First the bad news
Moving from medicine to the Bar could bring great rewards. However, let’s look at the bad news first.
- Becoming a barrister is very competitive and becoming a financially successful barrister is even harder.
- You may well have to support yourself for another three and a half years before you start earning.
- Working in barristers’ chambers can be fairly solitary and the other barristers in your chamber may be your competitors (you’ll all be self-employed).
- You’ll have to pay chambers fees, around 25% of your fees, in addition to the usual income tax, and will have to make your own pension arrangements (there’s no NHS final salary pension, with employer contribution).
Taking it step by step
As a medical graduate you can gain a fast-track law degree in two years at a number of UK universities, including Edinburgh, Leeds and Bangor. For the Bar you’ll need a minimum of a 2:1 and often a 1st. You’ll probably also want to arrange mini pupillages in your summer vacations.
Alternatively you can take the one year Common Professional Examination (CPE) or an approved Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).
The next step is the vocational training stage ie the Bar Vocational Course. The BVC takes one year full time or two years part time, with fees ranging from £6,000-£12,000 a year. You will need to join an Inn of Court first – one willing to offer you a scholarship probably makes most sense (about a quarter of BVC students receive scholarships from one of four Inns of Court)
You’ll then need to do two six-month pupillages (a contract for education and training rather than employment), so you will need financial support for the first six months or so. The Inns provide around 400 pupillage awards a year. The annual London based Pupillage Fair is worth checking out to find out more. A word of warning here – less than a third of those doing the BVC get one of the limited number of pupillages available immediately.
If you make it through this far you’ll then join the 12,000 or so barristers in the self-employed Bar in England and Wales, the 460 or so advocates in Scotland or the 3,000 or so in the employed Bar in England and Wales.
What will I earn?
What happens next will depend on the area of law you practice in (with criminal law usually much less well paid than commercial or civil law), on your ability, and perhaps on an element of luck.
A criminal law junior can earn as little as £55 per day and criminal law barristers threatened industrial action in 2005 over low rates of pay. One source has claimed criminal barristers with 5-20 years’ experience could be taking home little more than £30,000 a year.
Conversely, average gross earnings for the 1,742 barristers tenanted in the top 30 commercial sets averaged £332,000 a year in a recent survey, whilst QCs generally were reported as earning an average of around £300,000 a year. Both figures are gross and subject to chambers fees of 25% and income tax at 40% on higher earnings.
As a self-employed barrister within five years of call you could be earning anything from £25,000 to £150,000 a year gross (i.e. before tax and chambers fees).