The way we are now

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Two recent reports present an intriguing insight into the life of the modern barrister, as David Wurtzel reports.

Published within weeks of one another, the second Barristers’ Working Lives and the annual Bar Barometer give a fascinating picture of who we are and what we think.


The more comprehensive Barristers’ Working Lives is based on the responses to an extensive questionnaire. The first, 2011 report was based on questionnaires sent to half of the practising Bar. For the second report, in 2013, they were sent to the other half of whom 3,300 (44%) responded, which is thought to be statistically reliable. Bar Barometer 2014 is a profile of the Bar up to 2011-12 and is produced by the research department of the Bar Standards Board, based on information in the secure core database, which largely originates from the Annual Chambers Return. It appeared five months’ late due to concern that some of what the first version said could not be correct. The percentage figures need to be read against the background that not everyone answers each question and also that the results of the two reports do not always match up.

How many and who?

The Bar is not shrinking. It is somewhere around 15,500. However, between 2011 and 2013, the percentage of employed barristers who worked in the public sector fell from 66% to 56% of their total, presumably due to budget cuts. The percentage working for solicitors though, rose from 13% to 22% – 94% of whom have the right of audience in the higher courts.

The employed Bar is roughly gender equal. So is the self-employed Bar, but only in the early years. According to Barristers’Working Lives, women make up 48% of the self-employed Bar up to 12 years’ Call. After that, however, the figure goes into a steady decline. Overall, the self-employed Bar is, and has been, two-thirds men and one-third women. Figures about childcare may explain this: 48% of male barristers have dependent children, but only 42% of women.

Significantly, 31% of men said “someone else organises the childcare”, but only 5% of women said that; instead, 24% of women barristers with dependent children also organise the childcare, whereas only 2% of men said that. Women only outnumber men in family law (61%). In terms of ethnicity, the employed Bar is about 13% BME; the self-employed Bar is 11%. The highest fi gure is in immigration law (36%). Criminal law, which is the largest specialism, has a “Bar average” number of women and BME barristers.

Education and thereafter

Whatever else can be said about the Bar Professional Training Course and the fees it charges, it is not short of applicants: over 3,000 apply each year, of whom about 1,700 take the course – this is fewer than the number of validated places, so the providers are not just taking anyone. In 2011-12, only 43.8% of BPTC students were from the UK, the rest coming from the European Union or further afield, but there are still far more “home students” than there are pupillages.

In 2011-12, there were 438 first six pupils and 475 second six pupils – virtually the same as in 2010-11. Despite the fierce competition, applicants for pupillage are not easily put off : in 2011-12, 38.4% of pupils passed the BPTC in 2011 (ie, they largely had their pupillages arranged before they started the course); 23.9% passed in 2010 (ie, successfully applied during the BPTC year); but 27% passed in 2009 or earlier (ie, second or their CV). There is no obvious sign that standards are slipping.

The pass rate for the BPTC was 93% in 2007; now it is 72% and of those, 86% are Outstanding or Very Competent. In turn, chambers can pick and choose and they do: in 2010-11 with full data, 34.9% of pupils had Firsts, the next year with partial data it was 32.6%. Some 34.5% went to Oxbridge in 2010-11, 28.4% in 2011-12 when Russell Group made up a further 35.8%. Only half read law as a first degree. Of all barristers under three years’ Call, an astounding 45% went to Oxbridge and 41% got Firsts.

How diverse?

The BPTC has more women than men students. It is close to being ethnic-equal: 41.6% BME, 45.85% white in 2011-12, no doubt reflecting the number of overseas students. Callees are gender-equal, and in terms of ethnicity, 42.9% were BME and 54.2% white. Gender equality persists in pupillage, though the exact percentages vary from year to year. However, and perhaps refl ecting the international element at the BPTC, the number of BME pupils was only 20.5% in 2011-12, up from 13% the previous year. Using the Bar Barometer figures as best one can – they show a steep decline of new tenancies from a long-term average of 499 down to 335 in 2011-12 – 70% of white pupils got tenancies and 60% of BME pupils did. An ethnicity of 11.3% BME among new tenants is the same as the Bar overall and which has not significantly changed in recent years. The number of women QC’s has gone up from 9.5% in 2007 to 12.4% in 2012 and BME from 3.6% to 5.5%.

Gender, specialism and education are also linked: 44% of the Bar went to fee-paying schools and 43% of those also went to Oxbridge (23% of state school barristers went to Oxford or Cambridge); 33% of white barristers went to Oxbridge vs 16% of BME barristers; 51% of male barristers went to fee-paying schools; 56% of the Bar went to state schools, which includes 65% of the women barristers, 67% of BME barristers, 67% of gay barristers and 66% of those with childcare responsibilities.

Barristers who practice in commercial and Chancery work are most likely to be male (75%), gone to Oxbridge (56%) and to have achieved a First Class degree (36%). Criminal barristers are least likely to have gone to Oxbridge (17%) or to get a First (7%), but the most likely to have got a 2:2 or Third (36%). Among employed barristers, 22% of the Government Legal Service got Firsts, compared to 11% of the rest.

Break-down by specialism

Why did they choose their particular field of practice? “Interest/enjoyment” was the reason quoted by 70% of all barristers; 47% of criminal barristers chose it to make “a difference to society” (more prevalent among women than men); but only 2% of Chancery barristers ticked that box.

In turn, 3% of criminal barristers chose it for its earning potential, compared to 35% of male Chancery practitioners. Work-loads vary greatly: 17% of employed barristers and 12% of self-employed barristers work part time. Although 38% of criminal barristers said that their workload is less than it was two years ago and 57% said that their earnings are less, they still work longer hours (51 per week) than anyone else, followed closely by family. Although more commercial and Chancery barristers than not report increases in workload and earnings, they work the shortest hours – only 31% more than 50 hours per week.

Who is satisfied?

Barristers up to three years’ Call report more increases in work and are the most positive about their work situation (62%). Indeed, the “happiest” – those who said that the Bar meets most or all of their needs – are those under 30 (56%). The least “happy” are those in their 40s, who are also the group with the largest number of people who said their workload and income are going down. The figures here are quite varied – every specialism reports a substantial number of people whose workload and/or income have gone down and a number for whom both have gone up. It seems though, that it is the younger barristers overall who are doing better and the more established who are doing worse. White barristers (50%) are more satisfied than BME (40%) and among civil and criminal barristers, those who went to fee-paying schools and Oxbridge are more “satisfied” than those who did not.

The satisfied/dissatisfied figures correlate to the figures of reported increases and decreases in work and remuneration. Chancery and commercial barristers are more satisfied than dissatisfied (67% vs 13%), followed by civil (58% vs 19%). Things are more even with family barristers (41% vs 32%), but the overall figures are skewered by the huge dissatisfaction of criminal barristers : 34% of self employed criminal barristers report less work and less money than in 2011; 50% are not satisfied about their work; and 75% said that they are not paid fairly considering their expertise (28% of the rest of the Bar felt that way about themselves). Much of this is as a result of pressure on publicly funded fees: 42% of men and 37% of whites are not reliant on public funding, but only 26% of women and 29% of BME barristers are in that situation. More than half (56%) of criminal barristers would not recommend the Bar as a career; 44% would not choose the Bar if they were starting their career over again; and 35% would leave the Bar “if I could” – those last words may be significant for those whose work and pay have decreased but who in their 40s cannot find an alternative career. New business structures do not seem to be attractive, even to those in difficulties: only 3% intend to form a barrister-only entity, while women, BME’s and those who went to state school are most likely to want to leave. Still, 87% still agree with the statement: “I am proud to be a barrister”.

The least flattering picture though, is of the degree of bullying, harassment and discrimination that persists at the Bar. It is more prevalent among employed than self-employed barristers. Some 22% of women said they have experienced it but only 6% of men said they have observed it. Criminal barristers are the worst offenders: 29% of employed barristers in crime said they have experienced this and 13% of those in self-employed criminal work. It is experienced more by BME barristers (25%), although 48% of those who experienced it said it was based on gender.

It has been least experienced by those who went to fee-paying schools, Oxbridge or are QC’s. More than half (52%) of self-employed barristers said that another barrister in chambers was responsible. Those who have experienced it are more likely to be dissatisfied with their work situation and more likely to want to leave the Bar.

Generalising about the Bar is a dangerous business. Except that, despite everything, they seem to be staying put and the Bar remains a profession to which hundreds aspire every year.

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David Wurtzel

David practised at the criminal Bar for 27 years and is a door tenant at 18 Red Lion Court. Prior to his retirement, he was a consultant in the CPD department at City Law School and consultant editor of Counsel. David is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.