Routes to the Bar · The BVC

Summing Up

ventingThe last few posts have dealt with the help the Bar should give applicants, the way in which applicants should be assessed, the faults of the current system and the merits of unfunded pupillage.

Unsurprisingly, there is little consensus – although it would be fascinating to know the ages of those asserting that ever more sophisticated and expensive systems will improve matters against those saying that ultimately good interviewers can judge the right candidate.

There is, however, consensus about 2 things. Firstly, the current system isn’t working. Secondly, knowing whether one had a pupillage before starting the BVC would be a good thing.

As far as the first point is concerned that is rather taken as a given. I acknowledge that the system benefits the providers at the expense of the students, but repeat that no one forces students to take the BVC. The points made about research and evaluation of your own chances are valid and the pressure to change the BVC is dissipated if comments appear to be as much self-interested whining as genuine concern. On the blog it’ s easy – I allow anonymity and I have no power to change anything. If I were looking to seriously evaluate some of the comments below, I would insist on knowing what chance the commentator has of pupillage before I took the comment on board.

There is a tendency for two issues to be wrapped up together when people talk about the BVC. The first is what the BVC should teach. My own preference is for an approach which asks the profession what those coming out of University lack by way of skills and knowledge. The BVC should fill the gap – unless it appears that the Universities are not delivering on key areas. The second is how the students who have completed the BVC are selected for pupillage. One option  might be to make the BVC much, much, harder. Those graduating from it would then have an imprimateur which would stand them in good stead – and much reduced competition. Just as University results make a huge difference to prospects, so too would the BVC grade (at present it barely matters). Of course, the risk of wasting money would be sharpley increased, but I wonder how long that would last. Once word got round that you may actually fail the BVC, I have a hunch that not so many people would apply to do it.

As to the second matter, I don’t know when the system slipped. When I was called, pupillage before the BVC or to start the year the BVC finished was the norm. Now the pupillages awarded tend to be for the September or October the year after the BVC finishes, leaving a number of people with a year to fill. As many of you have pointed out, it also leaves the gamble as to whether to do the BVC to be made without any idea of your chances.

I think the Bar should do something about that. However, the difficulty is that in order to interview BVC and pre-BVC candidates without preferring the former one would have to strip out of the interviews anything covered by the BVC but not at University. That renders the question of what the BVC teaches either irrelevant or – depending on your point of view – so taken for granted that it isn’t worth asking questions about. That was, of course, one of the complaints about the old system and is one of the reasons why I am an abolitionist. A practical way of achieving this, however, would be to move the interview period back to September, for pupillages the next September. Of course, that may be unnecessary if the BVC were made more difficult. The BVC would then add real value and people may not want to apply for pupillage until they knew their chances. Moreover Chambers would, perhaps, not want to risk being left without a pupil. But it may be that a smaller cadre of potential pupils would not mind filling in a year.

As to interview techniques, the discussion in the posts below is exhaustive – or has exhausted me. I don’t know a single barrister who doesn’t do the best they can. I believe that we can learn more about how to interview effectively. I don’t believe that there is an effective replacement for a decent interview by the people actually doing the looking.

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12 thoughts on “Summing Up

  1. ‘As to the second matter, I don’t know when the system slipped. When I was called, pupillage before the BVC or to start the year the BVC finished was the norm. Now the pupillages awarded tend to be for the September or October the year after the BVC finishes, leaving a number of people with a year to fill. As many of you have pointed out, it also leaves the gamble as to whether to do the BVC to be made without any idea of your chances.’

    I must respectfully disagree. I suspect there are fundamental misunderstandings afoot concerning the pupillage application timetable. Pupillages are only awarded ‘for the September or October the year after the BVC finishes’ if students apply whilst on the BVC. But applying whilst on the BVC is both unwise and unnecessary, which is also why the statement that ‘it also leaves the gamble as to whether to do the BVC to be made without any idea of your chances’ is inaccurate.

    Pupillage applications in the 2008-2009 academic year are for pupillages commencing in October 2010 (or, exceptionally in the case of deferred pupillage, October 2011). Consequently, the 2009-2010 academic year is left vacant. One would think that the only rational approach is the following:

    2008-2009: final year of law degree / GDL; apply for pupillage
    2009-2010: BVC
    2010-2011: pupillage

    This approach, under which a student applies for pupillage pre-BVC, permits a student to undertake the BVC if and only if pupillage is in the bag. It is eminently sensible. There is no wasted time in the form of a year to fill. It is clearly the application timetable that the Bar has in mind. It is also the timetable adopted by every single Bar aspirant I have known in real life (although I expect that will change when I commence the BVC).

    Conversely, the students who apply this year whilst on the BVC face the following timetable:

    2008-2009: BVC; apply for pupillage
    2009-2010: ?!?
    2010-2011: pupillage

    This approach has two immense drawbacks and no benefits. First, it will require even successful applicants to take a year out and find something to do. Second, it involves undertaking the BVC without any guarantee of pupillage.

    You note that pre-BVC students may be at a disadvantage in pupillage interviews, thereby making the first approach unattractive. In my experience of pupillage interviews, not having commenced the BVC was not a disadvantage. I understand it is not unheard of for chambers to use interview questions which touch on matters covered by the BVC (the Bar Code of Conduct, etc.). In my view, this is simply a misguided approach to pupillage interviews that will disadvantage many competent (pre-BVC) applicants (which is by no means predominant).

    ‘A practical way of achieving this, however, would be to move the interview period back to September, for pupillages the next September.’

    I would find this unacceptable, because it would require students to commit themselves to the BVC before having secured pupillage. This really would introduce an unacceptable level of risk into entry to the Bar (which, at present, can be avoided by sensible applicants).

    ‘That renders the question of what the BVC teaches either irrelevant or – depending on your point of view – so taken for granted that it isn’t worth asking questions about.’

    I incline to the latter view. I have yet to start the BVC and experience its wonders first-hand, but the feedback on the content of the course that I have noted from barristers and students alike is universally negative. Pupillage is not presently awarded on the basis of applicants’ mastery of skills taught on the BVC. (Otherwise, pupillages would only be offered to those who have presumably done the BVC. This is demonstrably not the case.) I see nothing wrong with this.

    My impression is that half of the reason why the current (admittedly imperfect) system does not appear to be working is because many applicants do not inform themselves of the right way to work it.

  2. I should add that for those applicants who are unsuccessful first time around, there are two options.

    First:

    2008-2009: final year of law degree / GDL; unsuccessful application for pupillage
    2009-2010: BVC; apply for pupillage
    2010-2011: ?!?
    2011-2012: pupillage

    Second:

    2008-2009: final year of law degree / GDL; unsuccessful application for pupillage
    2009-2010: ?!?; apply for pupillage
    2010-2011: BVC
    2011-2012: pupillage

    I see no merit in the former as against the latter. The former involves running the risk of the BVC without pupillage in hand. Both options involve a year of ‘?!?’. One might add that the latter is also free from the risk that one’s BVC will ‘expire’.

    So the present system is sensibly workable, if imperfect.

  3. ‘Unsurprisingly, there is little consensus – although it would be fascinating to know the ages of those asserting that ever more sophisticated and expensive systems will improve matters against those saying that ultimately good interviewers can judge the right candidate.’

    This seems a rather amusing description of the respective positions. I would characterise the three strains as follows.

    One is that given enough time and skill, a selection panel should be able to determine the potential of candidates based on their performance in front of them.

    Another is that a better way is to consider the candidates’ backgrounds as well as their performance in front of the panel.

    The last, which RM has advocated, is that selection should be made after an on-the-job trial.

  4. Dear Anon,

    I think you may be in for a bit of a shock when you come to apply for pupillage. To begin with, your BVC provider will require you to pay at least 2/3 of your course fee – some £10,000 – by 31 July. The Bar Council forbids OLPAS pupillage providers from offering pupillages before 1 August. So, unless you are exceptionally lucky and have one of the very few early-bird non-OLPAS pupillages, you cannot know whether or not you will have pupillage before committing to the BVC. (Indeed, the system is carefully set up that way, to avoid most of the BVC intake backing out at the last minute when they don’t get pupillage.)

    Hardly anyone choses to attend the BVC without pupillage. What has happened is that the mismatch between BVC output and available pupillages has led to a growing backlog of second and third-time applicants who now, on latest figures, outnumber first-timers in their finals/GDL year. Given a choice between candidate A, who has a law degree or CPE, and candidate B, who has the same plus a Very Competent on the BVC, a pupillage committee is quite likely to pick B, who at least demonstrated some ability at advocacy and drafting in addition to academic essay-writing. Also, in my experience, the BVC either gives many students a much clearer idea about why they want to be a barrister, or convinces them that actually they don’t want to go for the Bar after all, so post-BVC applicants are either more articulate at interview, or are put off applying altogether.

    If it has become the norm for pupillage to be awarded to applicants who have completed the BVC, it isn’t because those applicants have deliberately waited a year. It’s because they’ve been picked second time around, by chambers that prefer them over first-time candidates.

  5. Simon,

    Thank you for your comments. However, I am afraid you are mistaken on the facts. The letter in front of me from my BVC provider informs me that the first installment of my course fees are due on the 7th of August.

    (Therefore, were I not to have secured pupillage, I would be able to withdraw from the BVC in time.)

    I further disagree that an applicant would be favoured solely on the basis that they commenced or completed the BVC. I will concede that BVC candidates MAY be better informed about the Bar and consequently able to present themselves better in interview. However, decent non-BVC candidates will have taken it upon themselves to inform themselves about the Bar and think about why they want to be a barrister. The suggestion that a BVC student is necessarily better placed to answer questions like ‘why do you want to be a barrister?’ only needs to be posed in order to be rejected.

  6. Anon,

    That’s a significant departure from previous years’ practice and it will be very interesting to see what, if anything, the effect is on actual BVC intake. There was certainly some feeling amongst my fellow students that the previous arrangement was in effect a restrictive practice aimed at ensuring that BVC numbers (and thus provider income streams) were kept up.

    As for your second point, how much assessed advocacy (as distinct from mooting) have you done, and how many opinions (as distinct from essays) or statements of case have you written? The skills taught on the BVC – however effectively or otherwise – are different from those studied on an LLB or GDL; indeed, some of the latter in effect have to be unlearned. (A common complaint of Written Skills tutors is that BVC students have to forget about writing essays and learn instead to give advice, a rather different skill.)

    Furthermore, some students find that advocacy or conferencing is far harder than they anticipated; others find a great affinity for it and what was perhaps a general interest in the Bar becomes a very specific career goal. Being able to explain in interview what it is you find effective in cross-examination technique is arguably more impressive than simply saying that you enjoy debating. For that matter, I’ve seen very motivated and competent students change their minds as to which area of law to apply for on the basis of BVC experience; someone who was previously an adequate candidate for a criminal set pupillage may turn into a very strong candidate for human rights work, for example.

    Yes, you are right that a particularly well-informed and prepared candidate can do well in pupillage interview without having done the BVC. But many others will do significantly better second time round – if for no other reason than having been through the system before. And at the end of the day, if chambers are giving large numbers of pupillages to post-BVC candidates, they presumably have good reasons for doing so.

  7. Simon, when you state the payment dates for course fees, you are correct but only as regards BPP. The other course providers are, shall we say, less commercially aggressive, which means that the applicant only stands to lose their deposit if they withdraw. At at least one other course provider, withdrawal simply means a deferral until the following year, with the loss of deposit but no need to reapply for a course place.

    You’re a seriously bright bloke and a man of the world, have you not yet worked out what a bunch of self serving ***** BPP are ?

  8. Bar Boy,

    I’ve never been in any doubt that the principal business aim of BPP has been to separate students from their money! Having said that, I am actually fairly happy that I am getting something in return. The course is by no means perfect, but nothing I’ve heard from students at other providers has made me regret picking BPP (indeed, it’s often made me quite grateful I did so.)

  9. I have to concede that Anon has a point, as I recall being at another provider and having to pay my course fees in August… though they really should make the deposit refundable. Maybe there should be a red sign saying “you are very strongly advised not to undertake the BVC unless and until you attain a pupillage” on OLPAS and the application form for the BVC. However, it is not something that really occurred to me before, obvious as it is. I think people just have a “plan” – apply for BVC, get pupillage, start BVC, and when the second one doesn’t happen they are all set for the BVC anyway and haven’t really considered alternatives. To be fair, I think I would have mindlessly proceeded with the BVC without a pupillage simply because it was what everyone else was doing – uni, optional masters, BVC, then try to work out what to do. It’s also commonly peddled that chambers prefer applicants who are on the BVC, but I think the main reason why people tend not to secure pupillage before the BVC is not because the BVC makes you better at interview (and indeed in my experience interviewers make suitable allowances for candidates not having done the BVC when asking e.g. ethics questions) and/or because chambers prefer people to have committed to the BVC or be that year older etc but because you can actually wave your confirmed degree result at them. Anyone can “predict” a brilliant result in their degree, and indeed often the worse the people are the more likely they are to be unrealistically optimistic – this is the Dunning-Kruger effect, as inappropriately referenced by Ed in relation to James C’s posts on the previous blog post. In fact, there is no better demonstration of this effect than in the hordes of applicants with a completely misplaced self-confidence in their relative brilliance when applying for pupillage. I suspect RM, who believes that his/her failure to get a first at Oxbridge followed by a top pupillage is entirely down to fate/luck/elitism/the Bar, and that if he/she were to be given a chance he/she would blow other applicants with a demonstrated consistent history of achievement out of the water, may be one of these.

  10. Has anyone looked at how such matters are managed overseas, for instance in Australia (or Canada), because I think there may be salutary lessons there. I say this as an Australian qualified solicitor currently doing postgrad study in the UK, but with a partner, who to our joint surprise, won the post-BVC pupillage lottery earlier this year.

    In a nutshell, my view is that the English system, sucks – and that this starts at uni.

    1. If I had a magic wand, I would abolish the CPE/GDL. In my opinion, it is not possible to cover the academics of law (poor expression) in 12 months – 2 years (such as at Sheffield and I think Bristol is a much better way to go). I would also look at proper joint degrees (min 5 years) as on offer in Australia as the primary way to study law. Australian law students (coming straight from school) are obliged to study another degree at the same time as they study law – this is structured over 5 (Arts, Science) – 7 years (Medicine, Architecture). This ensures some broadening of academic experience, and in an integrated rather then cumulative and unrelated way.

    2. I would abolish the BVC. It is too expensive and its cost operates as a financial disincentive given the likelihood of securing pupillage afterwards. While it is logical to say that a person should have pupillage before they start the BVC, this fails to allow for the generally solid (but not brilliant) academic student who later excels in the more practical world of the BVC.

    3. I would therefore have all students do a modified LPC, at the end of which they have the choice of a further truncated (and much cheaper) BVC/Bar Readers Course or obtaining a training contract (or doing something else) and, if the desire to be at the Bar persists, return to do the BVC at a later date. At this point, it might be possible to have a pupillage as a requirement for the shorter BVC, but would not be necessary as the world of time-costing would always be available.

    4. This is essentially what happens in my home state of Victoria – see http://www.vicbar.com.au for more details, where going to the Bar happens after admission as a solicitor, and costs only about £2000 for the 12 week course (so long as you can find a barrister to read with, which is similar to about 3 months non-practising pupillage and 6 months second six work.

    5. In my experience, the Victorian Bar is no weaker than the English and Welsh Bar, but far more open, fairer and accessible in terms of entry.

  11. Mr Paste,

    That seems to make a lot of sense, particularly the bit about making lawyers study a science. Just give them a hundred years or so and they will probably come round to your way of thinking.

  12. Anon,

    I am a student currently finishing the BVC and I found your article very interesting. You are of course right about the current system. I myself have studied on a course this year with about 50+ other students, out of which only 1 had actually secured a pupillage. My question however, relates to my final qualification. Unfortunately, due to a combination of my own inexperience at advocacy and drafting, and encountering difficult examiners for my exams, I am most likely going to be awarded a competent, although I do have a 2:1 for my LLB. I’ve heard that chambers are not too conerned about a student’s final BVC result, but i’m sure it must matter when applying for a pupilage. Will this lessen my chances of achieving a pupillage? Is there anything I can do to make myself appear a suitable candidate when applying for a pupilage?
    I’d appreciate your help on this matter.

    Thank you,

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