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Becoming a barrister: the Inns of Court

updated on 09 December 2019

You've got to be in it to win it - true of the National Lottery and true of a career at the Bar. As Inner Temple's Deputy Director of Education (Acting) Struan Campbell kindly explains, thanks to the myriad networking, scholarship and training opportunities on offer, there's much more to gain from joining an Inn of Court than a few posh dinners.

Those of you who are seriously considering life at the Bar will know that the Inns of Court continue to play an important part in the careers of aspiring and practising barristers. Nevertheless, the Inns' exact role is often still unclear.

The historic Inns of Court are one of the unique features of the Bar of England and Wales. In order to begin the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), you must join one of the four Inns by 31 May of the year in which you intend to start your course. These 'honourable societies' are Lincoln's InnInner TempleMiddle Temple and Gray's Inn, all of which are located in London's legal district alongside many sets of chambers housing self-employed barristers, and in close proximity to the Royal Courts of Justice and the Old Bailey.

The four collegiate institutions each have distinguished histories, having come into being around the middle of the 14th Century. The Inns were separately formed as institutions which had sole responsibility for legal education. The Bar course (BPTC) has since been devolved to higher-education institutions, but the Inns continue to play an essential part in the vocational training of student barristers and, once practising, in their continuing professional development.

Each Inn's membership is comprised of students, barristers and judges. Senior members of the Inn are known as masters of the bench or 'benchers'. Masters of the bench form the governing body of the Inn and new benchers are chosen from existing members. The senior bencher of the Inn is the treasurer - a position held for a year. The under or sub-treasurer is the chief executive of the Inn. The collegiate nature of the Inns and the ability for new student members to learn from senior benchers should not be underestimated.

The Inns of Court continue to hold the exclusive right of admission to the Bar. This process, known as 'call to the Bar', occurs after you have successfully completed your Bar course and have undertaken a number of professional exercises or 'qualifying sessions' organised by your Inn. Call to the Bar does not entitle you to practise as a barrister until you have completed pupillage (a form of apprenticeship - see note below on applying) and obtained a practising certificate.

Qualifying sessions consist of collegiate and educational activities which complement your Bar training. Students must complete 12 qualifying sessions to be called to the Bar. Qualifying sessions include lectures, advocacy training, moots and debates. Many of the Inns also organise conference weekends based around topical legal issues. For more on qualifying sessions, see this week’s LCN Says.

The inns, between them, offer approximately £5 million each year in scholarships and awards to students studying for the Bar. Awards are available for graduate law conversion courses and Bar courses. Application details are on the Inns' websites, but the closing dates are usually the first Friday in May for the GDL/new graduate law conversion courses and the first Friday in November the year before commencing a Bar course. Note that it is only possible to apply to one Inn for a scholarship. All Inn scholarships are based on merit, but some Inns take need into account when determining the value of the scholarship awarded. You should look carefully at the different scholarship requirements across the Inns and at what is on offer from each.

How do you choose between the Inns? All provide a similar range of services including educational and collegiate activities, library facilities, support for barristers and student members, advocacy training, and other continuing professional development opportunities. Your choice of Inn could be guided by atmosphere, character or history, size, scholarship process, range of student societies or opportunities for advocacy training. Rather than rely on word of mouth, do your own research! The best way to determine which Inn is for you is to take part in activities for university students and go on tours arranged by the education and training department.

From dealing with admissions to calling aspiring barristers to the Bar, the Inns are bursting with activity all year round. Apart from organising educational activities, the Inns also undertake collegiate activities for their members and work with academics and career services at universities. The Inns also play an important role as regulators – for example, through the Inns of Court Conduct Committee and by assessing pupils’ advocacy – and work together with the representative and regulatory bodies on the policies affecting the profession and legal education and training. They also work with international jurisdictions to support relationships between the legal system of England and Wales and those overseas.

The Inns are also working on behalf of the profession to promote diversity and social mobility. The Inner Temple Schools Project works with charities such as Pathways to Law, the Social Mobility Foundation and National Education Trust to promote an understanding of the justice system and careers in law. The Pegasus Access and Support Scheme (PASS) was launched in 2010 and offers formal mini-pupillages to students from under-represented backgrounds.

For practising members at both the pupillage and tenancy (or employed) stage, the Inns are hubs of advocacy training; through professional training they ensure that advocacy standards are met. This training is provided by experienced, highly skilled barristers and judges on a pro bono basis - they pass skills on to the next generation, just as their predecessors did before them. Mandatory courses for pupils and new practitioners are foundational components of barristers' vocational learning.

For further details of the services provided and the scholarships and awards available, see the Inns' websites and printed material. You can also contact members of the Inns' staff, who will be more than happy to offer you advice and arrange a tour.

NB The Pupillage Gateway is a central way for barristers' chambers to advertise and recruit pupils. Students can view pupillage vacancies on the Gateway from 28 November 2019, but applications do not open until 7 January 2020. At that point, candidates have until 7 February 2020 to submit pupillage applications. Visit for more information.

Struan Campbell is the deputy director of education (acting) at the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple.