Competition is stiff and costs high for trainee barristers, but ambitious graduates should persevere, says Kate Hilpern

The past year has brought both good and bad news for people interested in training as a barrister. On the positive side, the Bar Council of England and Wales has brought in a requirement that pupils must be paid a minimum wage of £10,000. "We took this decision because we found that law students were building up increasingly high levels of debt during the initial stages of training," explains Nigel Bastin, director of education and training at the Bar Council. "So by the time they got to their pupillage - the period of one year which every barrister has to serve in a set of Chambers after passing the bar exams and before practising as a junior barrister - we felt they should have some remuneration."

The past year has brought both good and bad news for people interested in training as a barrister. On the positive side, the Bar Council of England and Wales has brought in a requirement that pupils must be paid a minimum wage of £10,000. "We took this decision because we found that law students were building up increasingly high levels of debt during the initial stages of training," explains Nigel Bastin, director of education and training at the Bar Council. "So by the time they got to their pupillage - the period of one year which every barrister has to serve in a set of Chambers after passing the bar exams and before practising as a junior barrister - we felt they should have some remuneration."

Indeed, all the research shows that law students incur more debt than most students. On top of an average degree debt of £20,000, they can incur another £12,000 to £17,000 on the one-year Bar Vocational Course (BVC). For those who have a degree unrelated to law and consequently need to do a law conversion course - which can be studied on a one-year full-time basis or over two years part-time prior to the BVC - costs are higher still. "To be expected to then get into even more debt during a pupillage meant people from less affluent backgrounds were increasingly being put off becoming barristers," explains Bastin. "We wanted to create a level playing field."

The less welcome news, however, is that this has resulted in a drop in the already few places available for pupillages because some Chambers don't want to fork out - and if you don't get a place, you can't become a practising barrister. Since it is estimated that around 1,400 to 1,500 students hunt for around 600 pupillages, that's a lot of people who have to give up their barrister training after passing their bar exams. Nevertheless, says Bastin, this situation is likely to change. "When the Law Society introduced its minimum salary for trainees, they experienced a similar dip. But in time, the market corrected itself and we expect the same to happen."

To be successful in gaining a pupillage, you'll need strong academic ability, legal and commercial awareness, good written and oral communication skills, advocacy and interpersonal skills, excellent time, project and people management skills and integrity. Relevant work experience is also desirable, so it's worth trying to secure a mini-pupillage with a set of Chambers as early as you can. Fortunately, many Chambers offer these, most of which are open to non-law students, and most of which last one week.

Suzanne Brown is one of the lucky ones, currently on her pupillage in a set of Chambers in London. Having managed to secure the place before even beginning her BVC, she is being paid significantly more than the minimum salary. "I feel very fortunate," she says. "but it's hard work." Explaining what attracted her to becoming a barrister, she says: "I did some work experience when I was 15 with a small family firm of solicitors. I enjoyed it, but got increasingly frustrated by having to pass on all the work to barristers as soon as I got my teeth into a case. I wanted to be the person dealing with the case, not writing the brief."

For those who do get a pupillage, the experience is likely to be more beneficial than ever, according to Professor Adrian Keane, dean of the Inns of Court School of Law. Now that Chambers have to pay, he explains, they are more careful about selection and training, and tend to keep those they take on rather than tossing them aside after the pupillage is up.

Nonetheless, Professor Keane points out, even those who are unsuccessful in gaining a place shouldn't despair. "Our BVC students who don't get a pupillage end up in very well-paid jobs elsewhere, using the skills they have acquired. In fact, the BVC course, compared with equivalent courses for trainee solicitors, enables students to gain a lot of transferable skills that are sought after outside the Bar."

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