Since starting your law journey you definitely will have been asked these questions. In this blog we discuss the top 5 clichés people always ask Student Barristers. Let us know if you have heard of any of these Student Barrister Clichés by tagging @BATTHEBAR on Twitter.
5. “Do you really have to wear those wigs?”
Bench wigs have been a long-standing tradition in the United Kingdom since 1685 to show affluence and at the time, rebut the dated idea that someone had contracted syphilis, which was an epidemic after Charles VIII invaded Naples in 1495. Only the rich sported horsehair bench wigs whilst those who couldn’t afford such used goats hair or human hair from corpses to fit the bill. Nowadays, horse hair bench wigs are often still used in the criminal justice system, however thankfully synthetic wigs are now an option.
However, as centuries have passed people have become increasingly curious as to why barristers still have to comply with the dated formalities of wigs and robes. Therefore, it’s likely you would’ve been asked already, and if you didn’t know then, hopefully this blog will prepare you for the next time you’re met with the question.
There’s a number of reasons behind the survival of the bench wig in the justice system; firstly, it is believed that wigs bring an aura of formality, power, respect and tradition to proceedings and secondly, as a symbol of anonymity separating the law and those brought before it.
Now, although the bench wig still survives in the criminal justice system it’s actually important to remember bench wigs are not worn in all types of legal proceedings in the United Kingdom. Judges are able to suspend the wearing of robes and wigs, a power often used when proceedings involve children. Furthermore, in 2007 the Lord Chief Justice, Baron Phillips of Worth Matravers ruled that wigs were no longer to be worn in family or civil court matters in a step to simplify the court room dress codes. So, whilst it may still be deemed an insult not to wear a peruke in a criminal court room, just know that’s not always the case.
4. “So, have you watched Suits?”
Believe it or not, watching Suits doesn’t make you a barrister. Whilst the loose legal basis may inspire some to explore the subject, just remember the show is fictional and far from the truth behind what it really means to be a barrister. Although, I’d love if it were as glamourous. Thinking about it, I am sure Suits and How to Get Away with Murder is the barristers version of a medical students Grey’s Anatomy.
3. “So you’ll defend me in court?”
This ones good because it’s really said in light hearted jest but seriously, what are you planning?
2. “You’re a barrister, so you’re rich?”
No. The idea of all barristers being rich is most certainly a myth. Whilst of course there are some barristers that have revelled in financial success as a result of their career, it’s important to know that there is such a wide variation in what barristers earn. This is made obvious when you realise only 2 per cent of barristers take home over £1m per year, whilst nearly 12 per cent earn less than £30,000.
The main factors affecting salary is speciality. Indeed posted the figures of the average annual salary of the highest paid barrister specialisms in a 2022 article; corporate law was found to pay its barristers the highest with an average annual salary of £70,850. In sharp contrast, it’s been in the news recently that criminal barristers in their first three years of practise are earning figures as low as £12,000.
Other factors affecting salary include seniority and location as barristers located within London are generally likely to earn more than those outside of London. However, don’t forget the financial cost it takes to actually just become a barrister – it isn’t cheap and can cost anywhere between £15,000 and £19,000 just to be able to do the BPTC.
1. “How can you defend someone that’s guilty?”
Coming in at the top of the list is the classic “how can you defend someone that’s guilty?” Now I’m almost certain that if you have decided to pursue law you’ve heard this one and the answer is not clean cut.
One significant thing you are taught in law school is that your opinion as a barrister is completely irrelevant; it is not your job to judge, it’s your job to put forth your client’s case fearlessly. The right to a fair trial is fundamental human right under Article 6, and it is not our purpose to gate-keep someone’s access to that.
Furthermore, barristers act on clients instructions. This means we can look at the facts and the evidence and advise our clients on their case’ strengths and weaknesses and give candid legal advice, informing them of the likelihood they’re going to be believed. However, we don’t and will likely never know if a person’s truly guilty or truly innocent, but on the rare occasions we are sure of someone’s guilt, our overriding duty not to mislead the Court means that although we don’t necessarily have to reject our clients instructions, we cannot lie to the court for our client.
But its important to remember, no case is straight forward. Whilst sometimes it may look like all the evidence points only towards one conclusion, it can very well be the opposite. In conclusion, the only fair solution is to allow the court to make their decision after hearing both sides of the story.
A barrister provided a good response to the question here –