This blog represents my views and opinions. They are not necessarily those of any other member of my Chambers, none of whom contribute to the blog, or assist me with it.


Now moved to http://pupillageandhowtogetit.wordpress.com/ for reasons of convenience and ease. Come and see.

Friday, 25 May 2007

The BVC - Infallible Tool, Necessary Evil, or Total Crap?

BVC provision is a problem. They were created to broaden the choice from one provider - the ICSL. That was desirable because local authorities had stopped giving grants for Bar School (you will all be too young to remember what grants were, but once upon a time in a golden land called 60s-90s Britain the government paid for you to be educated) and the cost of living in London was enormous. Also, in the late 80s - 90s, the good times were there for the Bar and people believed that they would last for ever.

Now we produce about 3,000 people pa with the vocational qualification. Of those, all but the 500 odd who get pupillage (employed and independent) have nothing of value save what they actually learned. And it costs a fortune (the ICSL cost me £6,000 in 1985 - I remember the pain of handing over the cheque).

There is an ethical debate about when we should shut the door on being a barrister. At present that is the final stage - i.e. everyone can compete for pupillage. Were we to move it back and make entry to the BVC the sifting point then a number of consequences would seem to flow. Firstly, some BVC providers would close, because the economies of scale would not permit them to carry on. Secondly, we would have to decide what criteria would apply. It seems to me unlikely that Chambers would wish to chose pupils 3 years before they arrived - if only because the decision to offer pupillage is usually taken at the last minute and because there's many a slip. Yet 3 years would probably be required so that pupillage could be offered in the second year and the BVC place obtained in the 3rd year.

It is also probably the case that costs would not go down - indeed might even go up because the course would have to be delievered to fewer people. Then we would have to deal with the question of how many people got to go on the BVC course - you couldn't really confine it to those who only had pupillage because they may drop out and leave the Chambers without a pupil they wanted. And Chambers' needs can change over 3 years, particularly if a mid-ranking junior really takes off and has returns coming out of their ears. And what about the people who want the qualification to go to a different country and practice there? Do we only let them in if they promise to go? What if the country they wish to go to doesn't chose its pupils for another 2 years?

And, finally, what of all the people who would say ' I would be a brilliant barrister but my academic performance isn't my strongest point'? How else are we to judge entry to the BVC/the obtaining of pupillage if the entire exercise is taking place in the 2nd year? Normally mini-pupillages are undertaken when the student knows some law. If the BVC is pupillage dependent and the exercise is being conducted in the 2nd year then how many informed mini-pupillages will be done? And if we chose some other criteria to limit entry to the BVC that can only be academic.

On the other hand I am afraid that my experience shows that too many people who have no realistic chance of obtaining pupillage believe the contrary. To some extent they are grown-ups and must bear the consequences of their own decisions. However, when I see a candidate with a 2.2 from a not terribly distinguished university, who went to a decent school (and thus cannot rely on any argument based on differential), has done nothing special either of an extra-curricular nature or within their degree (for example a first in a dissertation on remedies and a letter saying they can produce really good work but can't handle all the subjects to the same standard within a tight timetable), and who produces an Olpas form that looks like 300 other peoples' Olpas form - I think that person has wasted time, money and effort and should have been disillusioned early.

In reality my favoured system is a barrister sift, where a panel of about 5 people spends 1/2 day with a group of potential applicants and then either says yes or no (the coercive option) or gives advice (the gentle option). And in these days where no profession is allowed to regulate itself that is about as likely as Satan being elected God.

So once again, because we refuse to trust anybody, we don't believe in feel and we attribute every decision which goes against us to a sinister conspiracy or the 'old boys' network', we allow blunt tools like exam results to dictate the lives of thousands of people, or we leave it to the market and allow the suppliers to grow rich on a course which only 20% of their consumers will benefit from. Good hey?

I would welcome comment. This is one of the things that genuinely makes me angry.


lawyer-2-be said...

Hi Simon

I think there are too many students admitted to the BVC. As a result there are vastly more people applying for pupillage than there are pupillages. This is fine to an extent - why should the Bar lose the benefit of competition for entry to the profession - that is one of the factors which keeps standards high. However, there's competition, and there's flooding the market. It is the latter which is ultimately counter productive, surely? It causes chambers to receive so many aplications for pupillage (no doubt under the 'if you throw enough, some of it will stick' school of thought) that sifting through and narrowing the field to a manegeable number of interviewees can only really be an arbitrary process, can't it? I don't belive that many chambers have pupillage committees reading in detail 400 OLPAS applications, do they? Don't they just look at A levels and / or degree results / predictions and whittle down on that basis? Or perhaps on other arbitrary bases such as age (as a mature entrant to the profession this has been one of my hobby horses!)

I know that on my Bar Course there are students who intend to practice overseas and there are some who don't intend to go to the Bar at all (some want the qualification to assist in their current employment or want to train as mediators for example). However, there are some who are just being ripped off. Who will never, ever obtain pupillage. Not because they are not bright, capable people. But because, despite this, they have shown no aptitude for the skills required on the course, and consequently one must assume, for being a barrister. If there could be some filtering process at the beginning of the vocational training which could reduce the numbers studying for the BVC, this would surely give those who do go on to study for the Bar better odds and a more realistic prospect of success. How you go about doing that is of course a more difficult question...


Anonymous said...

A very balanced post.

I however disagree with some elements, particularly with regards to the cost of the BVC. In my day it was around £8,500 - £9,000 to be trained on the BVC. I believe it has gone up now to over £10,000. One provider of the BVC is a PLC. The Bar has to stop BVC students being horrendously over charged for this course and these course providers pulling in a fat profit. I believe the BVC should be reigned in and only the Inns should provide the BVC at a not for profit rate.

As regards too many BVC students. I am totally against trying to slash numbers in some ad hoc manner. Maybe the selection criteria should be slightly more choosy. People should be educated and informed into what there prospects are and if after that they want to carry on then good luck to them. I remember a talk which I went to given by the College of Law which (to their credit) should the horrendous statistics of getting tenancy. It is for each individual to make their own mind up whether they are willing to take the risk and back themselves.

Looking back on the BVC, i dont believe it is the best course. Many of the teachers are failed barristers and I learnt far more in a months worth of pupillage than in the whole year of the BVC course.

Yesterday, I was against a person who was the top student in the BVC. To say the least he was awful. He didnt know the law, hadnt read his papers and the judge proved to be my main opponent. What does that say about the training the BVC gives?

L2B - I have been a tenant in two chambers and I can assure you the tenants who read applicants CVs read every thing put on them. It is an extremely tedious process but they do it diligently.

Good luck all in find pupillage and tenancy and dont give up. I know one person who it took her 7 years to get pupillage.

Babooshka said...

> I know one person who it took her 7 years to get pupillage.

Is that possible given the BVC "expires" at the 5 year point?

I've always thought the BVC was a money making tool esp given how poorly it was taught (personal experience at ICSL). I think that the opening of regional providers, whilst not drastically reducing the numbers entering the London providers, was a mistake as all it did done was make the pupillage competition more fierce. Fair enough not everyone wants to do the course in London but the numbers allowed on providers BVC courses should be reduced in my opinion.

I wonder if each provider provides statistics in their prospectus of the number of students who went on to secure pupillage and / or tenancy?

Mr Pineapples said...

I agree that the BVC course is pretty dreadful. The standard of teaching is hit and miss and to complain can be seen as a "conduct" issue.

The problem lies in the fact that it is not worth the money. Why does it cost £10,000? Gawd only knows. I cant see where that money is being spent; certainly not on books and tutors.

A bleedin' Rip-Off.

Anonymous said...

A question if I may be so bold:

You say that those who complete the BVC but do not get pupillage have nothing of value save for what they have actually learned.

Surely that fact that they have been called to the Bar counts for something?

The Bar council brochure has a small section in which it talks about how non practising barristers are valued in banking, finance and other 'city' professions.

The words 'barrister at law' on the cv must count for something? Even if it is in the non practising context.

Simon Myerson said...

It is a title. I agree with the Bar Council but I don't think they are talking about people who couldn't get a pupillage. I think they are talking about those who did pupillage and perhaps a few years in practice and then moved.

I truly don't think that £11,000+ for the words 'Barrister-at-Law' is worth it. Anyone who knows anything about the system will ask where you did pupillage. The truth is that you can't practice without that step being taken. Nor can you describe yourself as practising.

wayne jaggernauth said...

There are many schools of thought on this subject. Recent studies by Macy-Dare, available online at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=732884 sheds light on this subject matter.

Prior to the Minimum Funding Regulations for Pupillage (MPFR -£10k), 100% of students on the BVC obtained pupillage. Macy-Dare contends that the economic risk of training multiple pupils was next to nil, and chambers could afford to train as many pupils they desired, eventually choosing tenants from this larger pool of pupils.

The bottleneck and competition existed then at the tenancy stage. This in my opinion was apparently overlooked as two things happened concurrently:

1. A belief that because chambers were accepting as many pupils as the BVC providers were throwing at them, more BVC seats were needed (hence the expansion in providers and seat places)

2. The MPFR came into effect (one reason forwarded was that the MPFR was instituted to protect pupils from being exploited)

The MPFR increased the risk to chambers, now having to recoup the expense of training pupils. The purported view of chambers is that pupils are chosen, inter alia, on their ability to generate income (thus paying dividends for the investment in pupillage training). It is at this point the Oxbridge perception of earing potential may affect pupil selection.

Macy-Dare suggests that an equilibrium would be reached where numbers of applicants to BVC providers would fall, in light of the prospects of obtaining pupillage. My own suggestions are:

1. An entrance exam for the BVC
2. Evidence of awareness (document stating the reality of obtaining pupillage, signed by the student)
3. Bar Council to waive the MPFR for smaller chambers, or set limits on the number of pupils that can be trained at any instance
4. Consultation on the provision of legal services at a higher level (for example Ministry of Justice, Bar Council and Law Society), with a view to fusing the legal profession (start pelting your tomatoes!!!)

The reality at present remains unchanged, and for many of us who are searching for pupillage, myself included, there is no joy. The only realistic advice I can give is to listen to those who are in the know, consider the QLTT (become a solicitor advocate), consider another jurisdiction (eg New York), or other options.

In the end, life must go on... Best Wishes


Simon Myerson said...


Why fusion? I'm not sure what it would do for training places of any description. The argument is really about costs and different sorts of legal services - of which more anon, perhaps.

Troubled barrister said...


This is really a general post about your site.

I am going to be blunt here. This blog is full of good intentions but is far too insular. Too often there is a culture of moaning within the bar and within people who cannot find pupillage. People who cannot find pupillage seem trot out the usual excuses; not from a rich background, didnt go to Oxbridge, it is the system etc.. etc.. The world owes nobody a living and the bar does not owe people who have gone to the BVC a pupillage. Some people are not good enough to get pupillage that I am afraid is the reality of life. Contrary to one post in the days of unfunded pupillages not every bar student attained pupillage. There is no way however much training I could become a plastic surgeon.

In your blog you state "I wouldnt get pupillage today" - this is utter rubbish; I have never known a person who has gone to Oxbridge fail to find pupillage. The truth is good candidates will find pupillage bad candidates will not. There are plenty of pupillages out there for good candidates, people who can show they are different from the crowd.

Simon you should be inspiring potential candidates about what are the good points about coming to the bar and not engaging in a constant moan fest. I can think of many examples, being self employed, bar is a meritocracy, if you are good the sky is limit, compared to other professions excellent career stability, very good salaries (I earn more than my peers who have gone to make circle firms), I really could go on and on. If you are good enough you will find puppilage and tenancy.

When a silk in my chambers talks to law students he inspires them to come to the bar. Where here is the inspiration? I remember reading your old website when I was looking for pupillage, I felt like shooting myself. If I listened to your advice I would never have gone to the bar. Please take this in the spirit it is meant, it is great someone of your seniority at the bar is trying to help aspiring barristers; but a little positivity about what is good about our profession would be nice once in a while. If we denigrate our great profession too much one day we might just succeed in killing off the bar.

Simon Myerson said...

Well you are entitled to your view.

Your first criticism is that I am too insular. Your last point is that I should be inspiring people to come to the Bar. Were I to do what you want in your last point (not that I agree I don't) I would be even more insular than you say I am already being.

If the truth was that good candidates got pupillage and bad ones didn't there would be no bad or mediocre barristers. Everyone would be a candidate for Silk and the Bench would be awash with talent. And you and I both know perfectly well that that isn't how it is.

Good, middle-class articulate candidates from good universities get pupillage - and so do some lousy ones. Good, non-connected, less articulate candidates from ex-polys close to home tend not to get pupillage.

And it costs a lot of money not to get a pupillage. A sight too much, in my opinion, for self-congratulatory tummy rubbing by those now sitting pretty and commending themselves for getting where they wanted to be. And that is regardless of where they came from. So this site talks realistically about what is going on.

I make it clear that this is a great job. I love it. I have the particular combination of likes and dislikes that make it right for me. I defy you to find a place where I have said, 'don't do it' and been remotely serious.

You want me to simultaneously say 'If you're crap you won't get a pupillage' and 'what a wonderful life'. Instead I say 'This is how you get a pupillage and beware of the attendant risks' and 'Go for it if you think you can make it because you'll enjoy it'. I just think realism is best.

I am sorry that the old website put you off and I certainly agree that, whilst the content here is expanded, the tone is no different. But this site is not there to persuade people to go to the Bar. It is there to help people who have already decided they want to, subject to the price they have to pay and the risks they run. There is a fine line between putting good people off and painting an overly rosy view. In common with every single barrister who has ever made a submission I am confident my judgement is spot on.

PS. 'I am going to be blunt' is a poor opening. Do it - or don't do it.

Simon Myerson said...

But, if you want to try your hand at a guest post then email me something and we will discuss it. This is not carte-blanche, but if you want to put yourself on the line on-line then I shan't be over heavy with the blue pen...

Troubled barrister said...

Thank you for responding to me. Is this a bad start?

It is a great pity that you have turned this into an advocacy exercise and in my opinion have responded incredibly poorly to criticism. What possible merit did your sentence “I am going to be blunt' is a poor opening. Do it - or don't do it.” Ridiculously pompous springs to mind, I hope I never have the misfortune of you being my tribunal. Of course there are good and bad barristers, I am talking about good candidates for pupillage. It is impossible to know until towards the end of a second sixth whether an individual is likely to make a good barrister. You say “Good, non-connected, less articulate candidates from ex-polys close to home tend not to get pupillage.” In my opinion, you are unlikely to be a good candidate if you are less articulate. What is our profession about? Being articulate. At least we agree on one thing it does cost a lot of money to do the BVC, yes too much. What are silks like you doing to try and get the costs down? I never once have seen a memo within the bar attacking these BVC providers. Instead people like Mr Vos seem focused on wasting time with the bar consultation on quality and proposing some ridiculous ideas.

The whole nature of your blog and website has a dour Gordon Brown feel to it. Where in this site is the go for it tone if you think you can make it? It is very unfortunate you think “in common with every single barrister who has ever made a submission I am confident my judgement is spot on.” This is how you and I differ I analyse after my submissions the good, the bad and the ugly. I am not confident my judgment is always spot on, I recognise mistakes I sometimes make and will doubtless continue in the future make. It is nice to hear you are the perfect advocate incapable of making any mistakes, incapable of being incorrect. As for contributing no thank you, you seem to adverse and indeed outright hostile to any criticism. I am not a BVC student who simply says yes you must be right because you have QC at the end of your name, perhaps you have become to used to this on your site.

Your site is extremely important. Do you know you come up as the first hit in search engines when you type in how to get pupillage?

Simon Myerson said...

"It is a great pity that you have turned this into an advocacy exercise"
"you are unlikely to be a good candidate if you are less articulate. What is our profession about? Being articulate."

Some contradiction surely...

You and I simply disagree about most things. I believe that there are too many casually articulate people and too few thinkers with judgement. I also believe that being articulate is a learned skill and that acquiring judgement is far more difficult.

I believe that you can tell whether someone's going to be good way before the end of their second six - what you can't always tell is if they'll manage the pressure.

I also put myself out there. Everyone knows who I am. I've had 6 pupils (every one a tenant!) and done 5 years on the pupillage committtee. I help train pupils on circuit. I judge moots. I work on the Speakers for Schools project. So I have a background knowledge to rely on.


I'm sorry you can't distinguish between pompous and wry. But I think if you read the site with an open mind you will find some humour in there. The advice on your opening was neither - it was advice. You don't have to take it (but if you ever DO appear in front of me and start 'Your Honour I'm going to be blunt' I'll know who you are ;) ).

For the sake of accuracy, the comment about being sure was a JOKE. If you think that you can survive in this game - let alone prosper - without reviewing every case and spotting the mistakes then you're mad. It's clear from what you say that you actually know that. Why on earth should I be any different? Any barrister who isn't there own severest critic is a poor one. You can tell your CLIENT the Judge is a bastard, but you tell yourself the truth.

I'm also sorry you think I respond badly to criticism. But I don't actually accept yours. The comments about Geoffrey Vos (current bar Chairman) are a give away. I don't know the man but he is spot on in what he says. A great many organisations want the Bar's work. The CPS is planning to do its own advocacy at silk level in 10 years. Pleasant articulateness is no longer enough.

These are genuine threats. I think you've got your head in the sand. The Bar is a fantastic profession but it's getting tougher - that is the reality.

I ought to say also that if you haven't seen anything about getting the costs of qualifying down that is only because you haven't looked. Try the Bar Council Website and click on consultation papers where you will find the Entry to the Bar Interim Report which was published in April and trailed heavily in Counsel.

Finally this: the site is top of the list because of its hit rate. I modestly (irony - note) believe that this is because I do my research properly, address the issue and tell it like it is. You believe it's because all the BVC students are in awe of a silk.

In any event, vox populi vox dei.

troubled barrister said...


I totally agree with you that judgement is the most important quality of a barrister. Does judgement not improve with time? Has your judgement not substantially improved over the years with experience? I feel (although it is for others to say whether true or not) my judgement has gradually improved throughout my practise. Good judgement can be learnt.

Why is Geoffery Vos "spot on" with his proposals on quality? Why is a CPS grading scheme known as a quality assurance scheme necessary for non criminal barristers? Why is it necessary to have a BQAP? It is extremely troublesome that the so called leaders of the bar put out such proposals which imply that standards in the bar may be poor. The leaders of the bar should be advertising what is good about the bar.

What have I done? I can just see the 1914 poster with the little child looking at his father and saying "daddy what did you do in the great war?" I fully confess I have done all too little, though I am not about to read my CV out to you on a blog.

I recognise there are genuine threats to our profession; this is why I no longer do any criminal work. I genuinely fear for the future of the criminal bar, many of my friends are in pure criminal sets covering more senior members of chambers' briefs in some far flung court for £46.50. I want the criminal bar to thrive, but I am not hopefully there will be a meaningful criminal bar come 10 years or so (particularly when strikes never materialise because of the divisions within the CBA). However, positivity and not negativity are surely the best way of combating these threats. Meaningful numbers of silks should be out there speaking on the merits of having an independent bar and the dangers of having a self sufficient CPS. The public need to be far more educated on what is going on.

You say you were head of pupillage at your set. Your set is an excellent set with around 60 barristers and 12 silks. Yet, you only offer one pupillage at a miserly bar council minimum for the first six. The fact sets are not offering enough pupillages and high enough grants is clearly what is causing a great deal of problems. Your website should also tell applicants for pupillages what on average they can expect to earn in their first year of tenancy, not least so applicants considering whether to do the LPC or BVC know if they make it the rewards are good.

I do know about these consultation papers, in my view they are meaningless talking shops. What is actively being done to drive down the cost of the BVC? Nothing, year on year the cost goes up. Next year it will be more than last year. Essentially, the bar is sub-contracting out the BVC to these providers. The time has come to no longer sub contract these courses out. Yet, we seem totally incapable of grasping the nettle.

I am not senior enough to have any influence to redress these failings (nor is it likely I will ever be), you are.

Please take all these comments in the spirit they are meant (constructive criticism). If I have caused any offence I apologise. I can see you genuinely care about the bar and not just your own practise (which is doubtless a very good one), something which I very my respect.

Now time for me to manage my far more limited practise and get on with these blasted papers, any excuse to time waste. In front of a recorder bah I should be so lucky (irony).

Simon Myerson said...

I'm laughing :). A very graceful answer - and yes, I do take the comments in the spirit in which they are meant.

I intend to post on the proposals for the Bar so I shan't deal with that now - no slight intended.

I have had 2 conversations on the need for an independent bar within the last week with 2 Chief Crown Prosecutors (this is not as grand as it sounds - we are all members of the same Synagogue and it was Pentecost. These Jews get everywhere). They are unconvinced. So, I either have a poor case, or I'm a crap advocate or (and this is what I actually think) they are cost driven. The actual cost, short-term, of CPS' advocates is low. Long term I believe that it will be high, leading to longer trials, mistrust, miscarriages of justice and CPS lawyers feeling they 'own' the case and therefore being reluctant to change their minds.

This is a Treasury issue and as such we are likely to lose it. My dealings with government are not extensive but enough to make me believe that 'consultation' is merely politeness and that we can win the substantive debate and it simply doesn't matter. What can we do? Well, as a member of the Labour Party since I was 15 I can (and have) stopped giving it money and I can (and will) put my vote elsewhere just as soon as I can. Otherwise we have to play a long game.

As it happens I entirely agree with you about our pupillage award. But the majority view is that there is no need to pay more than is required to get good applicants. I've argued it - and lost - more times than I care to count.

I also have sympathy with your view on the BVC. Hence the Post. Watch this space.

Keep slogging away and, in time, you too will have a practice that brings you before a Recorder (also irony - honestly). And when it happens just say 'Your Honour, I'm going to be blunt...' ;)

troubled barrister said...

If I ever appear in front of you I will be sure to say it. Do you sit as a civil recorder? If so, I may well be in front of you sometime in the next few years or so. If (a lot of if's I know begining to sound like Christina last night on the Apprentice saying ok all the time) I find myself at a Bar Mess dinner you are attending I will say hello. Hope you feel better.

Simon Myerson said...

Yes I sit in Civil, and I look forward to meeting you. Keep commenting - please.

Dave said...

A fascinating question leading to an entertaining spat. I plan to add my own two cents over a possible third way.

I found the BVC a very engaging course where everyone got out exactly what they put in. Many students attempted to breeze through and consequently struggled and wasted their time. My provider catered for plenty of international students and they always took value from the course, and will likely succeed overseas.
In general I found the standard of advocacy on the course quite poor, and this was reflected in my dealings in advocacy competitions with other universities. London or provincial seemed to make no difference but opened my eyes to the 'loftiness' of the London providers. My personal issue is that I got a 2:2 many years ago and more weight is placed on that than my excellent legal academics. Pupillage committees should take account that people often wise up and work hard.

The BVC is a course that everyone should be allowed to access, however not necessarily to complete. I believe the difficulty is that the providers are commercially constrained and are afraid to fail people. The attrition rate for first time exams is suitably high but surprisingly retakes give everyone the competent pat on the head that they expect for their 10,000 and in this sense the title Barrister is being sold and not earnt. If more care were taken to ensure standards and there was a willingness to fail candidates (at an early stage to save students costs if possible) then the majority of pupillage application sifting would be done by the people who have spent months with the potential candidates. Less focus would be made over a hit-or-miss paper application which can rarely tell the whole story. A 25 - 30% pass rate on the BVC would be far more acceptable and would raise competition and hence raise quality.

In a nutshell: BVC should keep the entry requirements the same, but only those who deserve to should finish.

Anonymous said...

I am a BVC student hoping to receive news that I have passed the course on 10 July 2007.

Most people I have spoken to do intend to become practitioners and it is for this, and not the kudos of a BVC qualification, that they have forked out some £12,000.

During the year I have met very few people whom I considered materially lacking in the intellectual and personal qualities necessary to be a successful practitioner: these are bright and able people who have become used to success in their academic careers and expect it also in their chosen professional field as a result.

I agree that passing the course should be harder in order to create more realistic attitudes in the minds of students.

I myself seem destined for either 'outstanding' or 'very competent' grade this year but sadly have had very little luck in current OLPAS applications.

I must admit that I would rather take on an unfunded (or less than minimum recommended grant) pupillage if it meant a fairer selection system. The cost of my pupillage year would still be less than a combination of living costs and course fees as paid out this year, and I would relish the opportunity to prove myself and my abilities over a 6 - 12 month period rather than risk falling foul of the current arbitrary selection system and rushed interview procedures.

Edward said...

What is really wrong with the current system?

For those who make it, perhaps it lasts too long and costs a bit too much. The system has broadly worked for them though and having "made it" they are unlikely to be too distressed by it.

Too many others, for whatever reason, however, will have handed over obscene amounts of money to BVC providers and sacrificed twelve months of their life (maybe even having moved continents) for a course which offers them very little.

It strikes me there are two ways of tackling this:
1) To weed out those who are "wasting their money" and are never going to get pupillage. A solution proposed and agonised over by many; or
2) Reducing the cost and time taken with the course.

The simplest and most obvious solution seems to me the latter, yet very few people seem to be advocating it. My recent experiences on the BVC suggest it could be pared back in terms of content - with perhaps much of the practical training left to the Inns either pre-/during/post-pupillage who already attract a higher calibre of trainer who is much more likely to actually be in practice - and correspondingly in terms of duration and cost.

Chambers could then carry out the weeding out process post-BVC, as now (something which I see as positive; those in the profession are surely better placed to decide who can and should make it than less experienced albeit well-intentioned "hangers on"), yet the sacrifice to make it to that stage would be much less and the over-subscription for pupillages less shocking.

Moreover, it would help remove some potential barriers for access to those with less access to funding resources.

What would be lost by such a change? A lot of bureaucracy and some jobs related to the BVC and much of the self-importance and self-justifying character of the Bar Council and BVC-providers.

Becky said...

For all the noble ideas that are being thrown at us by members of the Bar today, is there really the will to do anything about this particular chestnut?

Your point about ½ day selection would be a victory for common sense. I would like to see the selection taken out of the hands of BVC providers (merciless, money grabbers that they are) and put back into the hands of the professionals. Full day workshops and a proper interview to decide on a person’s aptitude combined with a written exam and a bit of advocacy alongside the paper sift. That way at least it could be guaranteed that those who are making the cut do have some prospect of success in return for their money. Only then is the competition genuine for the pupillage afterwards (within the sterile confines of the concept admittedly).

However, this does cause me to itch all over. Allow me to indulge in a moment of comment on my situation. I have a good degree from a top 10 university with an excellent law department. I have interesting experiences (involving actual read life advocacy, none of your mooting for me). I got big scholarships from my Inn and university (based on merit I should add). I get interviews. I suspect its not my attitude because I have had no negative feedback (there were people who more committed than you, that’s all…how? No really, HOW?)

I am not barrister-bashing (although the more removed from the profession I become, the more I do), but dear me, it is an old boys network isn’t it? I could make you gasp in horror as I recount my favourite interview story (its better with my impression, honest), from an unnameable London Chambers, where I was asked what my parents did for a living and had to endure a gasp and a round of ‘they must be so proud’ (incidentally, they are both cleaners and they are very proud). What can I do in the face of such attitudes?

And that’s the problem for most of us. Whatever we do with BVC entry numbers, further training, re-educating the selectors, you cannot get past the attitudes. Completely without blame, the vast majority of those who make the decisions are public schooled, privileged. Like chooses like, bless ‘em. I can understand that. We chose friends for our shared characteristics, be it sense of humour or common experience. This does throw up a problem though. The Bar is becoming endemically worse. The competition is tough, therefore those getting chosen are from largely the same backgrounds (broad brush) because they are perceived as those most likely to be successful based on old stereotpyes. When I was at Bar School last year, the 7 people who had pupillage were Oxbridge bar one. To be frank, with a notable exception, they were no better than many others and a lot worse than some.

The Bar can’t change society. It can’t do anything about inequality in education, distribution of means or any of the other variables that hamper the selection for pupillage. It can do something about levelling the playing field based on aptitude, as discussed, and I think this would inevitably trickle down to the profession. If the profession trusted the selectors at Bar School, they would be assured that those coming at them for pupillage must have some modicum of ability and then they could make decisions at interviews based on, what I consider to be the important things: relevant experiences, knowledge of the area, etc.

Depressing. But as my grandfather says, the percentage of those from different backgrounds now is better than it was, and that’s an encouraging thought, isn’t it? And I for one know I will be there for all of my precious 5 years trying my hardest to impress.

Anonymous said...

Response to Edward - how, specifically, do you say the BVC should be pared back in terms of content and how long do you say the Course should be? Bear in mind that the average length of the BVC is only 34 weeks (excluding vacations) and that, to most students, the subjects on the Course are entirely new. In any event, is a shorter course necessarily cheaper? Your comment that the Inns attract a "higher calibre of trainer" is far too broad a generalisation; if that's your view so be it but it's certainly not a fact - I can even identify a leading set who recruited a BVC Tutor to head up Chambers' training!

Anonymous said...

Let's get real here. The notion that BVC providers are pulling in a "fat profit" is a myth. The view that many Tutors are failed barristers similarly so - you might as well say the same of judges, who will certainly earn less than in practice - if they had a decent practice. The reason for the cost of the BVC is (i) the Bar Council's demands in respect of resources and (ii) the fact that the BVC is a "true cost" course unlike e.g. a Law degree. Rather than continually sniping at the BVC let's look at a root and branch reform - why does a degree have to take 2 years; why (in one of the richest countries) are grants no longer widely available; why can students no longer claim housing benefit to help with accommodation costs. Do prospective students really need educating as to what their prospects are? The information is out there - do some research!

Anonymous said...

I meant, of course, 3 years - see post above!

Simon Myerson said...


Not forgotten - I will post on this soon I hope (see Countdown above)

Edward said...

Late reply, I know, but I feel I ought to...

Firstly, on the Inns' calibre of trainer, I meant that the average calibre of trainer attracted by the Inns is better than those on the BVC. In large part this is based on my own anecdotal evidence, but given how relatively small the bar is, I'm pretty confident of it. I am not saying every BVC teacher is hopeless. Far from it, as you say, some, particularly those at the top are very good. Many, however, are hopeless. I stand by that and could name them. You don't have such variable quality amongst Inn trainers.

Secondly, how could it be pared back in terms of content?
1) "Negotiation" could be scrapped as an assessed course. It's hopeless, takes place in an artificially rare-ified atmosphere and with an artifical set of marking criteria.
2) "Conference skills" could again be scrapped for the same reasons.
3) The "specialist options" could be scrapped. They pretend to teach you comprehensively about a particular area of practice but don't - and can't - even come close.
4) The teaching could be done so much more intensively, without giving students a day off each week on the full-time course.
5) All the "performance" skills - I'm thinking advocacy - could be hived off to the Inns. As I've said, I believe the Inns will always attract a better average calibre of trainer and teach this better and more effectively than the providers.

You'd then, effectively, be left with a procedure and drafting course which could be done intensively over a much shorter period.

This could produce, with the co-operation of the Inns, a three-month course which produced better-prepared pupils-to-be at a lesser cost in a quicker time.

Anonymous said...

Edward is absolutely right, but I'd go further: abolish the BVC and replace it with a short course in procedure, covering either civil, family, or criminal procedure. (Hardly anyone anymore does all three, or even two; there could be some bolt-on course for those few who needed or wanted it.)

As for drafting, anyone who has learned at school and university to write clear, decent, educated English and has good basic analytical skills can, on seeing examples of a new style of writing, work out what is essential to that form and learn to write in that way. Anyone who has not reached this level of proficiency in writing or lacks the required analytical skills will never be able to learn how to write a decent opinion or draft proper pleadings on a one-year BVC and will never be a decent barrister.

The cost of the BVC-- and the time it takes, which means lost income-- obviously militates against diversity. The argument that the BVC somehow encourages diversity at the Bar would only be tenable if people who had attended poor schools and universities, or are subject to prejudices on the grounds of e.g. ethnicity or age, but did well on the BVC gained an advantage from the latter in getting pupillage-- and this is simply not the case. No chambers actually cares how people did on the BVC (provided only that they pass); an 'Outstanding' on the BVC simply is not taken to outweigh other disadvantages or prejudices.

This does of course leave the question of how people who attended poor schools and universities or are subject to prejudice but nonetheless have the intelligence, and ethics, and written and verbal communication skills required of a good barrister could demonstrate that; how such people can get the second chance, or help in overcoming prejudice, which they ex hypothesi deserve.

One way would be to marshal, or serve as a judicial assistant, and get first-rate references. Another way would be to do a lot of mooting, or essay competitions, or writing for student law publications.

Yet another way, and one which should be given very serious consideration by individual chambers and by the Bar Council, would be for chambers when selecting for pupillage to conduct proper, rigorous examinations of students' analytical skills. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/3602065.stm , indicating that most colleges at Cambridge now do this and find-- surprise, surprise-- that many students from poor schools who did not do particularly well on their exams at school show better analytical skills than students who have been spoonfed through expensive schools and thereby got the highest grades at A-level.

All of the above would genuinely help the Bar to select the best and brightest. They would therefore aid diversity as well-- by providing robust indicators of ability, rather than leaving chambers with a vast mass of people with inflated or meaningless qualifications, such that they inevitably unconsciously fall back on selecting those who appear at interview to be 'people like us'.

The BVC, by contrast, is not part of the solution but part of the problem; and it is entirely unnecessary. Therefore it should be abolished. QED.

PS Is ANYBODY EVER going to stop just whingeing about this and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT? It really does MATTER, dammit!

Yours faithfully,

Lover of the Law

Anonymous said...

As an Aussie solly with a familial connection to the BVC this year, I am frankly appalled by the whole system.

First, the cost. Why is it double the price (or even triple) of the LPC, given that only 500 out of 3000 will get pupillage regardless of how exceptional (or not) the other 2500 are?

Second, the standard of the course. My other half was at a provincial provider where a number of tutors were (a) not barristers (b) had hardly practised at all in their lives (either as sollies or barristers). Also, the materials provided were sub-standard - compared to what I was provided with in Australia, and the support and career guidance (e.g. with a BVC you could also consider the following career options... at least in the short term) were non existent.

I moaned my way through the equivalent pre-admission course in Melbourne, but several things stand out. First, we were provided with comprehensive bound materials, and proper written answers to all problems. Second, the course made maximum use of the profession, and all tutors (even the full-time on-the-ground ones) were required to engage in legal practice of some sort - even if just conveyancing. Most units had guest tutors - drawn from relevant areas of the profession - e.g. court registrars were involved in teaching civil lit etc. We had 3 weeks of work experience placements - including with CABs, government departments etc - designed to try to give us an edge in getting that all important first job. And our fees were only about £2000 for the year, with student assistance available for living expenses as a full time course. See http://www.leocussen.vic.edu.au/content.asp?p=49 for more info.

A BIG BIG problem here is the split profession, and what seems to be the stranglehold of the Inns in keeping the Bar exclusive. Fuse the professions - like in Scotland - and have the Bar course as a post-admission add on. It works in Scotland and Oz, so I can't see what the prob is in England except the self-interested snobbery of the Inns. It will save students money, avoid shattered expectations (and at least one possible case of bankruptcy) and by revamping the LPC actually prepare and provide law graduates with a cutting edge qualification that some will be able to use as a stepping stone to advocacy and the Bar, and others to a range of occupations where legal skills are highly valued.

Sorry for the rant!

Anonymous said...

Many comments in response to this blog seem to imply that a degree from Oxford or Cambridge is a marker of privilege in a class or financial sense. Discrimination in favour of Oxbridge degrees is therefore on unfair grounds.

As a female, ex-comprehensive student from the north who read Classics at Oxford, I simply do not believe that a degree from Oxford is proof of anything other than a good education, academic ability and the capacity for hard work.

Students at Oxford and Cambridge endure a rigorous selection and examination process, work harder than students at other universities and study with brighter students and tutors. I would submit, then, that Oxbridge graduates have earnt recognition for all the above.

I am also curious; did readers of this blog mostly apply to Oxbridge, even if they didn't get in? Or if they didn't apply, why not?

medicolegal said...

All very interesting and a very usuful blog indeed. Thank you Simon,you have given me much food for thought.

Interestingly much of the agonising over entry, training and qualifications that I read on this blog are mirrored in my current profession of medicine. You are not alone. We are producing too many graduates for too few jobs, last years job application process was a complete shambles and many young graduates have left the country.

I am just about to start my second year as part time GDL mature student. I am a 2.1 Oxbridge graduate with a hitherto sucessful medical career and with an existing medico-legal practice, contemplating BVC applications with a view to changing fron NHS Consultant to the Bar. Friends who are barristers have variously suggested that I am mad, or in the alternative, might be interesting to chambers because of my specialist background knowledge. Don't know whose advice to take. I suppose that there is no harm in doing the BVC as if I don't get pupillage then I can stick with the day job.

Anonymous said...

I think that there should be more encouragement for people from a poorer background to take up law as a career. Not by doing, as the government has by various education reforms simply make it harder for those who have slightly more money, but by giving law firms a tax break to go towards pupillage places. The pupil would have to make some contribution but not bankrupt themselves doing it.

PoliticalScience101 said...

Apart from politicians the bar is the most unrepresentative group of individuals I have ever met. As a student from the East End of London who has variously travelled to each of the Inns during my education I was truly astonished by the unrepresentative nature of those people that I met.

There is much inner wrangling at the moment about how the bar is incredibly insular and denies those from a class that stands apart any real opportunities. All the hand wringing and contemplation doesn't mean a thing unless the bar pulls its finger out and stops the discrimination that exists in the selection process, and that is what it is. Choosing Oxbridge over any other institution basing choices on an accent are discrimination clear and simple and until this is dealt with the bar will remain exactly as it is, over subscribed by those that come from wealth.

Which is unfortunate as there is a ton of talent that exists outside of Oxbridge that the bar could learn from.

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Anonymous said...

Quick comment on the old boys network / Oxbridge situation. I'm a state school, ex-poly graduate from a single parent family. I'm now 17 years call and have practiced criminal defence thoughout. I've been on pupillage committees for 10 years. On the Old Boy network, I've never taken a pupil I know. In fact anybody who says "I know X in your set" I would mark down on purpose for being a toadie. My pupils have been (in order) : A 40 year old ex-miner (male), a 23 year old state school non-oxbridge black women, a 26 year old white state school educated woman and a 45 year old asian ex-social worker.

Now it may well be that I am venting my own prejudices. Personally I feel that acedemic results at A level have much more to do with teaching than ability. If Mummy and Daddy spent X thousand a year to give you an advantage in your A-levels, why should I give them the same weight as those you could get good A-Level results without help from Mummy and Daddy?

However, what I think conspiracy theroists miss is that even though I have been pretty diverse in my selections, I have none the less rejected thousands of state-school educated, female, ethnic minority and older applicants. Many will probabley have thought that I did so because I am a public-school / oxbridge educated twit. I way well be a twit, but not that sort.

The fact is 80% of BVC students will never, never, ever obtain pupillage. There it is. The Bar has been for the last ten years 45 / 55% female to male entry. And 10% ethnic minority. It is nothing like the House of Commons.

But so what? That does not make diversity. When I qualified University Course Fees were paid by the Govenment and BVC fees were £4,000. Pupillage was unfunded (and so I got one). But I got through Uni without any debts, due to working part-time and the fact that Course Fees were free and took out a £12k loan to pay my Bar school fees and live during pupillage. Today, even someone who worked their way through Uni and Bar School would end up at least £30k in debt just paying course fees. I simply could not qualify today.

Diversity is irrelevant if (for example) my choices as a selector are between a white male public school boy whose Mummy and Daddy paid for him to go to University and Bar School and a black female ex-public school girl whose Mummy and Daddy paid for her to go to University and Bar School.

The COST of doing it now excludes 99% of the population regardless of their gender / race / age / sexuality or anything else. The Bar I, think in the 90s did become more diverse. It will go back to being only open to people from privilaged backgrounds and that is mainly down to the Govenment descion on Course Fees.

I would personally make it harder to get into Bar School. When I did it there were about 1,000 people at Bar School and about 800 pupillages. Most got pupillage. However the bottle-neck was tenancy and then actually earning a living. 5 years after I qualified I was the only one from my BVC tutorial group of 10 still in practice, although all of us got pupillage.

There is not a solution that is easy to implement. Society at large has decided that University Education is to be restricted to the sons and daughters of the very rich. And there is not a lot the Bar can do about that. We could help though by reducing the places at Bar School, not allowing profit-making companies to run it and only allow not-for-profit providers.

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