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Research: Fifth of barristers want to quit profession as debt and stress levels soar

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Barristers at ‘breaking point’ and in urgent need of support, Bar Council chief warns

Around a fifth of barristers want to quit the profession as they face extreme financial and psychological woes, new research from the Bar Council has found.

The representative body for barristers in England and Wales published the findings of its most recent survey of the bar. The findings show some signs of recovery in workload, but highlight there is an “immediate risk” of exodus from the profession as barristers remain “stressed, weary and worried”. Eighteen percent of the 1,344 self-employed barristers surveyed said they actively want to leave the profession, the study found.

In the absence of government financial support, many have taken on significant personal debt simply to stay afloat in the last nine months. Nearly two-thirds (61%) of self-employed barrister respondents have taken on personal debt or used savings, with 17% incurring debts above £20,000. This figure is even higher for the criminal bar where 27% have taken on debt over £20,000.

Around a quarter of respondents have taken on additional paid work because their earnings decreased; 24% said that they needed to bolster their finances to make ends meet.

This situation poses a serious threat to the diversity of the bar. Barristers from ethnic minority or mixed backgrounds are disproportionately affected: around one half (48%) are currently experiencing financial hardship and 72% have at some point during the pandemic. One third (32%) of white respondents said they are currently experiencing financial hardship and 59% have at some point.

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Managing wellbeing is an increasing concern, with a quarter (25%) of respondents feeling that this is “very difficult” at present, while just over half (51%) feel more stressed than usual.

The survey highlighted further issues, including that barristers are concerned about students finding it harder to secure pupillage, particularly at the criminal bar, and are not getting the training and support nor advocacy exposure they need.

Derek Sweeting QC, chair of the Bar Council, said:

“The findings of this survey send a stark message: that many barristers have reached breaking point. Despite tentative signs of recovery, a lack of government support means that many barristers remain deeply concerned about their own financial prospects and the future of their profession.”

He continued: “For years, the justice system has been underfunded, but coronavirus has exposed how fragile it is in many areas which directly affect ordinary members of the public. It is imperative that barristers are urgently given the support they need to ensure that justice remains accessible to all.”

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32 Comments

Anonymous

Justice can’t ‘remain’ accessible to all as it isn’t currently accessible to all.

(31)(0)

FlourPour

With an eye for detail like that you would make a good barrister. How would you like to borrow some money?

(12)(11)

Anonymous

How would you know what makes a good barrister?

(10)(0)

Anonymous

Fair enough. We have far too many criminal barristers, so a jolly good cull is in everyone’s interests.

(37)(22)

Anonymous

“I can’t take it any more man” the QC shouted as Charlie dropped artillery overhead “Covering up for bent plod, all the money they give me” (Barnes, for it is he) “Take the pain, man, take the redacted pain”

(2)(6)

Contemplative One

I would be interested to hear from some of them.

There are criminal bods who I see from certain Chambers who seem to be very busy at the moment.

(6)(5)

Tik Tok Influencer

These are the same barristers that are moaning about extending court hours to clear the backlog which will mean bumper income boosts for the criminal bar? I am confused. Like teachers, the criminal bar just seem to moan about everything.

(20)(19)

anon

we want more flexibility but don’t want extended court hours.

(0)(7)

nonny-nonny

I think 12:28 proves TTI’s point…

(4)(1)

Forever Associate

Cometh the merged profession… economies of scale mean it’s inevitable. I’m sure the big name brand/successful chambers will continue to operate and recruit as normal, but the vast majority of advocacy capability will need to be grown in firms.

(50)(15)

Bernard George

There will never be a merged profession. More likely the solicitors branch will split into sub-professions, conveyancers, criminal lawyers, business lawyers etc, as their work is so very different.

(0)(1)

Anonymous

Does the standard Bar Council press release template have an “insert diversity point here” paragraph box?

(23)(6)

Crimble

I know some successful Chambers are actively recruiting at the moment as Solicitors firms drop their in-house advocates.

Would these Chambers be recruiting if there was no work around?

(10)(22)

Bimble

OK, who spent their day deleting cookies and downvoting repeatedly?

Sounded like a fair point, surely?

(7)(3)

Anonymous

How would you know what makes a good barrister?

(4)(0)

Millionaire Law School Owner

Remember kids, it’s ‘the BEST profession in the world!’ and if you don’t get pupillage, you were clearly ‘too stupid’ and ‘lacking in grit’ to make it!

(11)(0)

LawStudent

It is a very prestigious profession nonetheless. Maybe you are a jealous solicitor?

(6)(11)

Waffles

Ok I am only doing my BPTC, so I apologize if this is a stupid question, but prior to studying law I ran my own business for 12 years. I had lean times and fat times, but I never at any point got anywhere near £20,000 in debt. What is the thought process that goes into justifying taking such personal debt?

I’m not meaning to say they have necessarily made a terrible mistake, but the business part of my brain has trouble seeing how a person who is self employed can find themselves so deep under. Do barristers not keep track of monthly finances, do they not have relatively fixed outgoings?

(6)(4)

Rumpole

Oh dear.

You clearly don’t know what it takes to have a Gold BA Executive Club card, regular Scott Dunn holidays and tickets for Glyndbourne to fit in with all the other barrister pals from the same Oxbridge debating club.

Being awesome is expensive.

(10)(4)

Waffles

I have a Nuffield Health Gym membership, and the woman at the tills at Waitrose knows me by name.

(12)(0)

Senior Junior

Cashflow is often very. very different to income.

(5)(0)

Realist

There are far too many barristers chasing far too little work. Far more than 20% do indeed need to leave. The oversupply of wannabes is detrimental to the top 50% or so, as they depress fees and therefore overall rates and remuneration. It is ridiculously cheap for commercial litigation firms to instruct a junior junior nowadays, and that’s in part because there are so many of them. The criminal bar are dead men walking – that’s been obvious for well over a decade.

Anyone with half a brain should have seen this coming a decade ago – a selection of warnings, assembled with a 10-second Google search, is below. Those who blithely insisted on becoming barristers in the ostrich- like insistence that they were impervious to market forces need to wake up:

https://www.legalcheek.com/2012/09/weber-shandwick-head-of-public-affairs-alex-deane-why-i-dont-miss-the-genteel-poverty-of-the-criminal-bar/

https://www.legalcheek.com/2015/12/criminal-barristers-are-paid-2-40-an-hour-but-i-still-see-why-people-would-want-to-do-their-job/

https://www.theguardian.com/law/2011/apr/14/criminal-barrister-high-rolling-era-over

https://50shadesofaffray.wordpress.com/

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/10242640/Are-Britains-barristers-living-on-borrowed-time.html

https://capitalfortune.com/news/barristers-forced-to-diversify-to-pay-mortgages-and-make-ends-meet

https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/practice/young-legal-aid-lawyer-shares-pain-over-redundancy/5070734.article (refers to legal aid generally – see comments)

A handful of barristers do very well, but this is an example of survivorship bias or selection bias, i.e. the error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those who did not, typically because of their lack of visibility. This can lead to false conclusions in several different ways. Whether it be movie stars, or athletes, or musicians, or CEOs of multibillion-dollar corporations who dropped out of school, popular media often tells the story of the determined individual who pursues their dreams and beats the odds. There is much less focus on the many people who may have been similarly skilled and determined but failed to ever find success because of factors beyond their control. This creates a false public perception that anyone can achieve great things if they have the ability and make the effort. The overwhelming majority of failures are not visible to the public, and only those who survive the selective pressures of their competitive environment are seen regularly.

I am not a fan of howling at the moon: I would rather deal with the world as it is. Those who persist in becoming barristers either (a) actively chose to do so in light of the obvious and long-standing economic risks; or (b) were wilfully blind to those risks. It’s brutal, but we should be warning naive, idealistic, gullible young people off such work.

This shouldn’t be a willy-waving competition, or a case of who can say ‘I told you so’, it should be a dispassionate analysis of the status quo, shorn of pointless emotions. I prefer bluntness to bullsh#t: You can’t pay your mortgage or feed your children with a Mother Teresa complex, so (a) barristers should not affect surprise when their strenuous attempts to deny economic reality fail; and (b) the rest of us should grow up, and offer realistic advice to people. “Follow your dreams” is the worst career advice anyone ever offered. The bar is impossible for most people to sustain as a viable career. We profess to objectively follow the evidence in practice, can we also do so for career advice. Moving forward, can we please stop pumping sixth formers’ and students’ heads full of nonsense – particularly about crime, family and personal injury work. They deserve honest advice, which is that these sectors are cripplingly underpaid, there are few jobs, no economic security, and if they do not have Oxbridge firsts and thus a credible shot at commercial roles, then then are many more economically secure jobs which they should consider instead. Indulging Rumpole of the Bailey-esque fantasies does them no favours.

(28)(2)

True

I agree 100%. The Bar Council moans and groans about barrister income, but never addresses the over supply issue. The number of criminal hearings has dropped massively over the last 20 years, both as a result of streamlining and the reduction in crime levels. Yet the numbers are the criminal bar still increase by 2% or so a year. That is utter madness.

When there was a natural limitation on numbers through the Inns of Court School of Law things were under better control. But the do gooders wanted to give everyone prizes and the result was always going to be a flooding of the criminal market and, to a lesser but still material extent, the lower paid civil/family market. The chickens have come home to roost. Any numbers reduction as a result of the pandemic is in truth likely to be a much needed correction and while painful, should be welcomed.

It has now reached the point that the higher earning members of the profession are subsiding the lower earners annual practising fees through the imposition of an escalated income tax, and that relative “tax” rate is spiralling up and up year. Worse, the Bar Council spends more and more on legal challenges to criminal defence spending, tilting at windmills, and more and more seem like Luddites. The best thing the Bar Council could do is admit there is massive over supply, discourage over-entry for a period and assist practitioners to move to other jobs. Many good people are earning a pittance with the talent and ability to do much better and with absolutely no realistic prospects of it getting better at the Bar.

(13)(0)

Commercial Junior

I also agree oversupply is an issue. Yet it is hard to talk about this for fear of being classed as a gatekeeper. As someone at the Commercial Bar who regularly speaks to university students on how to get into my area, it dismays me how hard it is to give truthful advice. I have had numerous complaints that I am ‘setting up barriers’ or ‘not recognising hardships’ – but the reality is that the most important thing is that you get a First. That isn’t easy, and let’s be honest, is out of the reach of most. Now I can’t speak for other areas, but that is undoubtedly the case for the Commercial Bar. Is that all you need? Clearly no, but it is, by far, the biggest limiting factor.

Furthermore, the Inns also bear some of the blame. Scholarships are handed out like confetti. In my set we simply ignore any Inn awards, because we know they are no marker of actual likelihood of success at the Bar. So far as we are aware, not one of the Inns has any longitudinal study of where their many millions of funding has gone. How many scholarships for each year (1) got pupillage, and then (2) got tenancy. Why don’t they do this and why don’t they publish these figures?

Our view is that it is probably a far smaller percent that they are willing to admit. Now there will always be those who get funding who don’t make it, that is how it should be. But if the percentage is as low as we believe it is, then surely it needs to be tightened and more money given to those who do stand a chance.

Nobody would criticise someone who says ‘sorry, but you just aren’t good enough to play in the Premier League’. It is an irony that information about a career in football, historically the preserve of the working class (at least in this country), can be a lot blunter than the cosseted middle class kids.

As for selection bias only seeing those that make it, I agree this applies to some degree, but what you don’t see is that those who made it just were, almost uniformly, not up to scratch. I can think of only one person who I went to Bar school with, or whom I interviewed over the years, who didn’t end up at the Bar and whom I thought had the ability and skill set to do so. Again, I can only speak for the Commercial Bar, but the problem question we ask separates out people so well that it becomes obvious who will be able to perform in practice.

I also agree that the Bar is changing. When I joined, over 12 years ago, there was some movement between sets (and almost no movement from solicitor to barrister). Now it is far more common. The effect of this is to create a small group of very good sets who pick off the best of the mid tier. The mid tier sets then can no longer survive without their best barristers and they fold. So we are moving to essentially a two track set up, with a few super sets of the very best, and then much larger catch all sets. There will always be the top tier commercial sets because I earn more than enough here and the independence of being self-employed means you won’t tempt me to join a solicitor firm as an in house advocate.

(10)(5)

Junior From The Same Public School As The Head of Chambers’ Kids

I bet your set has plenty of QCs/people of 10+ years call who don’t have Firsts.

Are they incapable of functioning as good barristers?

(1)(2)

Commercial Junior

There are indeed some, but want universities handed out 15+ years ago is not what I was talking about. I am talking about the fact that I can’t think of any junior in my set under 10 years call who doesn’t have a first. We do interview candidates with 2.1s, but they never make it past the interview. Furthermore, the CV matters little once you have an interview – it is just down to how you perform. It may seem harsh, but it works.

Commercial Reality

What a lot of overblow codswallop!

There are lots of star juniors at mid-tier sets and plenty of broken down charisma-voids at some of the so-called super-sets.

(7)(0)

Applicant

Glad to hear that Inns of Court scholarships are ignored by at least some chambers.

Hopefully you ignore Oxbridge college prizes as well – because it’s so impressive to get the highest mark in your college in an exam. It seems a bit pathetic for people who are a few years’ call to still be listing college and subject prizes in their profiles.

Non-Oxbridge and non-law students don’t really get the chance to get these sorts of prizes, as no firms are interested in sponsoring non-law prizes, and (rightly) no-one cares how you did in, say, your modern Chinese history class of 10 students.

(2)(1)

DustyWig

This is a most insightful comment, setting out the truth that we at the Bar know full well but are pressed to conceal.

(5)(1)

Anonymous

Gladwell? Is that you bro?

(0)(0)

1

This sort of straightforward advice should be given to all applicants.

One question, though: is it really that case that family and personal injury are “cripplingly underpaid, there are few jobs [and] no economic security”?

(4)(1)

Junior Junior

I can’t speak for family but at my set the PI practitioners’ receipts are very healthy.

It’s not commercial levels of income but you could still bill 400 – 500k as a senior junior. For a junior junior in your first years of practice, you could still bill 100 – 130k with hard but not back breaking work. Receipts will be lower than that of course.

There is a question mark over the long-term viability of PI as a practice area – it could all change with certain reforms. The same could be said for many areas, however.

People are right to point out the lunacy of criminal work and legally aided family work, but there’s a lot of common law and more specialist areas e.g. prof neg, prof discipline, employment, property, etc where you can earn a very comfortable income indeed compared to the vast majority of the population.

It’s not simply a case of either make it to the commercial Bar or face a lifetime of poverty in any other practice area.

(4)(1)

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