Although the roles of a solicitor and of a barrister are very similar and involve a lot of interchangeable skills, there are a few clear distinctions. A barrister will take the BPTC, whilst a solicitor does the LPC. A solicitor will give general advice and they are usually the first point of contact. A barrister specialises in certain issues and represents the client in court, the solicitor liaising with both barrister and client.
Although most barristers act independently within ‘Inns’, they can also be employed by institutions such as the Crown Prosecution Service, Government Legal Service, the armed forces or a variety of commercial organisations.
The characteristics required of a barrister
Pursuing a career as a barrister is a route not to be taken lightly. It is highly competitive, with only the highest calibre graduates standing any chance of success. Advocacy is a key element of the job as a barrister; therefore you must be comfortable speaking in front of large groups of people on a frequent basis. It is your job to convince the jury, so you must be persuasive and strong-willed as the slightest appearance of nerves or a fault in your dialogue could lose the case and the freedom of your client in criminal cases.
Although a large part of the job involves public speaking, a barrister must also have excellent interpersonal skills, as they must be able to earn the trust of their clients and fellow colleagues. You must also be able to improvise, as the twists and turns of the court will always bring up subjects that you may not have prepared for. An ability to deal with stress is vital as late nights are common and the pressure of court appearances high.
Moreover, as most barristers operate independently, you must be prepared to endure the possibility of financial hardship at the start of your career, with delayed earnings a common occurrence. You must also have a very competitive nature as places are few and far between. Only around a third of students undergoing the vocational stage of training (BPTC) will get a pupillage (a kind of legal apprenticeship) and, even after that, there are fewer tenancies in chambers than there are people on pupillages.
Bearing in mind that most candidates will have a glowing academic record from some of the best universities in the world, and many will receive an ‘Outstanding’ grade in the BPTC, think long and hard about whether you think you will stand a chance.
The academic stages of becoming a barrister
To become a barrister, you must either read law at the university or a non-law subject and take the GDL (or law conversion course). Ideally, you’ll need to procure a 2:1 or above from a leading university and have excellent extra-curricular activities.
The next step after this is completing the Bar Professional Training Course. The BPTC is a one-year full-time course that prepares you for life at the Bar through a range of core subjects and electives. Around 20% of students secure a pupillage before embarking on the BPTC.
During the BPTC you will focus upon several core subjects, which include: criminal advocacy; civil advocacy, drafting, opinion writing, civil litigation and evidence; alternative dispute resolution; criminal litigation, evidence and sentencing; client conferencing; and professional conduct and Ethics. There are also two optional modules. Before you can begin the BPTC course, however, you must join one of the Inns of Court. There are four of these professional associations:
The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn
The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple
The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple
The Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn
It is these associations that have the sole right to call a qualified student to the bar. Each Inn is able to offer students support through the vocational stage of their training. This usually includes access to a library, mooting societies, educational support and the opportunity to network with other barristers.