There’s no shying away from the fact that a career at the Bar is competitive. You’re going to need exceptional academics, a high level of confidence (or at least a penchant for public speaking) and lots of grit and determination to succeed as a barrister.
Whilst the profession is slowly diversifying, in terms of educational background attending the universities of Oxford, Cambridge or other Russell Group institutions are still likely to stand you in good stead when applying for a pupillage. And that’s not all; your grades – including those from your first-year assignments and exams – need to be high. You will need to have achieved, or be on track to achieve a high 2:1 or a first in your undergraduate degree to even be considered.
That’s not to say that you should be discouraged from applying if you didn’t attend a top-ranking university, but you may have to be more prepared to demonstrate how you stand out from the crowd. This could be by obtaining a first-class degree, taking on a senior role in your university’s law society, or winning prestigious mooting or essay-writing competitions.
If your undergraduate degree was in a non-law subject, you will need to undertake the year-long Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) course. Whilst the GDL has been replaced by the SQE1 for solicitors , the course will continue to be a requirement for those hoping to become barristers. The GDL covers the seven foundations of legal knowledge and brings you up to speed with those who undertook law degrees at undergraduate level.
Following your law undergraduate degree or the GDL if you’re a non-law student, you will move on to the vocational stage of your training. The old Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) route has been replaced by four different routes to qualifying as a barrister.
If you have already started the BPTC, you have until 2022 to complete it.
The new courses have different names according to the provider but look out for courses called something like Barrister Training Course or Bar Practice Course
The new vocational course options are as follows:
- A one-part postgraduate course which can be undertaken on a full or part-time basis. This course is similar to the old BPTC.
- A two-part postgraduate course, also similar to the old BPTC but is split in two. Students can choose to undertake and pay for the first part of the course before deciding whether to go on to do the second part. The benefit of this system is that students can wait and see if they pass the first part before committing and paying for the (more expensive) second part. The course can be taught face-to-face for its entirety or could involve an element of self study.
- A longer course which combines the academic and vocational elements. The Bar course would be integrated into the undergraduate law degree.
All of the above course options are followed by a pupillage.
Cost is another extremely important factor to bear in mind. With the new Bar training courses costing up to £14,000 a year, enrolling is not to be taken lightly. Whilst some chambers will advance a proportion of the pupillage award to help candidates pay for the course, this is not guaranteed.
The Bar Standards Board reported that there were 1,753 BPTC enrolments in 2018-2019, in comparison with 592 registered pupillages. Add this to the fact that there will also be a backlog of BPTC graduates from previous years also applying for the same pupillages and you get an idea of just how competitive the market is. To make things more complicated, the effects of COVID-19 reduced the number of pupillages available to just 386 in 2020. Thankfully, this number is on the rise again.
According to Bar Council figures, there were 3,301 applications for pupillage through the pupillage gateway in 2021 for only 246 positions. This figure does not include applications made outside of the pupillage gateway.
If you’re still convinced that this is the career path for you, see our Bar Table to see which chambers offer pupillages.