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The Long and Winding Road to Practising at the Bar

The road to becoming a barrister can be “prohibitively expensive” and the financial drain sometimes makes it impossible to continue practising law.

The barrister-at-law degree (BL) at the King’s Inns costs €12,560. For would-be barristers without an undergraduate law qualification, a diploma in legal studies, required before the BL, is another €12,560.

Fledgling barristers have to “devil” with an experienced barrister (a “master”) for at least one year and often two years or more. This mandatory work experience is unpaid. A master might pay a devil’s expenses, but it is at the master’s discretion. In their first year of devilling, barristers must pay both their yearly Law Library fees and a one-time entrance fee, which amounts to about €3,000.

Annual Law Library fees increase on a sliding scale according to years of experience, with a first year junior paying €1,580, compared to senior counsel who pay €7,643.

According to Bar Council chairman David Barniville SC: “First years are heavily subsidised by the senior fees for facilities and services.” After devilling, barristers must start their own practice. “Compared to many other self-employed professions and trades, a barrister has significantly low overheads once in practice,” Barniville says. “Whilst the cost of education is high, as in any other profession, once at the Bar, the senior members significantly subsidise the most junior.”

Finding enough work to survive is difficult for new barristers who have not built up a network of solicitor contacts who might send work their way. It is common for junior barristers to seek secondary employment in order to survive financially. “We are aware that barristers work in any number of areas such as lecturing, politics, retail, restaurants, call centres etc to assist their income while starting out as a barrister,” Barniville adds. “This has been a common feature for many years. It takes a number of years to get a foothold in the profession and build up a client base of sufficient size to allow you to practise full time.”

According to Bar Council statistics, 146 people entered the Bar in 2009 and only 110 of those remain. King’s Inns under treasurer Seán Aylward says: “People don’t do the BL degree simply to become a practising barrister. Many key workers in public administration and commerce qualify themselves at King’s Inns because they find the skillset we develop is very useful to them.”

However, one former barrister, who did not wish to be named, did want to practise. Originally a teacher, she lived with her parents while she studied and then practised. She devilled for two years without pay. “We had to pay €3,000 even though the Bar Council knew we had no earning capacity,” she said. “Then in my third year, I went out on my own. I hadn’t made enough contacts with solicitors who could brief me. I was getting crumbs from friends.” When she did find work, she did not necessarily get paid. “In civil cases, you could be waiting three or four years until a case ends to get paid.” She subbed at a school to stay afloat.

She got behind on her Law Library fees and had to borrow thousands from family members. When the school offered her a full-time teaching job after her third year of practising, she took it. She “didn’t want to be the person down here at year nine and still not earning enough money”.

She thinks it should be more competitive to become a barrister. “If all of us are not going to make money, make it harder to get in. They let so many of us down to the Bar every year, it’s ludicrous to say senior counsel fees subsidise us.” “If I had known, I wouldn’t have done it. I resent the money I spent . . . I’ve seen unbelievably capable and talented people who have had to leave the Law Library,” she adds.

Another barrister, who also wants to remain anonymous (“It’s a small world in there”) has been practising for five years and is in her early 30s. She just paid her Law Library fees this week. “For the fifth year it’s €2,500 and that’s with a rebate. I’ve been able to pay my fees because I live at home, and I’m very lucky my family are willing to still have me under their roof. Otherwise, I would not have been able to afford it at all.”

While she thinks the Law Library provides a good service and has “phenomenally excellent” staff, “it is a fluctuating, fragile way of life”. Last year, she was at her cubby-hole at the Law Library to collect her post. Another barrister opened his cubby and found an envelope . “He screamed “Oh my God, it’s a cheque!’ because they’re so rare,” she recalls.

She keeps going because she loves the job, but she does not know if she is in it for the long haul. “I don’t regret doing it. I’d do it again. “As long as you’re fully aware of the realities that you’re going to have no money and shop in Lidl, and you’re going to get the same pair of shoes resoled several times . . . people have described it as a very expensive hobby.

It’s also a very important hobby. “But my possibility of getting a mortgage or even having children, let alone putting them through college, is non-existent. I can’t afford to put a roof over my own head.”

The Irish Times 3/11/14

Erin McGuire