11 reasons to think twice about doing the BPTC

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By Alex Aldridge on

Thinking of putting in an application to do the Bar Professional Training Course before today’s deadline? Read this first


1. Falling pupillage numbers

Pupillage numbers fell from 562 in 2007-08 to 438 in 2011-12 — the most recent year for which statistics are available. During that period Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) enrolments have remained fairly constant around the 1,700 mark. Although roughly 50% of BPTC students are international, with many returning to their countries to practice, that still leaves an oversupply of over 400 students each year. Add in BPTC graduates from previous years who are still seeking pupillage and the chances of landing a position drop further.

It is slightly surprising that the Bar Council has failed to release more recent pupillage statistics in its latest Bar Barometer. Legal aid cut-ravaged criminal and family law chambers account for, between them, 37% of all pupillages, with some chambers specialising in this work having ditched their pupillage programmes altogether.

The fear is that when the Bar Council finally gets round to supplying up-to-date pupillage stats they will show a sharp drop on the most recent 2011-12 figure.

2. The odds of landing a training contract are way better

There were 5,302 training contracts last year. Meanwhile, 5,198 students enrolled on the Legal Practice Course (LPC).

If you’re uncertain about the bar it makes a lot of sense to instead aim for a training contract with a big law firm with a litigation department. Then, if you still fancy it, become a barrister later with all your useful solicitor experience. Alternatively, work as a paralegal at a smaller firm and do your LPC part-time. You will actually become a lawyer this way.

3. A criminal pupillage may not lead to a sustainable career

When the dean of a law school cautions against becoming a criminal barrister, it’s worth listening. Two years ago BPP chief Peter Crisp went public and said that he does “not advise going into criminal practice at the bar”.

His words followed a chorus of warnings from, amongst others, former David Cameron aide Alex Deane, who, having quit the criminal bar to forge a successful PR career, memorably described it as “a hobby and a pleasant one for those with an independent income, but you simply cannot make a living from it in the first four or five years.”

More recently the prolific and informed Legal Cheek commenter Not Amused wrote this:

“Of the pupillages, circa 300 are not worth having — because they do not lead to properly paying positions. You talk, naively, of succeeding at the Bar. Half of the Bar is not succeeding at the Bar.”

4. If you work in legal aid you’ll be paying off the BPTC for a long time

2015 BPTC fees are over £18,000 at some providers. And then there are living costs.

The minimum pupillage award (which barristers at legal aid sets sometimes struggle to reach) is £12,000. And, if you do crime, don’t expect that to increase substantially over the next five years once travel costs and chambers rent are deducted.

5. You don’t have a first

Browse the chambers profiles of junior barristers at the top 30 commercial law sets and you’ll notice a common theme: most have first class degrees. The ones with 2:1s usually end up practising in criminal law and other legal aid-funded areas, where life is very different.

6. You didn’t get an Inns of Court scholarship

The Inns of Court scholarships awarded to Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and BPTC students are an unofficial form of bar aptitude test (the real Bar Course Aptitude Test is widely regarded as a joke). If you get an Inns scholarship there is a good chance you will get a pupillage.

Just bear in mind that, even with a scholarship, if your academics are not top notch you will probably end up in a chambers that is struggling. The 2015 Inns GDL scholarship deadline is 1 May, with the BPTC scholarship deadline on 6 November.

7. Past students are often highly-critical of the BPTC

Writing in The Guardian, BPTC graduate Mark Ablett recently slammed law schools for “profiteering” by allowing students with poor academic qualifications and inadequate English language skills to do the course.

“From my experience,” wrote Ablett, “doing pair-based advocacy work with someone who isn’t completely fluent in English is frustrating. It’s also problematic working with people who aren’t academically strong enough.”

His concerns are nothing new, with variants echoed by students of all the main providers each year. Check out this comment thread to get a feeling of the mood.

8. Barrister (non-practising) is not a cool thing to have on your CV

Although you can still technically call yourself a barrister if you complete the BPTC without doing a pupillage, it looks bad to do so. Potential employers will wonder why you use the title if you failed to become a real barrister. Note the stream of Legal Cheek stories about bar graduates who describe themselves as barristers (non-practising) doing weird things. Don’t become one of these people.

9. You can no longer convert your BPTC to an LPC

Once this was possible via the Qualified Lawyer Transfer Test. But since a rule change in 2010 pupillage-less BPTC graduates who want to do training contracts have to do the LPC from scratch, minus a few modules from which they are exempt. In addition to the fees, that’s another year of your life that you will never get back doing a dry professional qualification.

10. You don’t need to do the BPTC to dine at the Inns of Court

Tempted to do the BPTC because of the allure of being part of Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Gray’s Inn or Lincoln’s Inn? Well, save vast chunks of cash, energy and time by signing up as a student Inns of Court member for £100 — which is available to all students who are considering the bar. You do not have to have signed up for the BPTC first.

Rather not spend any money at all? Simply come to a free Inns of Court Legal Cheek Careers event — the next one is in March (register your interest here to receive more details when we begin promoting it next month). Then, having taken time to learn about Inns scholarships and what chambers look for, consider your next move from that point.

11. The bar is nothing like Silk

Much-touted BBC drama Silk was a utopian fusion of commercial bar lifestyle and criminal bar human interest. Back in the glory days of the profession in the 1960s and 1970s when the legal aid boom was in full swing, and the much fewer practising barristers did a range of work, it was apparently a bit like that. But those days are long gone — and the cuts mean they’re not coming back.