Why I chose to pursue a career at the English, and not the Irish, Bar

Over the course of this short piece, I set out some of my reasons for deciding to become a barrister in London, rather than Dublin. There are many reasons why I ended up in this position, many of which are personal, but some relate to how the Irish Bar is currently set up. The English Bar is rarely considered by Irish students, but it has some advantages which I outline below. I think these advantages mitigate some of the issues which were highlighted by Rhea Bohan BL in her letter to the Irish Times (Saturday, October 10, 2020).

This is not to suggest that the English Bar is without access problems. It is very difficult to successfully apply for pupillage, and many are unsuccessful after a number of attempts. However, for some Irish students, it might be a path worth taking, and some of the differences between the Irish and English Bars are worth considering for understanding what might be done in Ireland. In this short piece, I focus on two factors: scholarship funding and early career income certainty.

While I have tried to be accurate in everything that I have said, I apologise for any mistakes contained below.

Short introduction to the English Bar for Irish students

While at UCD, I was very aware of older students accepting training contracts to become solicitors in London, primarily from Magic Circle firms. There is a well-trodden path from Irish law schools to London law firms, and Dublin’s big commercial firms are home to many Irish solicitors who previously trained in London.

It seems that the route from Ireland to the English Bar is far less frequently pursued. I am not sure why, but it was not an option that occurred to me while at UCD or to many of my peers. Indeed, a friend commenting on this piece noted that she would have sooner considered working in New York as a lawyer than moving to England to become a barrister. As I knew nothing about the English Bar, I had assumed that it was set up in the same way as the Irish Bar, with sole practitioners working on their own.

For those who don’t know (I certainly didn’t as a student), at the English Bar, barristers are primarily organised into chambers of barristers. While each chambers is a collection of sole practitioners, the barristers share the costs of practising (e.g. share office space, facilities IT support, printing costs, etc.) and specialise in similar areas of law. If you want to train as a barrister in England and Wales, in most cases you need to be chosen by one of these chambers to complete your pupillage year, which is a year much like devilling in Ireland.

As in Ireland, prospective Bar students in England and Wales are required to complete a one-year course prior to their pupillage year. This provides students with the skills and knowledge that are required to practice at the Bar.

So far, it all sounds relatively similar to Ireland, so what factors pushed me towards choosing London?

  1. Scholarship funding

Whether becoming a barrister in Dublin or London, it is a very expensive process. Course fees at the King’s Inns are ~€12,500, which reflects the considerable time and attention which is paid to delivering a vocational training of a high standard. The Bar course in England and Wales is delivered by a number of providers, and fees typically range from £13,500 to £16,500. However, the higher fees in London are deceptive, because there are considerable sources of funding open to students.

Scholarships are offered by both the course providers and the Inns of Court (unlike in Ireland, there are four Inns of Court in England and Wales). These scholarships range in value from a small decrease in fees to a stipend that covers both course fees and much of your living expenses. Additionally, recent changes (pre-dating Covid) mean that a number of providers deliver a significant portion of the course remotely and will continue to do so post-Covid. Students can avoid paying rent in London or elsewhere and potentially live in their family home, for those privileged to have that option open to them.

To give people a sense of how many scholarships are available, I am a member of Lincoln’s Inn, which typically has up to £1.4M in scholarship money to disburse, and over the last 3 years has given out an average of 105 scholarships per annum. There are three other Inns of Court, all of which maintain similarly generous scholarship programmes.

In Ireland, there are the Denham Fellowship, McCarthy Bursary and SUSI grants, but the scholarship opportunities are more limited for those wishing to become barristers. The course is delivered in Dublin which has been struck in recent years by a rising cost of living. If you haven’t the advantage of coming from Dublin, you would also have to pay rent to study the full-time course. It should be said that the part-time option does give students more flexibility, but requires an additional year. Additionally, King’s Inns has started to deliver the course online due to the pandemic, and perhaps elements of that delivery model could be retained in future years to lower costs.

In England and Wales, there is an additional source of funding. People often apply to be pupils 18 months before the start of their pupillage. Chambers offer what is called a pupillage award, which provides pupils with an income for the year that they are pupils. Recognising the financial challenge of studying for the Bar, many chambers allow students to draw down a portion of their award during the year before pupillage. This allows many students to draw considerable sums (sometimes as much as £20,000) in the year that they are completing the Bar course.

Those criticising the pupillage system will point out that it is a very competitive process. Only ~14.5% of applicants are successful. The benefit of the Irish system is that becoming a barrister is not contingent on securing a pupillage. This might suggest that the Irish system is more accessible, but the current funding arrangements present significant accessibility issues. While many young barristers manage to make it work financially, I know students are often put off by the challenges they feel that they will face financially and look elsewhere for their careers.

2. Early career income certainty

If you have been lucky enough to get past the hurdle of the Bar course in Ireland, through savings, hard work, loans, and potentially support from family, you then have a year as a devil (and increasingly it seems two years).

Devil masters are known for being very generous, often paying for their devil’s fees, meals, other expenses and making a financial contribution to them during their year. However, it does not amount to a full salary. It would also be impossible and indeed unfair to place the burden of providing a living stipend on the shoulders of individual members of the Irish Bar. Chambers avoid this problem by providing the scale where the costs of funding a pupillage are shared across many barristers.

This means that following the vocational training for the Irish Bar, prospective barristers must be able to afford relatively little income for their first couple of years as barristers. Again, the same comment regarding those who are from outside Dublin applies. No doubt for them, this is an exceedingly expensive period, where they must also cover the cost of renting in Dublin.

Many devils are, however, able to make money through a variety of means — teaching, document review, a part-time job of any kind. Further, many devils can charge fees for some work, which occurs more frequently during their second year.

In England and Wales, the pupillage award ensures an income for the year of pupillage. Unsurprisingly, at large commercial chambers, these awards are more generous than is possible at criminal chambers (which is a reflection on the poor state of funding of criminal law in England and Wales and not a reflection on any criminal chambers — for more see the Secret Barrister, if you haven’t already).

The public perception of Irish barristers’ remuneration is of course shaped by eye-catching stories about tribunal fees, but the reality for many young barristers is far different. It has been well documented elsewhere that over the years many young barristers leave the profession soon after joining, because they are unable to sustain their career.

For anyone in law school weighing up the considerable cost of the lengthy process of training as a barrister in Ireland, they then have to further consider the possibility that they make very little money for a number of years. If their education is to be funded fully or partially by credit, they must be confident that they will earn a sufficient amount to pay off their loans, which may seem like an altogether risky proposition.


Nothing I will have said here is new. Instead, I am hoping to provide some inspiration to current Irish law students, who may not have considered a career at the English Bar. It is critical to note that this piece does not delve deeply into the many problems that exist in the English Bar. In particular, the current arrangements for criminal justice lead to barristers working long hours for little pay, while traversing the country. This piece is not trying to suggest that one system has it sorted out, while the other does not.

But for some people, who might be lucky enough to receive a scholarship and/or pupillage, the English Bar is an attractive option, which can work out more cheaply and offers greater security of income.

The current situation in Ireland has structural problems which are pushing away individuals who would otherwise have eagerly pursued a career as a barrister. Anyone who studied at an Irish law school knows countless friends who have quickly put to one side the possibility that they will become a barrister, because it is too risky and too expensive. The financial barrier which they face is the primary driver of this, which further entrenches the perception of the Bar as a profession for the privileged few.

I am not qualified to suggest any solutions. Perhaps it looks like consideration of a chambers system in Ireland, or increased scholarship funding, or any other number of potential initiatives.

What is clear is that for many Irish law students, the current set up makes becoming a barrister feel decidedly out of reach.




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Eoin Maclachlan

Eoin Maclachlan

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