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Thursday, 15 November 2007

Root and Branch

Now that I have finished palpitating I am not working, so that I can update you. I am finding that regular blogging is difficult to reconcile with an awful lot of work, some domestic heavy-lifting and the need to find something new to say.

Now, however, there is something. The BSB has begun a root and branch review of the way in which the profession educates its entrants. The academic element (Universities in other words - with the best will in the world the Law A Level is not worth doing in terms of teaching you what you need to know to be able to practice) is being left largely to get on with this itself - if you have anything to say about how you are taught law in terms of balance between exams/assesment and the content of the courses then the point of contact is your Student Union.

But the BSB is reviewing the BVC, Pupillage and Continuing Professional Development and they are doing it seriously and properly. That is to say that the review is being conducted by people qualified to do so and they are obtaining and utilising access to current providers.

I don't think that this will simply be a re-jig, unless that is a genuine recommendation. All issues are open and (almost) all suggestions will be considered (not, I fear, the option of allowing anyone to declare themselves a barrister. Sorry about that). The process is already underway and I gather that Neuberger (publication 27th November) Report on Access to the Profession will have something to say about pupillage and the BVC in that context. So, if you believe that everyone should qualify as a solicitor first, or that Pupillage should come before the BVC, or that we should return to unfunded pupillage, or anything else that can sensibly be proposed, let me know. I will feed back every comment to the Education and Training Committee, I will post the ones that I think may spark further debate (please let me know if you don't want this to happen to your comment) and I will add my own views as well.

You will appreciate that I must respect the confidentiality of the Committee, so sadly there will be no kiss and tell. On the other hand, I do not have to clear what I write. I can safely (I think) say that the methodology of the review of the BVC is already established and we are currently discussing how Pupillage and CPD fits into that. I would welcome views - on the same basis as that set out above. CPD is important to you because the first 3 years of CPD comprise the New Practitioners Programme, where the requirements are more onerous and where you need to do it in order to get your practising certificate renewed. Default later in your career leads to a financial penalty only - at least in the first instance for first time offenders.

  • Do you finish the BVC ready for pupillage? If not, why not? If so, then is anything you are taught on your BVC course extraneous? Please note, this is not a question about the competence of your tutors.
  • Do you finish pupillage ready for practice? I don't know how many pupils read this blog, but your comments are welcome.
  • Is the balance between the 'black letter' academic subjects and the practical 'skills based' subjects right from your perspective? This question includes what you have learned at University or on the CPE.
  • Rate your BVC. Please note - I will pay more attention to non-anonymous comments or comments that provide me with an email address to reply to. You can email me directly on this - address on the left and I will post your comment anonymised if you ask me to. I will also pay more attention to reasoned comments. That you find your tutors' clothes offensive or wish that they had a beard, or that they had classed you as very competent on every piece of work is not reasoned.

I am also interested in your experiences of ratios of students to instructors, both in pupillage and on the BVC, especially in advocacy exercises. If your BVC provider is over-subscribed you should now know about it. If you hadn't been told, would you have noticed?

Then there is the students' side of it. From the Profession's point of view we want competent barristers who adhere to what it still the best Code of Conduct of any profession in my view, with the least defaults and with (more importantly from my perspective) a positive sense of wanting to do the job honestly and in the interests of justice. That is why I am proud to be a barrister. That inevitably means some over-supply (unless only people with offers of pupillage get to do the BVC).

From the students' point of view, is the qualification (non-practising as it now is, of course) worth the aggro, the money, the disappointment and the time? Assume for a moment that you either do not want pupillage (at least in the UK) or do not get it. What is it that would make you think that your time was not wasted? Is there anything? How much aggro, money, disappointment and time is justified by your hopes and dreams, assuming they come to nothing?

I know that this is special pleading because I am on the damn thing after all, but I had not met any of the Education and Training Committee before the meeting we had on Tuesday night and I was impressed (whether they were is another matter). I was also asked specifically what I was hearing on the blog, by the Chairman. So I believe I can honestly say that people are listening.

Lastly, the BVC visits include one to Leeds and if Chambers can spare me I am going to go. So, if you read the blog and want to say hello I will try and fit in some time for that on the same day (currently proposed to be the 4th March 2008 I think). I will keep you posted - let me know.


Anonymous said...

I'm cynical, I admit. I'm glad you're confident that the review is being conducted "by people qualified to do so." It's actually fiendishly hard to track down the membership of the review group, certainly on the BSB website - but then you'd struggle to find (there) that this is meant to be a consultation exercise. I should say that I do know the membership of the group.

What strikes me is that a real opportunity has been missed here. A root and branch reform should have looked at the nature and content of qualifying law degrees - then again, when this was last mooted, Prof. Andy Boon (now Lay Vice-Chairman of the Education & Training Committee) threatened revolt - see The Lawyer, many moons ago. Meanwhile the BVC continues to be the whipping boy ...

Simon Myerson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Simon Myerson said...

I'm not sure I understand the first point. If it relates to transparency then I agree with you - but that is an issue about porcess, not substantive qualifications for the task at hand.

Not sure I agree with you about the degrees. The issue is whether a law degree is to be subjected to the requirements of the professions or whether it is to be knowledge for its own sake. Old-fashioned romantic as I am, I think I prefer the latter. But I concede that my thoughts on this are not terribly worked-out.

Lily said...

Well - it seems as if things are moving in the right direction! Unlike many other posters on this site, I actually think that the "will" to widen access to the Bar is much stronger than many admit. The problem is not "should we " but "how should we". And that has to be an encouraging step forward!

I am very shocked to be writing this – but I am going to speak in defence of the BVC! Crazy, I know!

To let you know a little about me, I went to what is generally considered to be the best BVC provider (not in London). I had a brilliant time there and met many fantastic people, both instructors and students.
I was also extremely fortunate to secure pupillage at a London criminal set this year. So I obviously speak from the perspective of one who has "got in". I won't deny that this will colour my perspective and influence my views. But still, here is my 2p worth:

- Firstly, I think students may sometimes expect too much. This doesn't mean Simon and his committee shouldn't be striving for improvement, far from it. As Simon has often said, the ability to assess yourself honestly and learn for the future is an essential characteristic of those at the Bar. But the fact is, the BVC is an ACADEMIC course. Yes, it tries to have a practical emphasis, but in reality we are in classrooms playing dress up. No theory course can really prepare you adequately for the real thing. I went skydiving a little while ago. I spent ages on the ground, going through theory and procedure, even practicing a little by lying on the floor. But nothing could ever truly prepare me for the real thing, no matter how thorough and “true to life” the course was. The only way you can truly learn to skydive is to be thrown out of a plane. And I think that the same has to be true for the Bar.

- However, I do think the BVC plays an important function in pre-practice education. It teaches you the building blocks of litigation. It teaches you to think like a Barrister, to approach a brief from a practitioners, not an academics, perspective. This often gets dismissed because it happens without you even realising it. You can’t learn the really important stuff at school unless you have learnt to read and the count first. Without doing the BVC, I would have no idea what a Particulars of Claim was. Imagine going into a civil pupillage not knowing that!

That said I have two main criticisms of the BVC:
1. It takes too long. The “building blocks” could easily be taught in half a year.
2. It is extremely prescriptive in the way it is marked. Maybe that is necessary in order to be fair, but it gives very little leeway for students to develop their own style within acceptable constraints.

Is the qualification a waste of time without pupillage? Absolutely. There is no benefit worth £12,000 that can be derived from the BVC apart from practice in your profession of choice. That is a stark fact, and comments that say anything other than that are doing a disservice to students.

Yet how is this to change? This is a course that is supposed to train you to be a barrister. How could it really be anything but a virtual waste of time if you do not end up being a barrister?

I realise that this all sounds like I think the BVC is perfect. I don’t. But I do feel that if we concentrate to heavily on the BVC, we risk missing the real problem – pupillage and access to it. However, I feel that I have rambled on for long enough – I will leave pupillage for another post!

Justin said...


I’m a tenant at a chambers, London and have been since 2003. I was educated at a state comprehensive before reading law at Oxford and taking an LLM at the University of Toronto and returning to the UK to complete the BVC.

Do you finish the BVC ready for pupillage
I think you’re quite right to pose the first question as “do you finish the BVC ready for pupillage?” It seems to me that the whole point of the BVC is (or should be), to equip you with the skills necessary to start pupillage. It is then a matter for your pupil supervisor to teach you the additional skills needed to start at the junior bar. The BVC should teach you what “Particulars of Claim” are, but your pupil supervisors will be the ones who help you start to develop your own style of pleadings.

I do wonder if it might be possible to make the BVC more focused. I knew from the end of my first year at Oxford that criminal law was not for me. There were no circumstances under which I could have imagined applying for pupillage at a set that did any criminal law. I rather resented the fact that 50% of my BVC was related to criminal matters.

You’ll be aware that a number of the “Magic Circle” solicitors firms have prepared their own LPC which the providers can teach to their trainees. It seems to me that this is very sensible. Someone going to Slaughter & May (for example), is unlikely to need to know how to a legal aid means assessment works. Why does the same not hold true for the BVC? Could the specialist Bar Associations not have some input into the kinds of things that students should study if they’re interested in crime / commercial / property / family etc.

Do you finish pupillage ready for practice?
Yes, I think I did. I am aware, however, that I was very lucky. I got on very well with all my pupil-supervisors and, in the case of one, still see him for lunch every couple of weeks. They were all generous with their time and clearly enjoyed the educational responsibility that comes with pupillage. A strong and well-structured pupillage committee also ensured that I saw all the junior tenants in court well before the second six started.

Is the balance between “black letter” academic subjects and the “practical skills based” subjects right from your perspective?
I’m not quite sure what you mean. I believe that the academic side of ones studies should be carried out almost exclusively at university and that the practical skills should start to be developed during the BVC.

I would not be in favour of merging the two areas. Plenty of people take law degrees with no intention of becoming lawyers. Of the 7 law students in my college, only 4 of us have gone into practice (2 to the Bar and 2 solicitors). The other three were simply interested in the nature of rules and how society is governed.

I have plenty of other friends who took law degrees (both at Oxbridge and other universities) purely for the academic interest. Those people would be cheated if they had to replace (say) jurisprudence classes with criminal procedure classes. Our universities enable people to study a subject on the basis that knowledge is an end in itself and does not have to be driven towards obtaining employment. I would be reluctant to see this change.

My LLM in Toronto only confirmed these views. In Canada, they follow the US model of legal education, so that all law students will already have an undergraduate degree. The law degree is seen as a professional qualification. There are very few core subjects and it is possible (as, indeed, many students do), to take degrees which focus more on legal procedure than on law.

Whilst this does mean that there are some fascinating courses for students to take, it also means that, for many students, their legal knowledge is (to my mind) incomplete. You can get a law degree without ever having heard of Hart, Dworkin, Fuller, Raz et al and without ever having to think about what law should and could be, rather than what it is.

Rate your BVC
The problem, of course, is on what criteria should it be rated. I do not see how any BVC provider can ever hope to score well on a “value for money” criteria.

Given how subsidised our first degrees are in this country, I’ll leave them out of the equation at the moment. The more fair comparison is probably between my LLM and my BVC.

My LLM cost me c.£5,000 in fees. For that, I had access to any of the classes run at the law school and separate LLM/SJD classes in groups of three or four. I also had weekly one-on-one sessions with my thesis supervisor. She was a remarkable woman who had played a major part in drafting the Canadian Charter of Rights and had advised both the South African and Israeli governments on their new constitution and Basic Law, respectively. If you’re interested in the evolution and nature of rights-protecting documents (as I am) then she is one of the true heavy hitters in the world.

My BVC cost me c.£10,000 in fees (although my Inn did provide a large amount of that). My classes were larger (12 to one tutor) and my access to tutors more limited (I think I had one one-on-one advocacy class in the whole course).

Despite all that, I actually enjoyed my BVC year and think I got a lot out of it. I’m still on very good terms with many of my tutors and go back to help their current students by talking about pupillage (and how to get it!). I don’t see how it can be considered value for money though.

That is not to say that I think the BVC providers are ripping people off. I fully accept that it is expensive to run the courses, provide books etc, but, as the “customer”, I find it amazing that I paid much less to receive much more on my LLM.

I think the biggest problem with the BVC is the number of weak students and, by weak, I mean that their legal knowledge was weak. I still remember being amazed at the number of students who couldn’t define the component parts of the tort of negligence. If you don’t know that, then you will never be able to draft pleadings or make submissions, because you won’t know what points you have to make. That is not something that the BVC providers can be blamed for and it certainly isn’t their job to correct it.

I don’t know how you resolve this. I’m not in favour of a simple cull of all those with a 2:2 or below. One of my dearest friends from the BVC had a 2:2 and she is now a tenant at a leading white collar criminal set in London, doing what she had always wanted to do. She was aware that the 2:2 was a problem, so spent 2 years post the BVC at the SFO, building contacts and experience until the 2:2 was less of a problem on her CV. I can’t imagine looking her in the face and telling her that the profession was wrong to admit her as a barrister. In many respects, she showed more drive and determination than I did.

Perhaps the BVC providers need to have some sort of admissions exam? Do you (or the rest of the committee) have any idea how the rest of the common-law world does it?

This blog is an excellent resource and I very much enjoy reading it. Please do continue with it.

All best wishes

I would have emailed this to you, but I can't seem to find your address.

Anonymous said...

Neither LLB's nor LLM's are true cost courses. Try comparing with a MBA and see if the BVC is value for money ...
Incidentally it's easy to email Simon - click on the "envelope" to the right of "Comments."