The Bar Course (different providers now use different names) 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
Being a barrister may be "the best job in the world," according to one source we spoke to, but every year approximately three times as many students enrol on the BPTC than there are pupillages available with sets and other employers.
The disparity between the legions of BPTC graduates and the miserly amount of available pupillages has led the Bar Standards Board to put out a 'health warning' to prospective barristers. Lady Deech, then chair of the BSB, stated in 2011: "There are too many people on the [BPTC] who shouldn’t be there. We need to give a signal to those who aren’t up to it that they’re wasting their money." Strong words, but a quick glance at recent employment rates show that Lady Deech is absolutely right. Would-be barristers need to make a cold, hard assessment of whether they can cut it in the profession.
According to Bar Standards Board statistics, in 2015/16 there were 1,400 students enrolled on the BPTC (after 2,910 applied) and 1,006 individuals successfully completed and passed the course. By contract, just 478 first-six pupillages were up for grabs the following year (2016/17), when many of those BPTC-ers would have been hoping to complete a pupillage. And the BPTC has a lifespan of five years, so those applying for pupillage will include individuals who've passed the course in previous years and who were unsuccessful in their first, second, third or even fourth attempt! Around 3,000 individuals may be applying for pupillage in any given year, and some chambers receive over 150 applications for a single position.
BPTC students and pupillages
Statistics from the Bar Standards Board
The quest for a pupillage can look almost as daunting as the Hunger Games when you consider the qualifications of those who do make the cut; the academic records of successful pupillage applicants are quite simply terrifying. According to the Bar Standards Board 35.6% of pupils who completed the BPTC between 2014 and 2017 were Oxbridge undergrads, while 38.9% went to another Russell Group university. In addition, those with a First are twice as likely to gain pupillage as those with a 2:1. Throw into the mix a bountiful array of MAs, PhDs, academic prizes, scholarships and languages and you can see that the competition is fierce. If you want a closer look at that competition go to the websites of chambers you’re thinking of applying to and look at the CVs of their most junior members. Remember this is the calibre of candidate you will have to match if not beat.
As Lady Deech says: "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 thinking you look dashing in a wig and gown isn't going to cut it. You really need to make a cold, hard assessment of whether you can make it in the profession.
Statistics from the Bar Standards Board
So consider all this before you sign up for the BPTC, cool as it may sound to be able to tell your family and friends that you’re now ‘going to Bar School’. Cost is another big thing that should stop and make you think. The fees at BPP and the University of Law in London now top £18,000, an eye-watering sum for a course that in and of itself gives no guarantee of a job at the end of it.
Setting the Bar
The Bar Standards Board has recently finalised its plans to make changes to the BPTC and the route to qualifying as a barrister. The nature of the changes range from the small – abolishing the BPTC's 'very competent' and 'outstanding' grades and splitting civil litigation into two papers – to the more significant: splitting up the BPTC.
To go into more detail on the latter: the BSB has set out plans to allow the three existing stages of training to become a barrister – academic (LLB or GDL), vocational (BPTC) and work-based (pupillage) – to be completed in four different ways. The classic route of LLB/GDL followed by BPTC followed by pupillage will remain in place and is likely to be most common. But under the BSB's plans three other 'pathways' will also be permitted: splitting the 'vocational component' (i.e. the BPTC) into two stages with centralised testing taking place halfway through; taking a course which combines the academic and vocational stages, i.e. the LLB/GDL and BPTC; and an apprenticeship pathway combining all three training stages.
There are changes to pupillage too, though these are also minor and won't apply to everyone: supervisors will be allowed to have up to two pupils at once and (part-time) pupillages will in future be able to last up to 24 months. A source at a barristers' set told us such eventualities would probably most often apply to the employed Bar rather than the independent Bar.
These changes received approval from the Legal Services Board in spring 2019 and could come into effect from 2019.
At present, the first hurdle to enrolling on the BPTC is the Bar Course Aptitude Test, or BCAT, a critical thinking and reasoning test that costs £150 to sit. The test aims to protect certain misguided students from the burden of a heavy debt unnecessarily incurred by preventing no-hopers from wasting their money on Bar School. To that effect, the pass mark was raised in 2017 in an effort to ensure high standards are maintained.
The BSB’s minimum requirement for admission onto the course is a 2:2 at degree level, and a pass on the GDL (where taken). Several providers have chosen to up the ante. Most require all applicants to possess a 2:1, and even those subsequently shortlisted often have to attend an assessment day where they undertake a written advocacy exercise, an oral advocacy exercise and an interview. One course leader told us: “In line with BSB requirements we never outright 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.” Of course, sets and providers want more than just impeccable academics. You’ll also need to show a commitment to the profession, so public speaking, like mooting, debating and mock trials, and relevant work experience are a must.
An additional requirement to undertaking the BPTC is registration with an Inn of Court. These are the Bar’s professional organisations which provide support and advice to Bar students and (if you’re lucky) scholarships. 31 May (of the year you start your BPTC) is the deadline for getting yourself in with an Inn. We suggest a look at each one in order to find which one best suits you. Check out our new reviews of the Inns of Court for more detail.
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 (around half of all BPTC students) most of whom return home rather than seeking pupillage in England and Wales.
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 the 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. Oral skills classes make 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’. Professional actors are commonly drafted in to take part in oral assessments. Written skills are tested through a mix of unseen tests and 'homework'. Professional actors are commonly drafted in to take part in oral assessments.
Skills assessments are set locally by each provider, but since 2012 the BSB has set 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 and short answer questions. The latter are still marked locally by the providers, while the former are centrally marked. The BSB then samples and moderates the written exam papers.
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."
How to apply through BarSAS
An application for the BPTC costs £36 (down from £50 – hurrah!) 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, the popular ones fill their places with first and second-choice applicants alone. Prioritise your favourites if you want to avoid disappointment.
Also, unlike the GDL and LPC which accept applications on a rolling basis, there are strict deadlines to adhere to. The window for first-round applications for courses starting in 2019 will likely be open from early December 2018 and close in mid-January 2019 with clearing-round applications likely to be accepted in April 2018 and closing at the end of September 2019.
How to pick a provider
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 Law school reports and consider the following criteria:
London is clearly going to be pricier than Northumbria, but even in the capital there’s variation. Working out what you’ll be forking out is especially important given rising costs in recent times. The good news is that in 2017/18 average course prices have remained static and ULaw even cut its fees. If you’re an international student, make sure you look at the non-UK/EU fees. Part-timers should note whether fees increase in the second year.
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.
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.
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.
These do vary. For example, although judicial review and immigration are popular, they're not offered everywhere. Check out our BPTC providers table to see what’s on offer at each one. This table also compares fees and offers provider-specific application tips.
Opportunities range from minimal to superb across the nine providers. Again our BPTC providers table has the details.
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.