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One in six young barristers want to quit, new report finds

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Workloads and mental health among reasons for ditching the wig and gown

One in six young barristers say they want to quit, new research has found, with concerns over lengthy and unpredictable hours among the top concerns.

Respondents to the Bar Council commissioned report also cited the potential mental health consequences of long hours coupled with poor work-life balance as key reasons for wishing to leave.

“My female contemporaries are genuinely considering leaving,” one self-employed criminal barrister told researchers. “I have two female colleagues who have left in the last six weeks, one has left the bar altogether because the work-life balance is untenable and they want to have a family, it’s a lot harder than it used to be.”

Another employed commercial barrister said they had witnessed “lots of burnout” within their team, many of whom were regularly clocking up “14-hour days”.

The research further found over a third of junior barristers had experienced bullying or harassment either in person or online in the last two years.

A much higher proportion of women than men had experienced this type of behaviour (46% of women, nearly three times the proportion amongst men), while it was most common in criminal law (over 40% of respondents) and least common in commercial law.

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Researchers also looked at the financial repercussions of Covid-19 on young barristers’ earnings. Nearly half of the 548 respondents reported a negative impact on their overall financial situation, and nearly a third said that they had experienced financial hardship as a result.

Michael Polak, chair of the Bar Council’s Young Barristers’ Committee, said:

“This research should act as a wake-up call for those interested in the future of the profession. It’s clear we need to modernise the way that the bar operates. Our culture, working practices, and wellbeing must be key themes of the Bar Council’s work on behalf of the Young Bar over the coming year. The report highlights the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, with young barristers having experienced adverse changes to their personal finances, relationships with colleagues and overall wellbeing.”

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20 Comments

Civil Barrister

Obviously City firms are increasing their pay packets for juniors on a seemingly monthly basis.

Do any barristers out there have any intel on what, if anything, their chambers are doing to renegotiate fees with client firms or how they are otherwise planning on addressing rising inflation?

I went the Bar route rather than solicitor route because I’m better suited to it (advocacy, self-employment etc), but it was also comparatively lucrative to going to a City firm (at associate/senior associate level anyway, not partner). I don’t expect the same increases as we are seeing at the US firms by any stetch, but I don’t want my fees to be eaten into by inflation so that I’m earning less than my senior colleagues did at my level of Call or see a real-terms drop in remuneration.

(19)(4)

Archibald Pomp O'City

You are driven by monetary greed. While some are still grappling with a £20 decrease in benefit, you are desperate not to end up a few pounds out of pocket. I hope you’re as good an advocate as you claim, and also that you display more humanity to the weaker and the poorer than your comment suggests.

(0)(3)

Civil Barrister

Oh get a grip with your self-flagellant protestant work ethic rubbish.

I do a significant amount of pro bono work, I work in a practice area in which I frequently represent vulnerable claimants against institutional respondents, and l am a paid up member of the Labour Party.

I do not, however, work as hard as I do, having worked as hard as I have to get here (state comp educated etc), to not receive a decent rate of remuneration.

Money is not a dirty word and it’s often those with independent financial means who consider it to be so.

(6)(0)

Anna

One is one

(0)(0)

Al

@ civil barrister

If you don’t mind me asking, what’s your experience in waiting for payment?

That too seems quite an important factor.

Doesn’t matter what the fee if it’s just moving across the columns on your aged debt sheet!

It’s a particular risk with direct access clients. Whilst in my experience they are pretty good at paying when asked; that rule about not being able to hold money on account does leave one exposed potentially. I tend to just go down the fixed fee route to get round that.

You have any particular strategy there?

(2)(0)

Anonymous Oxbridge PhD student and recent coroprate law convert

The bar has been in a pretty weird situation for some time now. I have good options open to me and I have a realistic chance of securing pupilage; until very recently I could never comprehend why students my age picked coroprate law over the bar.

Coroprate law is generally far greater pay, future career prospects and perfect if you want an exit strategy to go in house somewhere or a change of career. The bar has always had a mystique and its perceived prestige – which glosses over the many problems it has, notably for jrs. Why pick the civil bar with the competition for pupilage with Harvard LLMs etc, chamber’s fees, woes of self-employment and so on when the MC/US offering is so much better?. Fitzbillies with Kirkland and Ellis was also more dynamic person-to-person than any bar ‘networking’ event I have attended.

(6)(1)

Comm Bazza

If we’re comparing the top US firms, you probably gotta compare them to the top sets. In which case, your pupillage award is hgher / near the first year trainee salary, then your first year in pracice will far eclipse your second year trainee salary, and your second year in practice will (probably) eclipse their NQ pay (if you end up working anywhere near the same amount as the NQs).

The bar also has excellent exit strategies, whilst allowing you to maintain at least some independence (i.e. unless the CASE needs it, there’s very few people who can suddenly say I have a new case to do when I’m about to leave at 5:30pm). And just less grunt work, or the grunt work that you do is paid on an hourly rate, which does wonders for making it easier to stomach…

(5)(0)

Barrister

Can you give examples of the exit strategies of which you speak?

(3)(0)

Ch Barrister

I think it just depends on what lifestyle you want. I’m still quite junior (third year of practice) and (taking into account chambers expenses) earned around £180k in the last 12 months. This is at a small set, i.e. probably not what Comm Bazza above has in mind. I appreciate that will be less than at a US firm, but I’m not putting in the gruelling hours they are.

I definitely don’t bill as many hours as people in even SC firms (although I probably don’t work less – there’s a lot of non-billable things you need to do in terms of practice management). Work does frequently interfere with things (e.g. you can’t really just log off completely during a long holiday), but when I’m not in court, no one tells me when I need to be where. I don’t have to worry about promotions, firm politics etc. I have evening plans a few times a week and never have to worry someone will try to keep me in the office. If something is so urgent it needs to be done by morning (which is rare), I can get to it when I’m home later that night.

Also, hearings (particularly in person ones) are fun to do and break up your day. I think it would be harder working the same hours and just drafting documents.

I appreciate both careers have their pros and cons, but it really isn’t crazy to choose the Bar over a commercial law firm.

(14)(0)

Curious solicitor

Thank you for your helpful comment. Pay at the bar is, for obvious reasons, more opaque than at MC/US firms – for firms with good commercial, corporate or insolvency practices, what would average gross be in the first few years of practice?

(1)(0)

Not jealous US NQ

What are typical charge out rates for baby junior commercial barristers? Assuming £150 per hour (probaly more?), that grosses 300k for a 2000 hour year. And when they reach the same post call level as a senior associate pqe they’ll be on closer to £400-500 per hour. Good work if you can get it!

(4)(0)

Al

When comparing income don’t forget our fees are gross income. But out of those we have a lot of expenses that an employed lawyer might not.

So chambers rent contribution will take out a big chunk. Then we have to pay for our own practice certificates and insurance, travel, accomodation etc.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Bar life; but the headline income figures have to be taken in context.

(5)(0)

Not jealous US NQ

I didn’t forget the figures are gross, I specifically said that. After tax and expenses, commercial barristers are still much better off financially than their solicitor equivalents on the figures I set out above.

Barrister

My charge out rate is around £125 – £150 as a baby civil barrister, so I’d imagine the commercial bazzas are on a fair whack more than that.

£125 – £150 is my top end at the minute though – there are some clients where it’s lower.

Another difficulty is, because of the nature of the tasks we do, it’s often difficult to be billing the kinds of annual hours done by sols in City firms.

Also, ‘Ch Barrister’ above makes excellent points which I cannot really add to, but which I would echo.

(3)(0)

Ch Barrister

For me it’s £150 per hour, sometimes a bit more. But I personally find it impossible to work more than circa 30 billable hours a week on average – because of how much I do that isn’t billable.

For instance (much of the below relates to hearings, but I do about 3 a week so it’s significant in my case):

1. I may be in court, by telephone, for 30 minutes, but wait for the call for an hour. I can’t just pick up another case because I need to focus on the hearing I’m about to do, remember what’s in the bundle, etc. So I’ve lost that hour – sometimes more. This is actually a very frequent occurrence.

2. Just giving the clerks time estimates for new pieces of work takes up a few hours of reading every week.

3. I tend to write solicitors fairly detailed notes of hearing. They take up to an hour a piece to do (but they seem to me to be worth it, as the solicitors appreciate it, and it’s always helpful to me when I have a hearing in the same case half a year later).

4. I write articles for marketing purposes. Obviously, none of that is billable and it eats up circa 5 hours every few weeks.

5. I don’t really do led work, so I’m essentially “in charge” in every case I do. That comes with a constant anxiety of getting things wrong, and I don’t think it’s unusual to spend an hour or two, or three, more than I estimated/ what we are billing for.

6. For physical hearings, I have to travel to various County Courts. This can take hours. Again, not billable (though sometimes my fee is marginally higher if it’s far away). Nor is waiting at court because you’ve made sure to arrive early.

7. After hearings, I usually have to agree a minute of order with my opponent. I once had that take over 3 (unpaid) hours because my opponent was imagining he’d won on an application that hadn’t yet been heard, and written submissions to the judge were required…

8. I get a lot of short, random queries in ongoing cases. If they’re mine, I’d better respond to them. There goes another 2-3 hours or so per week. Each query may take 20 minutes tops to answer – I can’t really go to each of those solicitors and tell them they need to agree a fee first.

9. I have accountants, but my input is still required quite a lot when it comes to my taxes. This is less regular, but still, recording my expenses etc takes time. As do things like insurance, where you have to calculate which proportion of your work falls into which category. This also takes hours.

I hope that makes sense. It’s a great job and has been lucrative for me, but even if you have a very constant stream of work, 40-50 billable every single week would not be realistic (at least for me) because 50 billable hours would be more like 70 actual hours, and if you slip up in any way, you’re immediately vulnerable to a negligence claim.

Realist

Ch Barrister, thanks for your comments – they are very interesting. I’m a 3 PQE litigator in a US firm. I’m ridiculously well paid, but increasingly unhappy with the role. I look at what senior associates and partners do, and think “No, thanks”.

I’m applying for offshore roles, because I’m frustrated merely being a postbox/enabler for counsel in London, and being unable to do substantive legal work. It’s interesting to understand what life is like on your side of the fence. I’m more certain than ever that the fused profession option is the best.

Burnout

That’s nothing, 5/6 qualified solicitors want to quit.

Sorry, meant to say 6/6.

(21)(0)

Anon

Would be interesting to compare this to research in other graduate professions and explore whether the 1 in 6 finding is merely a consequence of 16-17% of people entering a profession that isn’t right for them for a multitude of possible reasons…

Also question the meaningfulness of people saying “I hate it here, I want to quit” yet carrying on (we’ve been hearing these stats about the Young Bar for years…) and wonder if it would be possible to research people who either stopped competing for pupillage/didn’t complete pupillage/changed careers straight after passing pupillage or as a young barrister because they were put off by the realities of the Bar. I know of quite a few people in all of these positions who are pursuing successful careers in other areas (legal and non-legal).

(6)(1)

King’s Bencher Deux

I don’t hate my job. I love it. Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s interesting.

I’m busy enough to earn 6 figures but not so busy that I have to spend every waking moment working.

The trick is to book regular holidays so you can switch off and re-charge.

If you don’t like life at the Bar, maybe you’re in the wrong job, or the wrong Chambers…?

(4)(1)

Bob

Then they should quit

(0)(2)

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