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The English Barrister: A Sabbatical in England

English Barrister

Early morning rain was falling steadily from the gray London sky as I made my way to the Holborn Street underground station. It was the first day of my sabbatical, and I was keen to make the most of it. I got off the train at St. Paul’s and made my way to the barrister’s chambers at 21 College Hill. As I stepped through the door, I was met by a clerk who took me directly upstairs to the Board Room, and introduced me to Sarah Whitehouse, QC (Queen’s Council), the English barrister who had graciously agreed to facilitate my sabbatical.

Barristers are specialists in courtroom advocacy. They practice independently, but generally form together into “chambers,” similar to an American law firm, except each barrister practices independently. Unlike in America, barristers in the same chambers may represent clients opposed to each other in court.

To become a barrister, one must either earn an undergraduate degree in law or a degree in another subject, followed by a post-graduate diploma in law. This is followed by the Bar Professional Training Course (the BPTC) which takes one year and includes specialized training in advocacy, after which which a prospective barrister may be “called” or admitted into one of the four English “Inns of Court” (professional associations for barristers in England). However, before they can practice, they must complete a 12-month residency or “pupillage.”

A limited number of senior barristers may become Queens Counsel (QC) (or, as they say, they “take silk”), as a mark of outstanding ability. Only about 10% of barristers are QC.

Over coffee in the board room, Sarah Whitehouse explained that, in addition to being QC, she is one of only seven Senior Treasury Council (an historical title with nothing to do with revenue) specializing in criminal advocacy, and she handles only complex, high profile and terrorist cases. She added that her chambers is regarded as having the premier criminal advocates in England.

After only one cup of coffee, I was convinced that my trip through the rain that morning was, indeed, worth every drop of London rain.