The Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC)

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The BPTC is the stepping-stone between either an LLB or GDL and pupillage for would-be barristers. Nine law schools are authorised by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) to teach the course at locations in London, Bristol, Cardiff, Nottingham, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. The full-time course lasts a year; the part-time option is spread over two – and it's all about the gift of the gab.

Mission Impossible?

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The BSB is on a mission: it wants to deter people from training as barristers and to this end has issued a ‘health warning’ about entering the profession. Lady Deech, Chair of the BSB, puts it bluntly: “We need to give a signal to those who aren’t up to it that they’re wasting their money [or risk] gaining an army of enemies.” Strong words, but at present legions of BPTC graduates are chasing only a fistful of pupillages. Many never make it and all they have to show for their hard work is a £15k hole in their pockets. A quick glance at the employment statistics of those recently called to the Bar makes for sobering reading. In 2009/10, roughly 1,432 students successfully completed the BVC (now the BPTC), but in the same year only 460 secured pupillage. This figure includes BPTC graduates from previous years who were unsuccessful at their first, second, third or even fourth attempt – remember that the BPTC has a lifespan of five years! You don't need to do the maths to realise the odds are stacked against aspiring barristers, although if you like, estimates range from between one in four to one in eight.

Checking out the CVs of those lucky few who do make it paints an even more daunting picture and is a humbling experience for prospective applicants; the academic records of new tenants are quite simply terrifying. Most have first-class degrees from Oxbridge, academic prizes, scholarships, languages and have maybe even saved the world in their sleep once. The point is, winning arguments over the dinner table and fancying yourself as Atticus Finch or Mark Darcy just isn't going to cut it. It is important to bear this in mind before signing on the dotted line and handing over thousands of pounds into the BPTC black hole. Back to Lady Deech: “If you’re tone deaf, don’t go to music school; if you have two left feet don’t go to ballet school” – said with reference to BPTC students who lack the required command of the English language. Linguistics aside, all prospective applicants need to make a cold, hard assessment of whether they can really cut it in the profession. Think you’ve got what it takes? Read on…

In 2009 and 2010 the BSB piloted an aptitude test for the BPTC as a more proactive way of protecting wide-eyed students. As one of the key recommendations from The Wood Report (interesting, do read it), the test will involve logic and reasoning questions. The pilot study will compare these test results with students’ final BPTC scores in order to establish whether an aptitude test can provide a true reflection of a student’s prospects. The plan is to introduce the aptitude test for all students from Autumn 2012 (for students commencing the BPTC in September 2013) subject to approval from the Legal Services Board. The rationale is to maintain and strengthen the quality of the Bar, although students may resit the test as many times as necessary. While the introduction of a test risks homogenising the student body somewhat, this brave step forward seems unlikely to alter the makeup of the Bar itself. Its likely effect is to protect certain misguided students from the burden of heavy debt unnecessarily incurred. The big question is just how high will the fence be set?

Triple A

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A second contention in enlisting quality candidates onto the BPTC arises from course providers. The BSB’s minimum requirement for admission onto the courses is a 2:2 at degree level, and a pass on the GDL (where taken). Several providers have chosen to up the ante. Kaplan Law School, for example, requires all of its shortlisted applicants to attend an assessment day, where they undertake a written advocacy exercise, an oral advocacy exercise and an interview. Bristol Institute of Legal Practice at UWE also runs a system relying on ‘admissions points’. Most providers actually require their students to have a 2:1 at degree level. Though a First isn’t a prerequisite for success, almost one in three pupils will have one. One course leader went so far as to say: “Students with a 2:2 have more chance of going to Mars than securing pupillage.” Invariably, the ‘Desmonds’ who do make it have exceptionally good CVs in other ways and/or a first career under their belts. However, success at the Bar is based on more than impeccable academics. The advice from one BPTC provider on how to improve your prospects? “Advocacy, advocacy, advocacy.” Most providers want to assess an applicant’s commitment to practice through public speaking experience, such as mooting and debating, plus mini-pupillages and marshalling, etc. and it’s no different for the sets offering pupillage.

The mismatch between BPTC graduates and the number of pupillages is tempered to a certain extent by those individuals who have decided that the Bar is simply not for them, and by the significant number of international students (estimated at between 20 and 23% of all BPTC students) who return home rather than seeking pupillage in England and Wales. This contingent may be set to fall as many course providers, prompted by the BSB, are getting tougher on their entry requirements as concerns English language ability. Currently the BSB requires all students whose first language is not English or Welsh to demonstrate that they have a minimum 7.5 IELTS standard, or equivalent. Over the past few years we’ve heard rumbling criticisms that some students’ English just isn’t up to scratch, which causes difficulties in the classroom for other students practising key skills that rely on rhetorical ability. It seems that law schools are finally reacting, taking steps to ensure applicants possess the required standard of English; the BSB is currently reviewing whether to insist all students sit an IELTS exam as part of BPTC entry requirements and has requested permission from the Legal Services Board to this effect.

BVC you later

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Almost wherever you study the emphasis is very much on face-to-face teaching. Still, many use computers in lectures to make learning more stimulating, and writing-skills classes often involve the use of whiteboards. Oral skills classes make increasing use of video-recording equipment in role-plays so students can improve by assessing their own performance as well as that of their peers. It also has the effect of highlighting any nervous tics! The skills acquired are then examined using a variety of assessments in the second and third terms. Written skills are tested through a mix of unseen tests and 'homework', while professional actors are drafted in to take part in oral assessments. One area where the BPTC differs most from its predecessor is its focus on Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). A new ‘Resolution of Disputes Out of Court’ module replaces the old negotiation-skills course, heralding a broader approach to avoiding litigation.

Though skills assessments will continue to be set and marked by the individual providers, the future of testing knowledge is changing. The BSB will set standardised and centralised exams for civil litigation, criminal litigation and ethics from 2012, to ensure confidence in the parity between course providers. The exams will consist of a blend of multiple choice questions and short answer questions. The latter will still be marked locally by the providers while the former will be centrally marked by a computer. The BSB will then sample and moderate the written exam papers. Some course leaders expressed concern that it would be a challenge for the BSB to set exams without inherently prejudicing students at certain providers over others – the providers don’t all use the same study texts. Nevertheless the centralised assessments were piloted in 2011 and appear to have gone smoothly.

Get on top

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Course directors tell us that the BPTC is “a very demanding, intensive and rigorous course.” The timetable is described as “undulating” –“intense in parts and boring in others”– and often the course is “front loaded.” But don’t use the quieter times to relax. This is your chance to improve your pupillage prospects. As one student advises: “Organise dining with the Inns, mooting, debating, pro bono, mini-pupillages, marshalling and the like” to give your CV “a fighting chance of reaching interview stage.” It’s therefore essential to look carefully at the extra-curricular opportunities offered at each of the providers and throw yourself into everything you can. Most providers deliberately keep Fridays free of classes to allow students this opportunity.

How to apply through BPTC online

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An application for the BPTC costs £40, and the process is all done online. There is no cap on the number of providers you may apply to, although during the first phase of the process only your top-three choices will look at your application. The most popular providers fill their places with first and second choice applicants alone so prioritise your favourites if you want to avoid disappointment.

  • Monday 7 November 2011 – System opens (9.00am)
  • Thursday 12 January 2012 – Closes for first-round applications (2.00pm)
  • Thursday 9 February 2012 – Reopens for clearing applications (9.00am)
  • Tuesday 6 March 2012 – Offers made from first-round applications (9.00am)
  • Tuesday 3 April 2012 – Acceptance deadline for first-round offers (2.00pm)
  • Monday 16 April 2012 – Clearing pool opens to Providers (2.00pm)
  • Thursday 31 May 2012 – Closing date for application to an Inn of Court. You must join an Inn before commencing the BPTC
  • Friday 31 August 2012 – Clearing round closes (2.00pm)
  • Friday 14 September 2012 – System closes (2.00pm)

Forecast your float

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With the course fees at around £15,000 in London and no less than £10,000 elsewhere, it’s an expensive undertaking, and that’s before taking living costs into account. Most will find the course intensive – at least during some phases – and this leaves them little scope for a part-time job so it’s essential to consider how you will manage your finances. The Inns of Court offer a range of scholarships and bursaries, but be sure to find out about them well in advance. The closing date for award applications is usually in the November of the year before the course begins. Some course providers also have a limited number of scholarships and discounts on fees. Other funding options include career development loans, bank loans, and for the most fortunate, the Bank of Mum & Dad. For those fortunate few who secure a pupillage after the BPTC, the BSB has increased the minimum pupillage award from £10k to £12k for a 12-month pupillage – that means a nice round £1,000 per month. Don’t spend it all at once…

How to pick a provider

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The fight for pupillage is a truly testing one, so choose your course provider carefully. Pick one that’s going to arm you well for the challenges ahead in terms of taught skills, support and opportunities. Read through prospectuses and websites, attend open days, try to speak to current or former students. Read our provider reports. Consider the following criteria:

Cost: Some providers and locations are significantly cheaper than others. London is the priciest but even here there is variation. If you’re an international student, look at the differential in price. Part-timers should note whether fees increase in the second year.

Location: Regional providers may be the best option for those looking for pupillage on the regional circuits, not least because of their stronger links and networking opportunities with the local Bar. London students benefit from proximity to the Inns of Court and more easy access to London sets for pupillage interviews; however, compulsory dining and advocacy training courses in the Inns enable regional students to maintain their links with the capital’s beating legal heart.

Size: Smaller providers pride themselves on offering a more intimate and collegial environment. Student feedback indicates that this does make a positive difference to the experience, and the friends you make on the BPTC should be a source of support during the search for pupillage and beyond. There’s definitely a different feel to those providers that are within universities and those that aren’t.

Facilities: Students can tap into a far wider range of support services, sports and social activities by taking the BPTC at a university. Library and IT resources vary from one provider to the next, as does the level of technology used in teaching. Some providers make technology a key feature of the course.

Option subjects: Available option subjects vary. For example, although judicial review and immigration are popular, they are not offered everywhere. The Table of BPTC Providers sets out what’s on offer at each one. This table also compares fees and offers provider-specific application tips.

Pro Bono: Opportunities range from minimal to superb across the nine providers.