Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Barrister

A barrister is a type of lawyer, but the details depend according to jurisdiction.

Barristers in England and Wales

The legal profession in England and Wales is divided between solicitors and barristers. Both are trained in law but serve different functions in the practice of law. Solicitors are regulated by the Law Society, barristers by the General Council of the Bar and the individual Inns of Court. There are four Inns, all situated in the area of London close to the Law Courts in the Strand. Gray's Inn is off Holborn, Lincoln's Inn off Chancery Lane, the Middle and Inner Temples, situated between Fleet Street and the Embankment.

Intending barristers must first complete the academic stage of their legal education by obtaining a qualifying law degree (an L.L.B - a first degree in the United Kingdom unlike the United States - at a recognised university will normally satisfy this requirement) but some undertake a one year conversion course having initially graduated in a non-law subject. This conversion course is known as a CPE (Common Professional Examination) or Diploma in Law. The student then joins one of the Inns of Court and takes the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) at one of the accredited providers. It is still mandatory to 'keep terms' before the student can be called to the bar. This involves 'eating one's dinners', a quaint custom whereby all students must eat dinner at their Inn for a requisite number of times. It used to be a pre-requisite that twenty-four dinners were eaten before call but the number has since been reduced.

The origins of this date from the time when not merely students but practitioners dined together and students picked up the elements of their education from their fellow diners and from readings given by a senior member of the Inn (Master Reader) after the meal. Even today, at least at Middle Temple, the students are required to be present both at the commencement of the formal meal and at the grace that completes it. Often moots (legal debates arguing for or against a point before a theoretical appellate court) are held in hall afterwards. At the successful completion of their BVC (where continuous assessment as well as examinations are now the rule) and the survival of the requisite number of dining nights, students are entitled to be 'called to the Bar' at a ceremony in their Inn. This is conducted by the Masters of the Bench, or 'Benchers' who are generally senior practising barristers or judges.

All the new barrister must now do is to undertake a period of twelve months as a 'pupil', where he or she serves an apprenticeship to a barrister of at least five years’ experience. This is usually served in two six-month periods under different pupil-masters, although they may be in the same chambers. Traditionally, the pupil was paid nothing and could earn no fees until he second six month period, when he or she was entitled to undertake work independently. All sets are now required to pay their puplis a minimum of 10,000 per year, and some pay considerably more than that. The Bar is a very varied profession, both in terms of the specialism (or otherwise) of individual sets of chambers, and in the financial rewards available. For sets doing predominantly publicly-funded work, earnings are low for new practitioners, and tend to remain so for many years. In such areas, the Bar remains a career where supportive bank managers (or rich parents) are necessary. In other more specialised areas serving private clients, such as commercial, tax or chancery work, earnings are higher and comparable to those of solicitors in big City firms. The Bar is preceived as something of an elite profession, both in the social sense and also academically: many barristers are educated in educational systems of the older universities where competition is encouraged.

After pupillage the new barrister must find a seat or 'tenancy' in a set of chambers. Chambers are groups of barristers, and tend to comprise between 20 and 60 barristers. The members of a Chambers share the rent and facilities, such as the service of "clerks" (who are a cross between a salesmen and a PA), secretaries and other support staff. Most chambers offer a system whereby the members contribute to these common expenses by paying a certain percentage of their gross income. However, there is no profit-sharing as in a business partnership, and individual barristers keep the fees they themeselves earn, beyond what they have to pay towards the chambers expenses. The Bar remains a highly individualistic profession. Nonetheless, earnings can be high, with the top Queen's Counsel (QCs or 'silks' as they are known, from their silk gowns) making 1 million a year. The chambers system has been weakened of late and not all barristers practise from the Inns themselves, as was formerly the custom. Still, however, one can see the names of tenants placed at the entrances of many of the staircases of the buildings within the Inns. The Inns are a little like Oxford and Cambridge colleges, with common dining halls and libraries as well as living and working rooms: this facilitates the transition from public school to Oxbridge college to Inn. All of these institutions look remarkably the same.

Barristers are highly traditional in that they are required to wear a horsehair wig when they appear as advocates in court, with a black gown and a dark suit and a white shirt with strips of white cotton called 'bands' hanging before a wing collar. This makes them very easy to distinguish, although individuals can be disguised and anonymous, whereas the garments emphasise the dramatic nature of their calling. The question of barristers' and judges' clothing is currently the subject of review, and there is some pressure to adopt a more "modern" style of dress, with Eyropean-style gowns worn over lounge suits.

Barristers act primarily as advocates with rights of audience in all courts within the jurisdiction. Some solicitors now have extensive rights as advocates (the lower courts and tribunals as well as preliminary hearings have long been open to them), but the Bar is uniquely linked with court work and the presentation of the lay client's case before it. However, many barristers hardly ever appear in court; they undertake specialist advice, given to clients in ‘cons’ or conferences, and they prefer to avoid the uncertainties of litigation. They may also give extensive written advice or draft legal documents. In the end, though, most barristers are probably properly equated with US trial lawyers in that they do not deal with the public (or lay clients) directly, but through the intermediary of a solicitor.

There are currently about 10,000 barristers in practice in the UK, of whom about ten percent are QCs. Many barristers are also employed in companies as ‘in-house’ counsel, or by local or national government. Perhaps the cleverest work in academic institutions. In Scotland, members of the equivalent profession are known as ‘Advocates’, and they are regulated by the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh.

Barristers in other common law jurisdictions

Barristers are also found in Hong Kong, and Australia (in the states without a fused profession, namely New South Wales, South Australia, and Victoria). In Canada the professions of barrister and solicitor are fused and many lawyers refer to themselves with both names, though in Quebec which has substantive law under the civil law tradition the practice is closer to that of the United Kingdom with les avocats practicing before the courts and civil law notarys or les notaires limited to most of the functions of solicitors.

In Western Australia, the professions of barristers and solicitors are fused but nonetheless an independent bar is in existence, regulated by the Western Australian Legal Practice Board.