How to survive: The Bar Professional Training Course
27 July 2012
You have succeeded in gaining a good undergraduate degree. Many of you will also have successfully completed the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). You have decided that life at the bar is the right career choice for you. The next step on your career path is the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC). What truly can you expect from the year that lies ahead?
Getting onto the BPTC
First on the list is ensuring your place on the BPTC in one of the many law schools across the country.
A strong academic background is important. Although the standard requirement for the completion of a UK honours degree, in either a law or non-law discipline, is a minimum of a lower second class honours, many individual law schools prefer their candidates to achieve upper second class honours at least.
For those who have a non-legal degree then successful completion of the GDL is an additional, compulsory step and one that is far from an easy ride.
Neither entry to a law degree or GDL, nor successful completion however, is a guarantee of progress onto the BPTC. Current statistics on the Bar Council website show that out of 2,657 applicants to the BPTC in the academic year 2009/2010, only 1,432 were successful.
Due to the ever increasing gap between the number of students completing the BPTC and those obtaining pupillage the Bar Standards Board (BSB) has reviewed the standards of entry to the Bar. The BSB have piloted a Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT) in order to ensure that those undertaking the BPTC have the required skills to succeed.
The introduction of this test will commence in the autumn of 2012 in time for the new intake of applications for the BPTC from October of that year. This means that those students intending to take the BPTC starting in September 2013 and onwards will now be required to take the BCAT as an extended part of their application.
To give yourself the best possible chance of a place on the BPTC a hard-working mentality, strong academics, an interest in the bar and good references are therefore essential and the sooner you start thinking about your application, the better.
What can you expect on the BPTC?
So you have passed the first hurdle and secured your place on the BPTC. There are many horror stories that make their way amongst students, some of them, it must be said, are true. You will be glad to hear however that many are also exaggerated.
One thing that is certainly true is the amount of hours you will need to put in to keep your head above water. You can expect to hit the ground running and unfortunately this pace is one that needs to be maintained throughout the year ahead of you. If you are looking for a realistic comparison then likening it to your GDL year (for those of you who had to do it) will not be far off.
Juggling your time is definitely a skill you must learn to perfect in order to be successful on the BPTC. The requirements of the course alone are strenuous with around ten to fifteen teaching hours a week and many more hours completing self-study in order to prepare for classes and assessments.
In addition to studying, as part of your vocational year on the BPTC you are required to complete pro bono work and attend at least 12 qualifying sessions with your designated Inn.
While the qualifying sessions are often in the form of dinners and drinks evenings, and so by nature are much more sociable than studying and lectures, they still add to the list of obligations that encroach on your precious and ever diminishing ‘free time’.
The task ahead of you however, is not impossible. Being realistic about your commitments and organised with your work load will ensure that you meet the expectations put on you at the beginning of the year.
One trick is to treat the BPTC year much like that of a full time job. Committing yourself to working 9-6 Monday to Friday will allow you to attend all your classes and give you time around these to do extra study and preparation.
Most, if not all of the law schools run the timetable across four days. This leaves you with the perfect opportunity to complete a day or half a days volunteering to meet the pro bono requirement of the BPTC course.
How difficult is the BPTC?
With the strict academic requirement for applicants to the BPTC it is not commonly a problem that students find the year an impossibly difficult one in terms of understanding the tasks or information given to them.
The BPTC is a vocational year. It is there to teach you the skills you will need to practice at the bar. It is not an academic study of the law and so how difficult you find the BPTC year has a lot to do with the type of personality you are.
It is a practical qualification and a great element of it is performance based. This entails doing a lot of live performances in front of tutors and peers. If you approach these subject areas half-heartedly and with caution you will struggle to do well. Studying to be a barrister requires a great level of self-confidence and willingness to make mistakes, often publicly and many times, before you finally get to grips with the skills required of you.
The majority of the law schools and all of the four Inns offer courses on advocacy and public speaking and have mooting and debating societies. These opportunities are invaluable in increasing your confidence and ability in the classroom and being able to practically apply the law.
The best advice that can be given is to get as much practice as you can in the public speaking areas. Not only will this benefit you throughout the BPTC year and for your exams, it inevitably will benefit you for the duration of your career as a barrister also.
What modules will you be studying?
Opinion Writing and Drafting:
It is a common misconception that the totality of a barrister’s work is representing clients in court and holding conferences with their clients. In reality a great amount of the work that a barrister does is spent in chambers researching and writing. Impeccable written skills is an attribute that aspiring barristers must master early on.
On the majority of cases, before a barrister even meets their lay client, they are required to research the legal area that a particular case covers and then either write an opinion or draft a defence for their client laying out the foundations of their case, their likely success in court and the evidence and law that supports this.
The opinion writing and drafting module introduces this concept to students on the BPTC and builds in these students early on the professionalism, precision and detailed knowledge with which they will be expected to write and draft as a barrister.
The module includes a large amount of practice at both opinion writing and drafting defences and counterclaims to ensure that students are fully prepared for their exam in the spring term.
Criminal Litigation and Civil Litigation:
These two modules differ from the other modules taught on the BPTC in that they do not have so much of a practical element but are much more information loaded. They involve learning the intricacies around procedure, evidence and sentencing with regards to both criminal offences and civil disputes.
As a comparison the way that these modules are taught and learnt are much more like the traditional undergraduate modules. The text books provided by the course provider must become your best friend and you will spend the year furiously highlighting and memorising the finer details of the Civil Procedure Rules and Blackstones.
The most important factor in succeeding on these two modules is to attend all your classes and lectures. The amount of information crammed into each class is extensive and missing one class will mean that you fall behind fairly quickly. Where missing a class cannot be avoided ensure that you arrange a catch up session with your tutor or an alternative class time as soon as possible!
The professional ethics module draws attention to the potential ethical problems that a barrister can face throughout their career. This module highlights the fact that the life a barrister leads and the decisions they make both professionally and personally have to be by the book; every time.
Study is based around reading and learning the Code of Conduct and its supporting documents. The exam is basically a regurgitation of this. If you have a firm grasp of the Code of Conduct and understand the reasoning behind it then passing this module should be one of the easier tasks of the year.
Alternative Dispute Resolution:
With the courts pushing for the use of alternative dispute resolutions more and more this module has now become increasingly relevant to budding barristers. The Civil Procedure Rules specifies that parties must now attempt, at least, to resolve issues out of court, through the means of resolutions such as mediation and negotiation.
Students on the BPTC will gain an understanding of the different types of ADR that are commonly used by parties and the courts and how this will impact their career at the bar. Those interested in practicing in areas such as family law and personal injury in particular will find that increasingly, methods of ADR will become a part of their day to day role as a barrister.
Conference and Advocacy:
These two modules are the only two modules that are taught totally as performance based modules. You will be required to read briefs prior to your class and then role play the position of the barrister in the case.
With regards to conference classes this will involve meetings with your client, prior to court, in order to ask questions of them and advise them on their options and likely success should the case go to trial.
As far as advocacy classes the performances that you will have to do will vary. One week you may be playing a defence barrister doing a bail application for your client in the Crown Court and the next week you will be a prosecution barrister cross examining the defendant.
These classes are exciting and very true to life. They will equip you with skills that are directly transferable to your career at the bar and skills that you will continue to develop throughout your life as a barrister.
The sooner you conquer your fears of embarrassment and making mistakes, the sooner you will start master the skills required in these two modules. The best piece of advice with regards to conference and advocacy is to take on every extra curricular opportunity offered to you; whether that be through your course provider, your Inn or by partaking in mooting and debating.
Legal Research and Remedies:
These two subject areas are also compulsory requirements of the BPTC. The way that they are taught will vary greatly across the course providers. One common factor is that these are peripheral elements of the course that you will come into contact with, at different points, across all the modules.
Mastering the skill of legal research and knowing the different legal remedies will ensure that you are far better equipped to then properly prepare and write opinions and drafts, be persuasive in advocacy by having a sound legal argument and in advising your client in conference on their likely chances of success at court.
Practice makes perfect when it comes to legal research. The more often that you use and navigate both online and hard copy legal resources, the more apt you will become in the art of legal research.
A requirement of the BPTC is that all students take two option modules. The option modules on offer varies amongst course providers and it is therefore vital that prospective BPTC students research what options each provider has on offer, before they apply, to ensure that there is a variety of options that they would be interested in choosing.
The highlights of the BPTC
While many hours will be spent with your head in books furiously reading briefs for your class or perfecting pupillage applications, the BPTC is far from being all doom and gloom.
The course really provides a foundation to what life at the bar will involve. Many, if not all of the BPTC providers have courses tutored by staff that were previously, or still are, members of the bar or solicitors themselves.
Students are able to gain from the first hand experience of real life lawyers. Their practical experience and compelling tales of life in the court room is invaluable in helping students understand the link between what is learnt in the classroom and how that is applied in reality.
Beyond this, the qualifying sessions that are a compulsory part of your BPTC year are both sociable and enjoyable and act as a welcomed break from studying.
They offer the perfect chance for networking with established members of chambers and gaining exclusive insight into work-life balance at the bar and what particular chambers look for in applicants. The food and wine are not a bad part of the deal either!
The important thing is to use these opportunities to your advantage. Be proactive and ambitious. During the BPTC year you are surrounded by solicitors, barristers, judges and many more professionals from the legal sector. There is no better opportunity to have the questions you are pondering over answered, or to receive the advise you are seeking.
The low points of the BPTC
By far the most disheartening part of the BPTC is the numerous rejection letters and obstacles you will come across. No matter how strong a candidate you are, you are bound to meet some rejection.
This, unfortunately, is an inevitable part of the year due mainly to the numerous students on the BPTC across the country and the limited number of pupillage and paralegal positions available.
What then, is the best way to deal with these obstacles? Firstly realising that you are not alone. Although this does not necessarily make the rejection any easier, it is comforting to know that a big part of the fact you are not getting the job is not (necessarily) that you are not good enough, but simply that the demand far outweighs the supply.
Secondly, and most importantly, if a career at the bar is truly what you want, do not give up. Persevere. During your BPTC year you will come up against many critics. Numerous people will rehearse back to you the statistics on BPTC graduates failing to obtain pupillage and the high levels of unemployment among student barristers.
Certainly take on board what is being said to you and understand the market that you are trying to break into. Patience is a characteristic that you are going to have to encompass wholeheartedly when it comes to applying for jobs throughout your BPTC year.
Most importantly however is to believe that you are capable and determined enough to get the end prise, which for most will be pupillage.
Completing the BPTC
The BPTC is not an easy course to get on to. Nor is it an easy course to get through and complete. It is however just ten months long. It is a snippet of time in the lengthy and successful career that you have ahead of you.
Focus, hard work, determination and self-belief are all attributes that need to be adopted from the outset. Mastering these characteristics will go a long way in getting you through the long days studying and long nights doing more of the same; that and having a very organised diary!
You will meet many inspiring people and learn numerous skills that are directly applicable to your career as a buddy barrister. Treat this year as the first steps into your life at the bar and most of all, enjoy it!
Year in the life of a bar student
Start the BPTC course at your chosen provider.
Attend the introductory session at your Inn. This will count as the 1st of 12 compulsory qualifying sessions that you must complete during the BPTC year. Book in some more qualifying sessions for this term; they sell out quickly!
A requirement of the BPTC year is to undertake some form of pro bono work. Start looking at the pro bono schemes that are run through your law school and your inn.
Attending presentations that these organisations run will allow you to gain an understanding of which pro-bono work you may be interested in and what will fit in alongside your studying.
October and November:
Have you done any/enough mini pupillages? Use these months to research which chambers are still offering mini pupillages for the year and when the deadlines for applications are.
Try and complete at least 3 mini pupillages in different areas of law. At the very least the variety in experience will help later on in pupillage applications when you are asked, “What areas of law do you wish to practice in and why?”
Start your volunteering. Although you are likely to have a lot of teaching hours to attend, most BPTC providers set the timetable over four days leaving you a whole day to get in some volunteering hours early!
Start to check pupillage deadlines for those Chambers that take applications outside of the pupillage portal. A few (especially chancery and commercial sets) have January deadlines.
Revise!!! Most of the providers have a couple of exams just before the Christmas holidays. Make sure you take the time to prepare properly.
Start the pupillage applications that are due in at the beginning of the next year.
REST. The first few months of the BPTC are fast paced and intense. Use the Christmas holidays to recooperate as the second and third term do not provide much of a rest bite.
January and Febuary:
Complete and send off pupillage applications to meet the spring deadlines.
Book in this terms qualifying sessions with your inn.
Most, if not all providers start the main exam season from the end of Febuary/beginning of March. Start early with compiling your notes and making sure you have understood all that you have learnt so far.
Research which chambers you want to apply to via the pupillage portal.
The majority of your teaching hours will come to a finish this month. As classes end, exams will begin. Plan your time well and revise whenever you can!
Pupillage Portal opens (usually during the last week of March). Start submitting your 12 applications early so that you do not miss the deadline at the end of April.
Pick your Call to the Bar date. If you have a strong preferene of when you would like to have your call get your application in early, most Inns issue places on a first come first serve basis.
April and May:
Finish any remaining pupillage applications. The pupillage portal closes during the last week in April.
Exams, exams, exams. The last of the exams are placed across these two months.
Complete any qualifying sessions that you have remaining and any pro-bono hours that are still left to do.
The BPTC finishes!
You will now start to hear back from chambers regarding your pupillage applications and offers for first round interviews will be sent out.
First round interviews for pupillage take place for many chambers.
If you are not having much positive feedback re:pupillage start to look at other options. Many paralegal and administrative assistant jobs are posted around this time with LPC and BPTC graduates in mind.
Results! Results of the BPTC are released by providers to students.
Second round interviews for pupillage.
Call to the bar. For those students that selected to have their call in the Trinity term, their call to the bar will take place in July.
Chambers that have followed the pupillage portal can start to make pupillage offers from the beginning of August. Candidates usually have 14 days to accept the offer.
For those students who did not pass one or more of their exams first time around August marks the start of the resit period for many BPTC providers. Specific dates vary from each provider but generally the resit period starts in August and continues through to mid September.