The Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC)

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The BPTC is the necessary link 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. Those with the gift of the gab, step up please.

A career at the Bar? You may need your health checked

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Unfortunately it's not just LPC students that are finding it increasingly difficult to find employment at the end of a time-consuming and costly course; those chasing a career at the Bar are also facing up to the prospect of being well trained and highly qualified, but with little more than a £15k-sized hole in their pockets to show for it.

The current disparity between the legions of BPTC graduates and the relatively miserly amount of available pupillages means the BSB has deemed it necessary to put out a 'health warning' to prospective barristers: "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," says Lady Deech, Chair of the BSB. Strong words, but a quick glance at the recent employment statistics of those called to the Bar would give even the next Dinah Rose something to ponder.

The BSB states in its health warning that applicants should 'consider some of the facts and figures concerning a career at the Bar before you commit yourself'. It outlines that approximately 1,700 students take the Bar course each year but typically only around 480 are offered pupillages.

For example, in 2010/11, 1,422 students enrolled on the BPTC (after 3,099 applied), but only 446 first-six pupillages were up for grabs that year. (The Bar Council was unable to provide us with any more recent statistics.) It's important to also bear in mind that the BPTC has a lifespan of five years, so this figure includes graduates from previous years who were unsuccessful in their first, second, third or even fourth attempt. Over 3,000 individuals may be applying for pupillage in any given year, while chambers regularly receive over 100 applications for a single position.

The odds are clearly stacked against aspiring barristers, and most students will have to strike the right balance between "realism and optimism; they know it's tough, but then again you always think that you will be the one to get a pupillage."

The quest for a pupillage can look almost as daunting as Frodo's ring-destroying adventure when you consider the qualifications of those who do make the cut; the academic records of new tenants are quite simply terrifying. Some 35% hold First-class degrees (less than 5% of new tenants graduated with 2:2s) and a similar percentage attended Oxbridge. Another third will have attended a Russell Group university. Throw into the mix a bountiful array of MAs, PhDs, academic prizes, scholarships and languages and you can see that the competition is fierce.

As Lady Deech said: "If you’re tone deaf, don’t go to music school; if you have two left feet don’t go to ballet school" – with reference to BPTC students who lack the required command of the English language. 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. You really need to make a cold, hard assessment of whether you can cut it in the profession.

In 2009 and 2010, the BSB piloted an aptitude test for the BPTC as a more proactive way of protecting wide-eyed students, while also looking to ensure the future strength and quality of the Bar. Now all prospective students have to undertake the BCAT and they must achieve a minimum required standard in logic and reasoning questions in order to take up their place on the BPTC. Oh, and they must also shell out a £150 fee to take the test.

The move to give the go-ahead for this test has been a controversial one, with the Law Society flagging up various concerns about the viability of the BCAT, especially since the Legal Education and Training Review rejected proposals for an aptitude test for LPC students on 'diversity grounds'.A homogenisation of the Bar has been predicted by some, but Legal Services Board chief executive Chris Kenny told the Solicitors Journal that the validity of these concerns is "impossible to verify in absolute terms at this stage." The BSB is therefore undertaking a five-year data gathering and evaluation period, after which a decision will be made about the ongoing use of the BCAT.

BPTC providers (apart from Kaplan, which already ran an aptitude test) were on the whole "unconvinced that aptitude tests tell you much more than a paper application." Sources at Nottingham Law School, which runs the exact same course as Kaplan but without a prerequisite aptitude test, said that "the profile of the students at both institutions is remarkably similar," and that exam results demonstrate an equal level of "those who are competent and those who aren't." One welcome outcome is that the test is likely to protect certain misguided students from the burden of a heavy debt unnecessarily incurred, but we'll have to wait a few more years before the true worth of an aptitude test is fully known.

2:2 boohoo

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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, now requires all applicants to possess a 2:1, and even those subsequently shortlisted will have to attend an assessment day, where they undertake a written advocacy exercise, an oral advocacy exercise and an interview. As sources there say: "We need students who can fire on all cylinders."

In fact most providers will be looking for students with at least a 2:1, and according to recent statistics over 60% of BPTC students across all providers had this qualification or higher. One course leader told us: "In line with BSB requirements we never outrightly say no to someone with a 2:2, but increasingly we have looked to recruit people with at least a 2:1 and mini-pupillage or practical experience. They have to have a fighting chance."

Success at the Bar is based on more than impeccable academics and most providers are on the lookout for an applicant’s commitment to practice, either through public speaking, such as mooting or debating, or relevant work experience. This is no different for the sets offering pupillage, so if a life at the Bar is the one for you, do everything you can to stand out from the crowd.

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 25% of all BPTC students) who return home rather than seeking pupillage in England and Wales.

The international 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.

Mad skillz

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The BPTC has been designed to ensure that wannabe barristers acquire the skills, knowledge, attitudes and competencies needed for practice. Cue: developing students' advocacy, drafting, opinion writing, conferencing, case analysis and legal research skills. As for knowledge, students are schooled in civil litigation and remedies, criminal litigation and sentencing, evidence, and professional ethics.

These core areas, especially ethics, are essential because "barristers are individuals, and they get thrown to wolves more often. When you're a solicitor you have the protection of the firm around you – barristers have to be equipped with all the knowledge they can get." In the final term, students select two option subjects in areas they're targeting for practice.

Almost wherever you study the emphasis is very much on face-to-face teaching – usually to groups of about 12, but for all-important skills there's often six students or fewer. Still, many use computers in lectures to make learning more stimulating, while 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. 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', and the BSB recently permitted students at BPP to type their written skills assessment for the first time. Professional actors are commonly drafted in to take part in oral assessments.

One area where the BPTC differs most from its predecessor (the Bar Vocational Course) is its focus on alternative dispute resolution (ADR). A new 'resolution of disputes out of court' module replaced 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 has changed. The BSB now sets standardised and centralised exams for civil litigation, criminal litigation and ethics to ensure confidence in the parity between course providers. The exams consist of a blend of multiple choice questions and short answer questions. The latter are still marked locally by the providers, while the former are centrally marked by a computer. The BSB then samples and moderates the written exam papers.

This was all introduced for the first time in 2012 and the response from both providers and students hasn't been hugely positive. Providers' responses ranged from moderate annoyance to full-on fury: "I'm upset about it, to the point where I want to run to the BSB with a pitchfork in hand." Students were also unimpressed, and hundreds signed a petition to the BSB expressing their dissatisfaction. One provider put it thus: "As long as I can remember exams were set locally; if you did the course at Nottingham, then Nottingham set the exams and marked them. The assessments were aimed at what students could be expected to know based on the teaching at that institution. It's just inevitable when exams are centralised that the questions are going to be one step removed from the providers – the exams may cover things that students haven't come across before."

While some students have done less well under the new system, others have actually thrived, and providers told us that "in the end our students ended up doing more or less how they expected they would. Our pass rates are not dissimilar to what they were last year." The problem, then, seems to be with the stress of having to revise a vaster body of material than ever before...

All systems go

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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 advised: "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 essential to look carefully at the extracurricular opportunities offered at each provider and throw yourself into everything you can. Most providers will deliberately keep days 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. While many providers will say that it's not vital that you put their institution as a top choice, many popular providers fill their places with first and second-choice applicants alone. Prioritise your favourites if you want to avoid disappointment.

How to pick a provider

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The fight for pupillage is a truly testing one, so choose your course provider carefully. Read through prospectuses and websites, attend open days, try to speak to current or former students. Read our BPTC Provider Reports and consider the following criteria:

Cost: London is clearly going to be pricier than Northumbria, but even in the capital there's 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 easier 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, and student feedback indicates that this does make a positive difference to the experience. You can also expect a noticeably different feel at the providers that are within universities to 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're not offered everywhere. Check out our Table of BPTC Providers to see 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. Again our Table of BPTC Providers has the details.

You may also be interested in:

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- The Graduate Diploma in Law

- Our BPTC Provider Reports

- Practice areas at the Bar