe.

(0)(1)

Anonymous

Earn or get paid?

(1)(1)

Property Barrister

Let’s say at 4-5 years standing, you bill £200,000 in a year (this is on the low side for a top-end commercial set, but the right ballpark for most chan/comm barristers).
You won’t receive all of that, as sometimes it takes time to be paid. However, you will also be receiving sums from the previous year, so it usually roughly balances out once you get going. However let’s say you lose 10% to aged debt, so that’s £180,000 received.
You will then pay rent and fees to chambers, which would total between around 15-20% (maybe slightly more) depending on your chambers’ set up. You’ll hopefully be paying that on received sums, rather than billing, so that knocks it down to £144,000 in your pocket.
You’ll then have some degree of expenses for travel, hotels, books, memberships, although fairly limited in commercial practice.
So your taxable income sits at around £140,000 on these numbers.
That roughly matches my own experience, don’t know if others have wildly different views?

(6)(0)

Commercial Barrister

I’m at a commercial set (not top-end) and though this feels unbelievably vulgar, this will give an idea:

– Over 250k 5 years into practice

– Approaching 550k 10 years into practice (not a spectacular year due to unusual number of hearings / trials settling, extra 100-150k possible if more had stood up)

Expenses around 15% both years, so taxable income of 467.5k at 10 years, >212.5k at 5 years

Agree with Property Barrister that receipts tend to track work done fairly closely if fee clerks are doing a good job of chasing aged debt, which they generally do. Very unusual indeed to have to write off debt.

Anon

@Commercial Barrister

Not at all trying to say you’re making this up but how does that stack up with BSB figures that only 300 barristers make over 500k, yet there are 1600 members of COMBAR.

How on those numbers is a 10 year call junior at a non-top set (in your words) already making around 500k?

Or are you just really good?

Lord Harley

@ Anon, by non-top I mean non-magic circle. I’m at a decent set.

I have no idea how my earnings stack up with the BSB figures to be honest!

anonymous

Dec 16 2020 1:06pm: I call bullshit on that. You are certainly not earning that amount at a non-top Commercial set.

Anon

@Lord Harley

Fair play, that is some very good moolah.

Anonymous

If true, not bad money.

Lard Horley

Lord Harley, I call you out as not “the real” Lord Harley and I claim my £10.

Your beard is fake and you don’t have a long list of absurd credentials listed.

Phoney Santa alert!!!

Anon

Where does this end though? It’s not healthy or sustainable.

(3)(2)

anon

There will always be dedicated trial advocates and dedicated solicitors, with the need for specialist training organisations for each. I imagine the “end” will be the independent criminal bar. Paying for rent, clerks and facilities staff for standalone Chambers in old buildings around Temple is an archaic luxury that is quickly becoming unsustainable.

CPS will always need to competitively recruit and train both solicitors and trial lawyers (be it barristers or solicitor advocates), and defence firms will need to do the same. There’s no reason why the criminal law profession couldn’t benefit from these economies of scale without losing the quality of trial advocacy.

Legal aid case value is quickly becoming charity work anyways, with just enough public funding to cover travel and practice expenses (other than hourly rates). Perhaps for “legal aid” defence work, it could rely on a centralised public defenders’ office that is staffed by qualified barristers and solicitors – perhaps also trainees/pupils? – seconded from any firm for a few months at a time and maybe a few full-time employed lawyers managing cases paid at civil servant salary levels. The secondments could be picked up as part of the firms’ pro bono commitments with tax incentives for writing off the hourly rates.

(3)(1)

Anon

Atkin Chambers isn’t a Commercial set. They do Construction.

(36)(9)

Anonymous

They’re commercial in that most of their end clients are businesses – barely any individual can afford their rates. Fantastic set and my firm has instructed a few of their tenants quite frequently. Contractual breaches, professional negligence claims, HSE investigations, inquiries, international arbitrations… there’s a lot of work they get. Most of their tenants, at all levels, will have annual income that will rival their colleagues of equivalent PQE at the MoneyLaw US firms.

Before you ask, yes I am jealous, yes I considered applying before going the solicitor route (to Atkin and Keating), and yes I have a chip on my shoulder from when I was told I probably would get in.

(7)(23)

Anon

But they’re a Construction set, not Commercial.

(21)(0)

Thabo

Can any criminal bods tell us, confidentially of course, how they are doing at the Independent Bar?

I’ve been in house for 10 years and have been thinking of making the switch but I’m not sure I’m getting honest answers as everyone I talk to claims to be doing fine, but I do wonder if they’re just saving face by saying so.

(3)(1)

Anon

The market is massively oversupplied and demand is dropping like a rock. So unless you have no grasp of basic economics, I’d say put if I were you. The criminal bar is filled with people who think the state owes them much more money.

(6)(1)

Anon

But if there aren’t the tenancies available after the end of pupillage, does this really help anyone?

(9)(1)

Martin Routh

There are unlimited criminal tenancies. You just earn almost nothing.

(10)(0)

Anon

The serious question that needs to be asked is what future does the criminal bar have in its current form.

It’s quite an old fashioned branch of the profession compared to civil and commercial sets. Family in my experience somewhat old fashioned still, but has modernised a fair bit more than the criminal bar which is still pretty much stuck in the 80s.

We can all bleat about legal aid cuts, and you’d struggle to find a lawyer who doesn’t think they are unjust. But looking at the reality of the situation – pitiful legal aid is here to stay. Other branches of the profession have adapted, why not the criminal bar? If that means fewer chambers, more people working employed, then where does subsidising the profession lead in the long term?

(6)(0)

Kings Counsel

This is virtue signalling on an epic scale by these chambers.

It will result in yet more wannabe criminal barristers joining a dying part of their profession, where the pay and prospects are appalling and the direction of travel has been clear for the last 30 years.

It should be Professional Misconduct to encourage any student to join the criminal bar.

(22)(3)

Sad but true

The thing is there are many people who come from well off families that may not be able to make into commercial chambers. So they qualify as criminal barristers and then after some years they use family connections to either broaden their practice to areas that pay more than bog standard crime (including international work where being an English barristers may be enough to get more interesting work), move into an employed barrister role which pays more or go into politics. The point is the prestige and decent salary comes at the end point, and they have enough family backing for the early days not to be so rough. Clearly it is getting to a point where, unless you work for a top criminal chambers with higher earning QCs doing fraud, white collar crime and other higher paying work in related areas (health and safety, clinical negligence etc.) that are able to subsidise the juniors, you will be on the breadline in London.

(4)(0)

Anon

There is massive oversupply at the junior end of the criminal bar, and that swollen part of the profession is sucking more and more regulatory resources for no good reason. A reduction in numbers should be welcomed.

(15)(2)

Former Bazza

@ commercial bazza at 1.06 on 16th December, I detect huge amounts of BS. A very close friend of mine who I met at Bar School is 17 years call, at a MC set, and he is rated in 3 areas by the directories, tiers 2 and 3 respectively.

He grosses between 400-450k a year, and works very, very hard. There is NO way at a non top commercial set you would make those figures at those level of respective call. Official figures from the Bar Council are that there only 200 barristers who billed more than 500k. It is safe to say these will be largely spread across the “top” half a dozen commercial and chancery sets

(5)(1)

Lord Harley

@Former Bazza. Very interesting, but are you sure your friend isn’t being modest?

A few points:

1) If your friend has not made silk and has an hourly rate of say £300 per hour – which seems on the low side for someone of 17 years’ call, I’d expect closer to £350 if not £400 per hour- £450k equates to 1,500 hours of work per annum. Assuming he takes 2 months off a year, that’s 150 hours per month, or less than 40 per week. So he works hard, but not crazy hard. (At least not in my books, but then perhaps I have a skewed perception of what constitutes hard work and need to look at myself in the mirror and figure out what I’m doing with my life.)

2) I would expect someone of 17 years’ call (baby silk or senior junior) who is doing well to be pulling in around a mill at my non-MC set. This being based on Chambers’ average revenue per barrister and candid conversations with more senior members of chambers.

Anyway, if your friend was telling the truth, that makes me feel slightly better about not being at an MC set.

Incidentally, which sets falls within your definition of the top half dozen chancery / commercial sets? Once you’ve counted the 5 MC sets, there’s only room for one more set of Chambers. Yet the MC doesn’t include successful sets like 7KBW, Wilberforce, South Square, Maitland, Quadrant, 20 Essex or 4 Pump Court , let alone Atkin or Keating, both of whom, however you label them, do high-value and lucrative work.

I would be very surprised indeed if the average revenue per barrister at any of those sets was not at least 500K per year. It’s probably significantly more at some of them.

(5)(2)

anonymous

At the risk of setting hares running, what are the 5 MC sets – I know of 4 (Fountain, OEC, Essex Court, Brick) but which is the fifth? Is it 3VB (the only other tier 1 commercial set?)

(1)(0)

Lord Harley

Yes, 3VB. Though come to think of it, has Blackstone infiltrated the MC yet?

(1)(1)

Anon

MC sets are generally considered to be Brick, Fountain, Essex, One Essex and Blackstone, though 3VB appears to have infiltrated as the sixth with participation in a new mentoring scheme with the other 5.

(1)(1)

The Real Deal

PHONEY FATHER CHRISTMAS ALERT!!!!

YOUR BEARD IS FAKE AND YOUR PRESENTS ARE CHEAP TAT MADE IN CHINA, NOT BY ELVES IN A WORKSHOP AT THE NORTH POLE!!!!!

IF YOU WERE THE REAL LORD HARLEY YOU WOULD LIST YOUR CONSIDERABLE ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENTS AND HONOURS AS PUBLISHED IN WHO’S WHO’S WHO!!!!

(0)(0)

Barrister

“Official figures from the Bar Council are that there only 200 barristers who billed more than 500k”

From personal experience, the notion that there are only 200 barristers billing more than 500k is staggeringly hard to believe.

(4)(1)

Anon

@Barrister

Yep, that’s incorrect. It’s 200 earning between 500k and 1mil, and 130 more earning over 1mil.

Source: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/more-than-300-barristers-earn-500k-plus-wr29675cd

However, considering there are almost 600 barristers within the “Magic Circle 6” alone and there are probably half a dozen more top commercial sets which seem just as high quality judging by the standards of their tenants (Twenty Essex, Quadrant, Atkin, Monckton, 7KBW, Wilberforce, South Square) and then perhaps Henderson, Keating, Erskine, 4 Pump Court, XXIV Old Buildings, Serle Court, Littleton likely all having a strong contingent of high earning silks and senior juniors, that really does seem a little on the low side.

Any chance that declared earnings are being minimised by certain unscrupulous practitioners?

(3)(0)

Anonymous

I would put Serle, Keating, Erskine, XXIV OB and 4 Pump Court right up there with the commercial sets you mention in parenthesis. That’s a lot of barristers earning over 500k.

As to whether earnings are being misdeclared, it would be odd if a substantial portion of barristers earning over 500k were under-stating their income to slightly reduce the cost of their Practising Certificates, while running the risk of being found out and disciplined by the BSB.

Whatever the explanation, the BSB figures are way off the mark.

(1)(0)

The Specialist Bar

Don’t forget the IP sets and Tax sets. Lots of juniors there, never mind silks, billing well over 500k a year there. I know a number of juniors around 12-14yrs call billing north of 700k this year outside the MC sets. What you also have to appreciate is that earnings within sets vary hugely even at the same/similar calls. I earn ca. 200k more than my colleague of exactly the same call.

Barrister

I’m at a non-MC commercial set (one described in these comments as in the tier directly beneath), 3 years call (depending on how you calculate it, been practising for 2), and I’ve billed £260k this calendar year. A slightly lucky year in terms of hearings etc, but over £200k was pretty inevitable. Knowing what my more senior colleagues bill (even the non “super” silks/senior juniors), your friend is being modest.

(1)(12)

Curious

What’s the average senior junior and junior silk earning at your set? What about the super silks? Is it more than top of equity MC partners?

(0)(0)

Former Bazza

@lord harley, Please just stop peddling this nonsense. The average gross RPB, at the so called MC sets, is 650/700k. Now you need to price in that these sets are broadly made up of about 50% of tenants being in Silk, which increases skews the figure upwards by a fair. bit.

So there are 325 Barristers in total billing over 500k. The so called MC sets have about 350 tenants as between them. Then add in the specialist/niche top commercial and chancery sets, that number is spread even thinner as between all of those sets, some of which you mentioned here.

He has not “made” Silk at 17 years call , 16 years in practice, that would be extremely rare, and perhaps dangerous to ones diary thereafter for a good few years. The latest Silk Competition, garnered one who got made up and he was 2002 call.

Are you saying senior juniors of about 15 years call or so are grossing a million, well they are not, I question as to whether you are at the commercial Bar, or the Bar at all. You claim you are at a decent mid tier MC set, billing 550k at ten years call, and but for Covid , you would have billed another 150k taking it to 700k. I don’t think so buddy.

As another poster said there are circa 300 Combar members, how do your figures square with the official figures released to Legal Week by the Bar Council tally? As to underclaring , not a cat in hells chance, it would be a serious disciplinary offence. Practising certificate fees are linked to billings. If one were to fudge the figures it would be a criminal offence. Lets start with obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception.
The long and short of it a busy , solid, decent Bazza at a top commercial /chancery set, will /should be billing 500k at or about 15 years call. Significantly getting above that is tough, for all but the very best, busiest, and those in demand, whether they be a silk or senior junior.

(4)(1)

Lord Harley

Hello Former Bazza,

1. Your estimate of RPB might have been accurate in the late noughties. But not in 2020. Not even in 2013. This is revealing:
https://xxiv.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/old/documents/Bar_Top_30_report_2013.pdf

2. RPB at my set is over 600k per barrister. We are not mid-tier but top-tier, just not MC.

3. There’s a Brick Court chap who made silk this year who was called in 2007.

4. Yes, I am saying some senior juniors of 15 years’ call – certainly at my Chambers – gross a million or more. Not sure what more I can say . You don’t need to believe me. Ad hominem like “I don’t think so buddy” is cute.

5. The BSB figures on those earning >500k strikes me and others here as an underestimate. I agree that nobody in their right mind would fudge their revenue. So I don’t know what is going on with the figures.

Putting all of this to one side, the overarching question is why you appear to have an axe to grind. So much so that you are prepared to question whether I am at the Commercial Bar or the Bar at all, for no reason other than that the earnings I’ve described exceed your preconceptions, based perhaps on the modesty of your MC coeval, as to what is possible. That is a curious deduction. Sorry if I’ve threatened your worldview.

(3)(0)

Anon

Your figures are wayyyyy off

At the 6 MC sets there are 582 barristers by my count (yes, I have too much time on my hands), not 350 as you state.

And as per COMBAR’s website, they have over 1600 figures.

Obviously those aren’t statistics you’d expect people to know off the top of their head, but if you’re going to pontificate on what commercial barristers earn then at least get your basic facts straight.

(2)(0)

anon

Why so salty?

(0)(0)

Former Bazza

The six MC sets, I thought there were 4, maybe five at a push?

(0)(0)

Former Bazza

Lord Harley and one other claimed the BSB figures were way off . I simply opined they were not , it was said by you and others that people were under declaring, so as to save a few quid. People seem to have rowed back from that a bit now when I pointed out that would be the commission of a criminal offence.

There has over the last ten years been a more efficient and commercial focus by chambers in remaining competitive across the whole piece and that includes the need to move away from traditional billing platforms. And yes this is even for the “best” commercial and to a lesser extent the Chancery sets .

The US still are less than attracted by what they see as being charged double or more by the U.K. having a split profession , and the US market and other legal markets are huge buyers of commercial legal services at the Bar, and the solicitors branch .

(5)(0)

Lord Harley

I did not say barristers were under-declaring. Where did you get that from?

(0)(0)

Septic Sceptic

Somehow you have to reconcile your assertions that seemingly very large number of barristers are earning over £500k with the data from the BSB that says only 325 of them are. Either the BSB is wrong, or very many barristers earning a huge amount of money are under-declaring their income to the regulator to save less than a day’s income on their PC fee.

(2)(0)

Specialist Bar

I personally think the BSB figures seem low. Though I agree there isn’t much chance they are wrong. I can’t recall if there was any way to indicate that you didn’t want your data used, but there may have been.

The reality, however, may be that the figures are correct and that there aren’t quite so many at the MC sets earning north of 500k because you are looking at RPB rather than what we should be looking at, which is the median pay within a set. All the MC sets have *some* deadwood. They also have *some* practitioners who just don’t work long hours – either because they aren’t in demand or have chosen to work less.

Furthermore, RPB is a crass metric because you will get mega earners who are hitting multiple millions a year pulling up the average when the absolute base in an MC set is realistically £100-150k in your first/second year. So if RPB is £600k and a given set has a few earning £2m (or higher – and there are numerous earning more than that) then that is skewing the average upwards.

You can see that an average is a crude metric for this if you looked at the curve for earnings released a few years ago, where things really flatten out between £500k and £1m and then spike again north of £1m. That is because there are, in effect, two different markets – silks and non-silks.

I certainly would not be surprised at anyone at a good, but non-MC set earning north of £500k. I started earning north of that at 6 years in practice (i.e. at the end of the 6th year post tenancy) and I am at a specialist set, but non-MC.

I also query why there is the vitriol towards those who are saying these earnings occur. Their statements align with my experience and those of my friends at non-MC and MC sets.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Over 500k 6 years in? I don’t think so buddy. I question whether you’re at the Specialist Bar, or the Bar at all.

Only joking.

I find the vitriol inexplicable too.

"Magic Cirlce Barrister"

I have read these exchanges with interest. Since Christmas has been cancelled, I might as well weigh in.

A bit about me: I am a junior under 10 years’ call at one of the so-called ‘magic circle sets’. To those who wish to speculate, let me narrow it down further for you: it’s one of the ones named after a county.

The first thing you need to know is that there is no such thing as a ‘magic circle set’. It is a misnomer used by those who (a) don’t appreciate how the Bar works; and (b) are at the so-called ‘magic circle sets’ because it helps them with their branding – see (a).

The reality is that there are a great number of practitioners at the non-‘magic circle sets’ who are able to command fees equal to or higher than those at ‘magic circle sets’. They may be star individuals at smaller commercial/chancery sets (e.g., a certain silk at one of the Stone Buildings sets) or even just ordinary practitioners at specialist sets (e.g., construction, IP, tax) who are not counted amongst ‘magic circle’.

If you steps back from all the vitriol and hyperbole in this exchange and look at the fundamental economics of the Bar, the answer is actually quite straightforward:

1. How much a barrister earns per year is a function of: (a) her average hourly rate; and (b) the number of hours she bills in the year. Now I appreciate that there are occasionally alternative arrangements – e.g., fixed fees, capped fees, briefs agreed on the basis of days rather than hours – but, on the whole, they all boil down to an analysis of sums charged for time spent.

2. At the commercial bar – including, but not limited to, ‘magic circle sets’ – it is very easy for a junior barrister to be charging north of £225/hour from the 2nd or 3rd year in practice. In my experience, this is a very standard floor rate for work at the commercial bar. (Construction and IP bars are similar in my understanding; tax is a bit higher – but they pay a lot more in expenses such as professional indemnity, as to which see below.)

3. So, if this barrister of 3 year standing bills 1600 in a year (i.e., working 40 hours a week for 40 weeks in a year and having 3 months off – which is fairly standard), she will get to billings of £360,000.

4. To get her earnings, you deduct expenses. The key amongst these are chambers rents, unreimbursed business travel, books, professional subscriptions, and professional indemnity insurance. Chambers rents vary in structure from set to set – some sets have a fixed percentage; others a sliding scale; and yet others a combination of a flat fee and some sort of percentage. However, at my set (and from my understanding of the ‘money bar’ – i.e., leading commercial/construction/IP etc sets), the net figure comes to around 20%. The figure at the tax bar is higher because they have to pay considerably more for their professional indemnity insurance.

5. To be conservative, let’s go a bit higher than 20% and say that net expenses come to 25% of gross income.

6. So this barrister of 3-year standing is earning post-expenses (but pre-tax) something like £270,000. This is very good money for a person still in her 20s (which is mostly the case).

7. Where it gets tricky – and where I jump into the debate that you have been having – is in year-on-year increases in this figure. To go from the £225/hr range to £275-£300/hr range is relatively easy and this barrister should get there by the time she is 6-7 years into the job – at 1600 hours/year, this will come to £440,000-£480,000 gross easy.

8. However, beyond that mark, the rate of increase of your hourly rate flattens out considerably until you take silk. Hardly any juniors – no matter how good and no matter how many years in – will be commanding hourly rates in excess of £400/hour and for the most part, your hourly rate will plateau at around the £350/hour mark.

9. Further, the number of billable hours per year you are able to put in will likely decline as you move from the ‘cheap enough to be another resource on a big case’ bracket to the ‘we want silk-level quality for this price’ bracket. So while it is very easy (especially at ‘magic circle sets’ and specialist sets like Atkin/Keating) to be able to bill north of 1600 hours per year without breaking sweat, it becomes incrementally difficult to get to this mark as you grow more senior and the market gets tougher.

10. So, in reality, you may well plateau out until you take silk at something like £350 x 1400 (or you might be able to get more work by giving discounts which amounts to similar things).

11. Bear in mind: this is still very good earnings – post expenses you are taking home something like £370K/year while working 9-10 months a year and being your own boss etc.

12. So I don’t think the BSB figures are misguided at all. If you look closely, you will find that a significant proportion (nearly 10%) of self-employed barristers under 15-year call at the self-employed bar in London are earning in the £240-£500K bracket (with a few earning in the £500K-£1M and >£1M brackets as well). The people at the higher end of this range – e.g., north of £400K – are likely to be practitioners at the commercial/chancery/construction/IP/tax bars in London.

13. To the extent the debate centred on the total number of barristers at ‘magic circle sets’, it is misplaced: many people in these sets (mine included) are not in reality full-time practitioners and by choice bill far less than the numbers discussed above. Also, some aren’t good enough to be that busy but there is no easy mechanism for booting them out and they can coast along on relatively low earnings. I would be surprised if the average junior at my set makes considerably more than the average junior at Atkin/Keating, neither of which are ‘magic circle’. (In fact, anecdotally, the construction juniors make a real killing.) Plus, there are many practitioners at sets like 20 Essex / 7 KBW and even 39 Essex etc who pull in better numbers than some of my colleagues).

14. Finally a note on the debate regarding COMBAR membership: it has very many members who are, frankly, not commercial barristers at all. Their membership is more aspirational than actual. So to conclude that ‘the figures must be misleading because COMBAR membership is so much higher’ is wrong.

15. In conclusion: commercial barristers make a very decent and comfortable living; it is not as high as some people suspect but it is still very robust and decent for the lifestyle one can maintain.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

(8)(0)

Specialist Barrister

I am the Specialist Barrister from above. I agree with all these comments. I noticed my billings shot up quickly to ca. 500k and have then slowly increased since then – due to the fact that when my rate goes from £320 to £350 that is a much lower percentage change than when I was a baby junior.

I also agree you can get a little less work as you get more senior, but I would add that in my area, court hearing and opinion work are often done on fixed fees which are higher than the hours put in. This is particularly so with opinion work – you want access to my insurance policy for your multi-million pound question, then you can pay for the privilege. Get lucky with a couple of trials/chunky hearings settling post brief and something else pops in the diary and you can be looking at a £50k boost just like that. But the reality is that there is a lot of luck where you end up within a given range. I would say there is about a 300k difference from the bottom of my likely billing range to the top.

But for those looking in, bear in mind that (1) we have no pension or parental leave pay (we generally aren’t charged expenses but that is just a saving, not a payment and we are not working), (2) you can luck into a bad year or just fall out of favour and (3) aged debt sometimes doesn’t get paid. But the best bit? The fact I am self-employed and the independence and time off that goes with that. An interesting question is how much more would one take to shift and work in private practice in a law firm. Personally, you would need to massively increase what I earn to shift over to that.

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Former Bazza

@ specialist bar, I though also the number were a bit low, but I am having to assume the figures are correct. Agreed all sets have dead wood throughout the bench, including silks. One only has to see how many new silks , practice when they get made up and go nowhere, and they apply to the bench soon after their appointment as Silk.
And in terms of Silks there is a huge disparity there also. There are those who are still doing senior junior work and not leading anybody. There are those in court who maybe have a junior behind them , and then the super star silks, who lead 3, 4, 5 juniors as a matter of routine. Not all Silks are the same…
As others have said there are sets other than the so called “MC sets” where RPB, is greater, especially at the chancery, tax, and company bar.

@magic circle barrister, he/she has largely nailed it. No matter how good you are perceived to be, no matter how busy one is, no matter how hard you work, it is going to be a challenge to get above 450k gross, unless you are doing work funded by way of a DBA/CFA which is unlikely at the commercial Bar.

The commercial and chancery bar is a very competitive space, and there are any number of ” top” sets trying to steal a march on its competitors by offering more innovative and commercial fee structures. The commercial bar pays very well, no doubt, but there are other areas and other sets where you can earn more , for less hours. I am thinking of sets like Erskine and perhaps Wilberforce, neither of which are “MC” sets

Lastly, you no matter what, will be working very, very hard to earn the figures being discussed at the commercial bar in this thread. Two former housemates have seen their billings fall by 50% this year due to Covid. They are very good, very busy, and their practice is built around being in court on their own cases, with perhaps being led twice a year in others. The sets they are at are not MC, but think 4 New Square, 39 EsseX street, Littleton. All fantastic sets.

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Former Bazza

Also no end of sets offering newly made up Silks at senior junior rates for 2/3 years post appointment. As more than a couple of outstanding commercial juniors have told me ” I am now at the bottom of the pile and have to start all over again and prove myself in a much smaller pool of work.”

Both were happy to do work at there old rates, just before being made up, and sometimes offering a reduction on that.No one wants a half empty diary for a year or more. Whilst only a guess I reckon half of new silks at the commercial/civil/specialist bar, practices never take off at all and they scrabble about for bits and pieces.

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Lord Harley

@ Former Bazza, This is spot on. I worked with an MC silk last year who told me that when he made silk at a relatively tender age, one of his erstwhile instructing sols told him they might consider instructing him again in 5 years once he’d proved his mettle as a silk. What this silk initially took to be a facetious joke turned out to be the pattern. He had to rebuild his practice almost from scratch. The same goes for various silks at my Chambers who spent early life in that capacity working at senior junior rates to re-establish themselves.

It is also true that to earn above 500k one has to work very hard. There is also a lot of luck involved in terms of the right opportunities coming your way, and hearings / trials standing up. After a slow start to my practice during the first 5 years when I did minimal marketing, had no inclination to work the kinds of hours I do now and was pretty crap at client service, I grossed close to 500k in years 7-9 and have exceeded 500k this year by a large margin. But I can see the plateau looming ahead as there is little headroom for my hourly rate to increase.

To illustrate the importance of luck: I have quite a few trials in my diary next year so in theory my earnings could significantly eclipse 500k in 2021, but the same was true this time last year and the majority of my hearings and trials did not go ahead. If your diary hollows out unexpectedly, having to pick up work to fill in the gaps can be stressful.

To get to the plateau, sacrifices have to be made: habitual late nights (or not spending any time with the kids in the evening – choose one or the other), cancelled social engagements (if you’re friends with barristers / sols, they’ll probably cancel on the occasions you don’t), outside of August, working on holiday more often than not (mornings and evenings, with ‘pool time’ in between when you’re still thinking about work).

While others are probably better than I am at preserving their work life balance and sanity, it is a matter of degree, and the life of a commercial barrister is certainly not for everyone. But the flipside is I have complete independence, if I were less of a workaholic I could take much more time off, and sometimes – perhaps even much of the time – the work is stimulating.

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