The cruel bar training conundrum

The news that Kaplan Law School is to shut down its Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) sent shockwaves through much of the legal education market last week.

Kaplan’s revelation that it could not make the bar course pay should make the Bar Standards Board (BSB) sit up and take note.

To the cynical outsider, charging tens of students upwards of £17,000 for 30 weeks of teaching may not smack of dire poverty, but as one legal education professional put it: “The architecture of the system dictates that it needs to be a ‘bums on seats’ course.”

That is, the course requirements put in place by the BSB are so burdensome and inflexible that providers need to be charging the best part of £20,000 to around 100 students every year to break even.

This, of course, is where Kaplan went wrong. It tried to provide a genuine alternative to the pile ’em high, sell ’em not-so-cheap school of the BPTC.

Before the advent of the Bar Course Aptitude Test last year, Kaplan had its own entrance test which, in recent years, led to around half of its students gaining pupillage by the time they left the course – an achievement pretty much unheard of at any other law school.

Kaplan may have still charged students a fortune but at least it only allowed onto the course those it thought had a chance of gaining pupillage. 

This, of course, is the way all BPTC providers should function, but sadly it is also where the ethical and economic pictures diverge.

As the number of pupillages on offer dwindles, so the proportion of students who will be successful in their quest for pupillage will drop. But the model of the course at the moment is such that schools are not able to be more discerning in their choice of student – it just wouldn’t pay the rent.

The BSB desperately needs to reconfigure the BPTC. Otherwise providers will be forced to continue taking on students they do not believe have a chance at pupillage simply to foot the bill for the ones who might.