For many aspiring and admitted lawyers, the idea of wearing the wig and gown which signifies barristers at the bar when entering a higher courtroom can be enticing.
Many NSW lawyers enter the Bar after practising as a solicitor for a number of years, whilst others take the examination straight after graduating from law school.
Barristers normally specialise in advocating for clients in courtrooms and tribunals for more serious case. While taking on a great deal of advocacy themselves, solicitors will often brief and assist barristers for lengthy and complex cases, including many District and Supreme Court jury trials.
Central to the role of a barrister is their independence. These legal professionals are sole practitioners, which means they work alone – albeit often within a ‘chambers’ where rooms are occupied by other barristers – and are prohibited from forming business associations with others. This requirement promotes the provision of unbiased legal representation.
As barristers are sole practitioners, they’re required to seek out their own work. Typically, the services of a barrister are retained by a solicitor. So, it’s important for a barrister to forge and maintain successful relationships with solicitors from early on in their careers.
So, who is eligible to join the Bar?
The NSW Bar Association is a professional body of lawyers responsible for the regulation barristers in this state. It’s charged with administering the Bar examination, which is the test a person must pass in order to practise as a barrister in NSW.
As outlined in a 2017 Bar Association guide, a person is eligible to join the NSW Bar if they’ve been admitted as a lawyer in an Australian jurisdiction, passed the Bar exam to the required standard, hold a practising certificate and complete the reading program.
How do I pass the Bar exam?
The subjects covered in the Bar exam are practice and procedures for barristers, aspects of evidence, and legal ethics. The exam is comprised of two papers. Candidates have two hours to complete each one of those papers. The exam currently takes place twice a year: in February and June.
After registering for the exam, candidates are provided with exam study materials, including reading lists and a permitted materials list. The Bar Association holds lectures and tutorials in the weeks leading up to the tests.
To successfully pass the exam, candidates must attain a mark of at least 75 percent. That grade makes an individual eligible to participate in one of three Bar Practice Courses. If a candidate fails to achieve the required mark, they can sit the test again. There’s no limit to how many times they can try.
What does the Bar Practice Course involve?
The Bar Practice Course is designed to hone advocacy, mediation and other barrister skills. It also provides practical insight into life and practice at the NSW Bar, and creates an environment whereby those attending can form professional support networks amongst themselves.
The course consists of lectures, workshops, court practice sessions and informal discussions. Up-and-coming barristers partake in theoretical work and practical experiences that provide them with the tools to carry out their future role in administering justice and upholding the rule of law.
After registering for the month-long full time course, participants are then referred to as ‘readers’. This continues through their first year at the Bar. Readers are expected to attend all course sessions and conduct themselves in a professional manner.
What’s involved in the reading program?
The reading program commences once a reader’s practising certificate has been issued. It involves a twelve month period under the supervision of one or two tutors. A tutor must be a barrister of at least seven years standing, who is not a senior counsel.
Arrangements for tutors, which are organised by readers, should be initiated at least six months to a year before taking the Bar exam. The Bar Association strongly advises readers to have two tutors, rather than just one.
In their first six months of practice, readers must complete ten days of criminal reading, along with ten days of civil reading. They are required to participate in cases as fully as possible, including reading the brief materials and preparing submissions.
How do I obtain my practising certificate?
At the end of the twelve month reading period, readers must apply for an unconditional practising certificates. This can be done once the Bar Association has received a Satisfactory Completion of Reading form from their tutor/s.
A practising certificate is issued for a twelve month period. Once the certificate expires, a barrister can apply for a new one, which is usually issued as long as they’ve engaged in continuing professional development (CPD) activities during the year.
Barristers are required to undertake ten points of CPD activities each year, to ensure their skills are continually being advanced and their knowledge updated. Compulsory categories include ethics and professional responsibility, and practice management and business skills.
If an individual is unable to complete the reading program requirements within the twelve month period, they may be granted a further conditional practising certificate at the discretion of the Bar Association.
How do I find chambers?
As stated, barristers often secure rooms within chambers. These are normally located on a floor or floors within a building, and can accommodate for barristers of various fields of law and varying degrees of experience. A clerk will often manage the day to day management of the particular chambers.
Readers may be able to secure a room on the same floor as their tutor/s; indeed, many chambers set aside rooms for their readers. But this isn’t always possible. The NSW Bar Association website features a list of chambers with rooms available to be licensed or otherwise available for use.
The Bar Association warns against purchasing chambers at the reading stage. Apart from the need to keep costs low during this time, a reader’s interests and connections may change in the early stages of their career and they might seek to relocate.
That said, the Association strongly advises being located inside a chambers, as it allows them to be part of a community of counsel who can support one another in their endeavours.
The Association says that an essential aspect of being a barrister is seeking the help and advice of other practitioners and involvement in a chamber facilitates this. “Barristers continually assist one another at all stages of their career,” the Association’s guide concludes.
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.