Stepping up to the Bar: Qualifying as a barrister is getting more accessible

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The Independent Online

Anyone with intellectual ability who thrives on pressure and hard work and is willing to stand up and argue - even for unpopular causes which he or she does not personally believe in - will find a career at the Bar very rewarding. However, before embarking on a legal career it is important to have a clear understanding of the stages of training which lead to becoming a barrister.

To qualify as a barrister there are three stages that you must complete:

Academic stage

You need an undergraduate degree in law, or an undergraduate degree in any other subject with the minimum of a 2.2. If you do decide to do an undergraduate degree in a subject other than law you must take a one-year conversion course (CPE).

Vocational stage

The Bar vocational course (BVC) is studied full-time over one year or part-time over two, and you must join one of the four Inns before you commence this stage of training. Once you have successfully completed the BVC you will be called to the Bar by your Inn, though you will have to undertake 12 qualifying sessions - previously known as "dining - before the call.

Pupillage

This is one year spent in an authorised pupillage training organisation, either barristers' chambers or another approved legal environment. Competition for pupillages is very intense, with only about 500 available each year.

Before making a commitment it is best to get an insight into what a barrister actually does. Many chambers provide work experience in the form of mini-pupillages (find out which ones at www.pupillages.com); these usually last a week and provide an opportunity to shadow barristers, attend court, read case papers and discuss cases, among other things.

Training for the Bar can be very expensive. However, in recent years, the Bar has made great strides in improving access to the profession for individuals of all backgrounds, regardless of their social or ethnic origins, financial means, age, religion or disability. There are a number of sources offering scholarships, bursaries and awards to assist with the stages of training, and the Bar Council recently set up the Entry to the Bar Working Party chaired by Lord Neuberger, a Law Lord. It hopes to report before the end of 2007 but its key provisional views on improving access to the profession are:

* Greatly improved information for school students on applying for and pursuing the BVC, the nature of a barrister's working life including costs and sources of funding, and likely income once in practice.

* Placement programmes to inform students and allow less-privileged children to see the Bar at first-hand before they have to decide whether to read law at university, and mentoring schemes for those who have attended such programmes.

* Further mock trial competitions and lectures by barristers to schools of all types in all areas.

* Loans on preferential terms alongside scholarships and awards schemes operated by the Inns of Court to facilitate studying for and entry to the Bar.

* Extension of part-time BVC courses and the introduction of an online BVC course in conjunction with organisations such as Open University.

* Active measures to encourage employers to offer pupillages to increase the overall number, and part-time pupillages to allow people to earn money while undertaking them.

The Bar Council values the diversity of its membership and welcomes the advent of public duties to promote race, disability and gender equality. It recognises the need to ensure that both the Bar and other public bodies recruit the best people and play their part in ensuring that the justice system is accessible and credible. The Bar provides advice to clients from all sectors of the community and represents them in litigation, while many senior judicial posts are filled by former barristers. If the justice system is to be credible then the Bar must be open to all those who have the ability to practise as barristers.

Discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, ethnic or national origin, nationality, citizenship, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, age, religion or political persuasion is prohibited by the Bar's Code of Conduct. The Bar Council also has an "Equality and Diversity Code for the Bar", which recommends good equal opportunity practice to chambers, particularly in relation to the recruitment of pupils and tenants.

Bhavna Patel is the manager of professional practice and training for the Bar and Angela Campbell is the administration officer for equality and diversity at the Bar Council, www.barcouncil.org.uk

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