WANTED Criminal barrister.

JOB DESCRIPTION Prosecuting and defending your fellow citizens in Magistrates’ and Crown Courts across England and Wales.

HOURS 60 to 90 per week, mostly unpaid.

SALARY Variable, from sub-minimum wage at the beginning to a tenth of the pay of your commercial law peers if you reach the very top.

LINE MANAGEMENT Savour the freedom of self-employment – you are your own boss! (Subject to the requirement to obey the every command of your clerks, solicitors, the Crown Prosecution Service, leading counsel and judges).

BENEFITS Holiday pay, sick pay, maternity/paternity pay, pension contributions and fringe benefits are all explicitly excluded.

LOCATION Wherever necessary (or, when the court so requires, unnecessary).


PERSONAL ATTRIBUTES The ideal candidate will possess outstanding legal and advocacy abilities, as well as the skills of a hostage negotiator, social worker, nightclub bouncer, juggler, parent, marriage counsellor, horse-whisperer, mental health diagnostician, can carrier and time-traveller. They will excel at carrying out the legal and administrative functions of others for free in order to plug the gaping holes in a chronically under-resourced and understaffed justice system.

They will particularly enjoy the thrill of mastering legally complex and emotionally traumatic situations on nil sleep and at a moment’s notice, travelling long distances for court hearings that pay £4 after deductions, and being shouted at in public for the failings of others. Own transport a plus.

It’s an advert with little to recommend it. It is also the sanitised, abridged version of the monologue awaiting anybody foolish enough to ask a practising criminal barrister: ‘Should I go into criminal law?’ Triple the word count and add an expletive to every second sentence and you get a flavour of the standard soliloquy of the cliched criminal hack. The criminal justice system, as some malcontent blogger once wrote, is broken. Beware all who walk through the doors of our dilapidated, delay-ridden criminal courts. Turn back now. Etc etc.

Yet despite the portents, thousands of applications for pupillage drop into the inboxes of criminal chambers each year, as newly minted Bar graduates compete at a ratio of 300:1 for a golden ticket to Wonka’s Justice Factory. And, notwithstanding that some of us spend almost as much time railing against the inadequacies of our working conditions as we do actually practising law, we are, mostly, still here, keeping on keeping on.

And there’s a reason for that. It is because, for all its hardships, it is, without question, the best job in the world.

There is simply nothing like it. No day is ever dull; no case is ever unimportant. What you do matters. In criminal justice, you are making a direct and quantifiable difference to people’s lives and people’s liberty, affording them a voice and ensuring they can access justice at what is, for almost everybody involved in a criminal case, their lowest ebb. Some days you will be defeated by the system, by the flaws that are all too common. An already difficult job is made unnecessarily harder by the constraints imposed by those in power who have run justice into the ground. But those frustrations are, on balance, just about outweighed by the satisfaction of knowing that, when the pieces click, you are ensuring that there is somebody to fight the corner of those who would otherwise be left unarmed.

You have the privilege of working alongside some of the most brilliant people our country produces – titans of intellect, compassion, oratory, and the bleakest gallows humour. You meet them as strangers, compete in court as colleagues and seek solace in the robing room as friends. Being around them makes you better, not just as a professional, but as a person. They help carry your burdens and are as generous with their time as you learn to become with yours. Every day you encounter a new problem, a novel challenge, and are tested in ways you could not have imagined when you rose at 6am to make your three-hour trek to court to cover that ‘straightforward mention’. Terror, you learn, breeds resilience.

You will regularly see humanity’s nadir and, amid what can feel like unremitting darkness, will find hope in glimpses of its zenith. The people you will meet, the lives you will flit into and out of in the space of a day – some of their stories will remain with you forever. This job will change you; it will force you to reconsider so many certainties of how the world is, and how it ought to be.

And it’s fun. That’s not to belie the seriousness of what we do; we know all too well the stakes for those we represent. But the rampant, high-energy, seat-of-your-pants adrenaline cocktail of courtroom advocacy – especially a jury trial – grips and invigorates you like something that should be scheduled to the Misuse of Drugs Act. That, more than anything, I suspect, is why we keep doing it. Keep chasing that high.

None of this is to gloss over the hardships. The instability inherent in self-employment is exacerbated in the current climate, with uncertainty over the future of criminal legal aid, and even the criminal legal profession, as acute as it has ever been. Maintaining a functioning personal and family life is vital to surviving at the criminal Bar, but is fiendishly difficult to achieve around a criminal practice. The horror stories of penury in the early years are not myths but cautionary tales. Be under no illusion that it can be close to impossible to make a living on your income as a publicly funded criminal barrister in the first years of practice, especially in London, where income is lower and outgoings significantly higher than on the circuits. Out of those around my Call who began a criminal pupillage, more have left crime than are still practising. The pressures are intense, and the responsibility far, far outweighs the material rewards. Going above and beyond is the expected baseline. Gratitude for your toil is rare; praise even rarer.

But if you know all that going in – if you’ve listened to our cautions and read our blogs and stared into the criminal justice coalface in all its dysfunctional, chaotic glory – and you remain undeterred, I would still recommend this vocation to anyone, albeit with one final word of advice, born of realism even if it sounds like pessimism: the odds are not in anybody’s favour. Make sure you have a Plan B.