It may sound fun, but you will struggle to make ends meet, says former criminal barrister Alex Deane
Don't go to the Criminal Bar. I can't put it strongly enough. Don't do it. It is a mug's game. Let me try to explain. First, pupillage awards are scandalously low - usually now ?10,000 per year, and often your own earnings in your second six months count as part of that.
Furthermore, you will often have worked hard for an effective hearing (for example, a trial or a sentence), but then on the day of the hearing, through no fault of your own, that trial or sentence does not take place, and you instead receive a basic "mention" appearance fee. That's because:
The client fails to attend, which means you're paid a basic appearance fee, usually after being abused by the bench as if it's your fault, being asked to make various fatuous excuses by the solicitors and waiting at court for some hours.
The client does not arrive from prison. You're paid a basic appearance fee, usually after waiting at court for some hours.
The Probation Service/Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)/court lacks their file, or the relevant parts of it.
If you do have an effective hearing, each or a combination of the above can delay it from happening for many hours. The result is often that, through no fault of your own, you cannot make a second case that chambers have booked you in for later that day. You will be in trouble, although you've done nothing wrong, and moreover you miss out on the possibility of perhaps getting a bit of money on that second case (which you've often worked on in preparation).
Working for free
Worse still, you will often work for free. That's because you will quite regularly find:
Solicitors will have double-booked counsel, in which case you're paid nothing.
The client has double-booked solicitors. If the client goes with the other firm at the hearing, you're paid nothing.
The solicitors have decided to cover the matter in-house but have not told your clerks, or your clerks have not bothered to check. You're paid nothing.
The hearing has been vacated administratively by the court but the message has not reached your solicitors, or they have not passed the message on to chambers, or it has been passed on to chambers but your clerks have not put it on the brief. You're paid nothing.
Fees will often go unpaid for years, sometimes finally begrudgingly paid without interest, or are never paid at all.
In some of these situations, there are plausible, possible recourses to try to get some payment. However, your chambers won't be interested in taking them up on your behalf as the work coming in from the firm for more senior members is more important than the work you do - and relationships with the firm are too valuable in the current climate out of fear of where fees are coming from.
Chambers is also often an unpleasant experience because:
Chambers will often be struggling to find work for more senior members so there will be very little (or no) 'trickle-down' of better briefs (for example, Crown Court work) - whereas once you could gradually get better work, often in your first few years. The very worst briefs that you start off on remain the sort of work you do for some time.
Even if you do manage to impress solicitors and they send in work for you, your name will often be removed and the name of a tenant put in its place. Chambers will send you out for an improper fee. The Bar Council issued a warning note to chambers last year that stated that junior members of the Bar were being used for very low fees as 'loss-leaders' (where a hearing is carried out even though it will be at a financial loss, because it will lead to more work from thatsolicitor).
If a 'squatter' (someone who has completed the formal requirements of the 12-month pupillage but is not a tenant in chambers, rather having a further trial period) you will be asked to do work for other members of chambers. Unlike in other kinds of law, and unlike in criminal sets in the past, you will almost certainly not be paid for it. You can expect this regularly and you will not be treated any better as a result.
The lifestyle you will lead is unpleasant more generally because:
The payment of travel and waiting is now not automatic and you will often not be paid for it - regularly winding up out of pocket even on magistrates' court cases.
You will be treated badly by many courts, where ushers, clerks and benches are more used to their local solicitors and resent counsel that seem like outsiders.
You will be treated like the enemy in courts that have removed the defence advocates' room, usually giving it over to the Probation Service or the CPS.
Once you have done the preliminary work on a case, even if the lay client wants to retain you, it will often be taken from you to be done at trial or more serious stages by a more senior member of chambers or by the firm who may take it back in-house. They're not supposed to do this but, again, the firm is too important to chambers so nobody complains.
Don't go to the Criminal Bar. It's not a proper job. It's a hobby, and a pleasant one for those with an independent income - but you simply cannot make a living from it in the first four or five years.
Worse still, the future is even bleaker, with the CPS taking in more and more in-house advocates to prosecute on one side and save money, and solicitors taking in more and more higher rights advocates to defend and capitalise on fees on the other side. The independent Bar gets squeezed in the middle, accepting less in fees for more work because that's all that is available.
It's undignified, demeaning and you don't want any part of it. Fees are getting lower each year as the Dutch auction between chambers worsens. A regular appearance in the magistrates' court could once be guaranteed to average ?100 - now it's more like ?60.
I can attest from personal experience - and the experience of many people I know - that many barristers who have been in practice for two or three years will regularly only receive ?100 a week. Once you factor in tax and expenses, it's not just a joke that you'd be better off on benefits - it's genuinely true.
Alex Deane practised as a criminal barrister from 2005 to 2009. He now works for a think tank and holds a door tenancy at a set where "none of this abuse takes place, but financial challenges remain".