Legal careers the bar: courting diversity

It's not all 'Rumpole of the Bailey' - these days barristers are drawn from all backgrounds
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The Independent Online

Barristers don't all come from public school, don't all practise in London and don't all concentrate on the type of criminal law that makes for compulsive TV viewing.

They tend to be dotted all around the country, have an increasingly diverse range of educational and socioeconomic backgrounds and are just as likely to earn a living in employment law, or sorting out marital disputes, as representing a defendant in a high-profile murder trial.

Some of the sharpest barristers in the profession choose to specialise in chancery - largely behind the scenes work sorting out intricate legal puzzles - while some of the best salaries are to be found in commercial work.

Advocacy and witness-grilling are among the key skills in criminal work, while common law - which may involve personal injury cases - needs barristers with good communication skills.

Public law barristers are hired for contentious immigration cases or by lobbyists in public inquiry cases while employment law - another fast-growing field - shares with criminal law the glamour of often high-profile cases. In common with sex and race discrimination cases, new laws on ageism at work are likely to lead to an avalanche of work for employment law specialists.

Family barristers need tact as well as a dispassionate approach to often bitter squabbles over custody, and may be called upon to advise A-list celebrities over bitter financial disputes.

Other specialist practice areas include corporate, environmental, insolvency, intellectual property, media, sport and tax.

While barristers tend to be highly self-motivated - as well as largely self-employed - for an increasing number of them, law was not their first love.

With around half of the country's pupil barristers and trainee solicitors coming from a non-law background, the path from nuclear physics, French or history to barristers' chambers is an increasingly well-trodden one.

Non-law graduates are very much in demand because of the fresh eye and the outsider's perspective that they bring to the thorny legal issues of the day. Before a would-be barrister can undertake the Bar Vocational Course or BVC though, a year's legal catch-up is required.

Conversion courses come under different names, but the Common Professional Examination (CPE) - so-named because both aspiring solicitors and barristers take it - as well as the newer Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) are among the best-known. Providers include UEA, Oxford Brookes and the University of Sussex.

The CPE includes an introduction to the English legal system and basic legal research skills using law libraries and the web for example. This part of the course lasts for up to four weeks.

Studied full-time for a year or two years part-time or by distance learning, other conversion courses include the GDip or the LLB. MA conversion courses are also possible for would-be barristers, but they take two years of full-time study to complete.

Conversion courses tend to have a highly practical slant in preparation for the BVC, but there is no shirking what are seen as the "seven foundations of law". All CPE exams include sections on contract, tort, criminal law, constitutional and administrative law, property, equity and trusts and European Union law.

In addition, students study an eighth area of the legal system such as business, environmental or public law.

In theory, each conversion course lasts 36 weeks, with each student expected to undertake around 45 to 50 hours of study each week. At least 50 per cent of the assessment is exam-based.

Pupillage interviews for trainee barristers are notoriously tough, but even more important in the long-run is the choice of specialism and where to practice.

The Inns of Court near London's Royal Courts of Justice may be the stuff of legend, but there are many other successful chambers outside the capital too.

Many solicitors' firms looking to instruct a barrister prefer to opt for a local person, rather than pay travel costs, and the relative lack of competition means that a barrister working in the provinces is likely to be given experience of more complex cases faster than their London counterparts.

Chambers outside the capital tend to take on a wide variety of work such as commercial, criminal and common law cases, while the London chambers often specialise in just one or two fields.

Pay rates tend to be lower outside the capital, but so is the cost of living.