September - a squeaky start
28 September 2009
If there was ever an appropriate time to feel like a rabbit in the headlights, then this is it.
If there was ever an appropriate time to feel like a rabbit in the headlights, then this is it. I’m sat in a room full of strangers, I’ve had no caffeine yet this morning, I may have accidentally got stuck in the lift on the way here, there’s a stack of books taller than a small child on the desk in front of me, and my new personal tutor is telling me all about the joys of getting sued. Welcome to the Bar Vocational Course.
The induction week seems designed to scare the living daylights out of us, with the main focus being on professional conduct – aka Cover Your Ass In All Circumstances. It seems daunting, until we realise that pretty much every question can be answered using pat answers along the lines of “don’t lie to the court/don’t do anything illegal/use your common sense.” Slightly more subtle is the lecture from our personal tutor on the need for practising barristers to be squeaky clean in all respects. It seems like a fairly obvious point to make – after all, none of us is intending to run around vandalising bus shelters in the night – but any misdemeanour, however small, has to be reported to the Bar Council and could potentially threaten our careers. I think about all the times I may have stolen traffic cones whilst drunk, or forgotten to validate my Oyster card on the bus, and wonder if it’s safe to leave the house ever again.
The first thing that strikes me about the other people on the course is just how accomplished they actually are. A ‘getting to know you session’ reveals that all twelve of us have done something unique or interesting (sample quote from the guy who was in Afghanistan with the UN: “It’s amazing… just being able to walk around. I can go and buy a lightbulb if I want to.”). Given the glut of recent stories about poor admission standards, I’m pleasantly surprised to be faced with a room full of people who all seem to have pretty realistic chances of getting pupillage – although it only underlines how fierce competition will be next year. Of my twelve colleagues, just two have already secured pupillages; the rest of us will fight it out on the Pupillages Portal in April. We all tell each other we’re just a really, really clever group (after all, there IS a girl in one of the other classes who doesn’t know what the CPS is) but underneath it all, everyone knows it’s going to be tough.
College tutors are keen to emphasise that the way the BVC is taught is unique. There’s a strong focus on simply jumping in with both feet and having a go, particularly in the criminal module, which springs a mock trial on us in only the second week. The civil course builds much slower, and involves learning a lot of specific procedures inside out.
Each of us is armed with the White Book – a two-volume, six-thousand-page monstrosity containing guidelines and practice directions on everything from serving a claim form to enforcing judgments. It could easily be an instrument of torture, not because it’s so big you could batter someone to death with it, but because it would be pretty easy to imagine yourself dying of boredom after reading a measly ten pages. This could explain why our civil tutor felt the need to energise us with an oddly convincing Sean Paul impression, complete with dance, in the middle of a particularly dull class on costs (yes, really).
So what have I learnt so far? I’ve used my new-found negotiation skills to haggle my phone contract down by fifty per cent. I’ve discovered that the White Book makes an excellent door stop. I’ve refused a bribe from an imaginary client and made a successful bail application on behalf of a man who I’m not sure deserved it.
But, fundamentally, I no longer feel like a kid in my mum’s clothes every time I put on a suit. In the short time I’ve been at college, my confidence seems to have at least trebled, and I’m not alone – my peers have noticed a difference, too. We simply feel more like barristers. We may still be far from ready for court, but it’s definitely getting closer.
This month we have been mostly talking about:
1. The BVC library is the coldest place on earth
2. We can prep a whole bail application but none of us can manage to work the lifts at college.
3. We’ll never have to fill in another form in our lives – because that’s what instructing solicitors are for
4. The ‘B’ in ‘BVC’ clearly stands for ‘Biscuit’… this is what we’ve been living off as there’s no time for proper food. And we’ve found a secret stash of them in the staff kitchen.