After working as a personal trainer for more than 10 years, Jamie Johnston decided to switch career paths and become a barrister for Dere Street Barristers.

In this episode of the #MoreFromLaw podcast, Jamie and I discuss:

  • His motivations for transitioning from non-law to the Bar
  • His best advice for others looking to do the same
  • The skills aspiring barristers need in order to succeed

And more! A really insightful episode that will make a great listen for any aspiring barrister.


Show Notes and Further Resources

Why consider the bar with a non-law background?

  • Being, and becoming, a barrister is an intellectually stimulating and exciting challenge. Many are enticed by the prospect of self-employment and might already be familiar with this way of working. A broad variety of skills, which are central to various non-law roles, are utilised in the profession – take public speaking, teaching, franchising, and marketing, as examples.

The self-employed nature of barristers

Only a small minority of barristers are employed by companies:
> Some firms have litigation departments with barristers within them
> The CPS offer pupillages and employ barristers to act as prosecutors

– The rest work in a chambers, which is a group of self-employed barristers who pool their resources to pay for rent, members of staff and general day-to-day business items. Clerks are the main employees, managing diaries and finding clients; whilst photocopying, library and IT bills are also essential pay-outs. 

– The latter tend to be classed as sole traders – they do their own accounts, tax returns and VAT payments. Although clerks will help to keep their financial records in order, the barrister is ultimately responsible, and this can be a significant pressure on top of work. They also receive no sick pay, which is particularly challenging in situations such as the current Coronavirus pandemic. 

– To disregard the benefits of self-employment would be a mistake – barristers can pick and choose their holidays, and they have flexibility of hours, as they choose when they work. 

How to choose between solicitor and barrister roles with a non-law background

– It is vital to gain an understanding of both the solicitor and barrister routes before committing to a pathway. This is particularly important for non-law applicants, who might have limited knowledge when it comes to legal careers. You can do this by completing work experience placements, enabling you to get a feel for both environments. 

An entrepreneur-turned-barrister’s advice for the pupillage process

View your interview as a sales pitch. You are trying to get the barristers to see you as a future asset to the chambers and will therefore invest in your pupillage. Someone with a non-law career will benefit from this process, as they will be able to evidence both professional and academic experience. 

– The question “How do you know you won’t want to go back to (X) role?” should not cause you to worry. You can easily detail your transferable skillset, as well as your commitment and diligence, if you have had the same job for a few years. 

Examples of professional evidence 

  • Working with vulnerable clients, such as the young, elderly, or mentally ill; demonstrates that you have coaching and crisis intervention abilities as well as soft-skills like communication and empathy. This is vital for the bar – you must be able to relate to and work with people from all sections of society, on stressful and potentially hard-hitting material.
  • Self-employment experience, which illustrates that you are self-motivated and suited to the barrister way of working.
  • The ability to work hard and maintain a healthy work/life balance. You will typically work sixty-hour weeks for the first few years as a barrister, so you must be able to demonstrate that you will be able to cope. 

– Securing a mentorship will help you to find, and consequently fix, the holes in your CV. An obvious hole might be legal work experience, i.e. mini pupillages and volunteering. 

– Another is legal public speaking skills, developed through activities such as mooting, debating, and voluntary teaching. You can join a professional networking group, where you can practice oral skills through presentations that might be unscripted and unprepared, or from a PowerPoint. 

– It is important to develop your sense of legal jargon, especially if you are from a non-law background – you will struggle to understand the interview questions if you lack this sort of knowledge.

A non-law student might consider a year out in between the GDL and Bar Course in order to gain the necessary skills and experience required. 

Common misconceptions about entrepreneurship

The job involves a regular number of working hours. Around fifty to sixty hours a week must be invested for several years in order to have a fruitful career as an entrepreneur. This level of commitment and determination is required at the bar – making it a great example to use in applications and interviews. 

An entrepreneur is just a manager. Big companies can afford to pay individuals to complete certain tasks, such as HR, accounts, marketing, service delivery and production. Unfortunately, most entrepreneurs do not have this luxury. They must be able to do all of those things, meaning that a wide and tailored skillset is required.

The role is always exciting. Many entrepreneurial tasks are mundane, such as bookkeeping and legal research – it is important to know what laws and rules apply to your business, for example.

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