2019 update: Choosing a BPTC Provider and deciding if the course right for you

This is an update to my post in 2016 of a similar title which you can still find on this site.  It adds a little more on whether the course is right for you and the move by many providers to offer the BPTC as part of an LLM which is capable of attracting a Government loan for domestic students.

BPTC offer day brings excitement to students as emails arrive in their inbox offering them a place on the course. For some, they will have carefully researched their choice of provider in advance and immediately click the accept button from their first choice. For others, they struggle to remember why they put the providers down in the order they did. Another group may have selected them at random. Whichever group you fall into, I suggest that you take a step back for a moment and consider carefully where you invest the not insubstantial time, effort and of course money during the next academic year.

I plainly have an interest in your decision.   I took my BVC (as it then was) at BPP in 2001-2 and I have taught at BPP since 2011. I have a genuine affection for the institution and believe that we offer the best training for the Bar. I’ve separated my thoughts on each of the criteria generally, from what we do at BPP specifically.  That way you can easily discern between my objective thoughts on each criterion and what we do at BPP.

It’s an important choice and so here are my 10 criteria in no particular order, save that you need to read the next section first to decide if the course is the right choice for you.

Is the BPTC really the right choice for me?

I blame TV talent shows for many things; children who now want to be ‘famous’ as a career choice, the need to make people cry on live TV and Jedward.  Most of all, I blame them for instilling the idea in people that if you want something hard enough, it will eventually happen.  Call me a cynic, but I’m afraid I don’t think that’s true.  The average person who gets pupillage will have a 1st or a very good 2:1 and usually a scholarship of some flavour from their Inn. Some chambers expect an LLM from a top ranking law school in addition. All will have plenty of extra-curricular activities on their CV (with pro-bono advocacy being a particularly attractive nugget) and they will have done some mini-pupillages in areas within and without those that they intend to apply for pupillage. Have you looked carefully at the profiles of the last 4-5 tenants at the chambers that you have or will apply to? Do you have a similar academic and extra-curricular profile? If not, do you need to take a year out to gain a further qualification and/or experience?  The BPTC is an intensive year with 12 assessments and an attendance requirement (100% expected, below 80% and you automatically fail the course) so don’t kid yourself into thinking that you can do lots on the side.

Do you know anyone with a pupillage?  Ask your tutors how many recent graduates have gone onto pupillage and if that alumnus might be willing to speak to those who are considering the BPTC.  It will only be a personal perspective of course, but potentially a worthwhile one.

Congratulate yourself on getting an offer and being on the precipice of a wonderful career but make sure you have some perspective as to how difficult the path to pupillage is.  Some who take the BPTC leave the course with the view that they shouldn’t have taken it for it wasn’t for them or the competition for pupillage more fierce than they expected.  A few are unwilling to accept that the information was freely available but most accept that they either didn’t do enough research or that they shut their mind to some of it and thought ‘If it could be me, then it might/should/will be me’.

I don’t want to dampen your enthusiasm for the course or your chosen career, but please make sure you start the BPTC armed with the knowledge that the course is hard work and that a relatively small number of people get pupillage. Each year a number of students with exceptional academic results and a huge amount of extra-curricular experience fail to get pupillage. It’s a sobering thought and one that you should have in mind before and not after you start the course.

  1. LLMs and Government loans

A number of providers now offer the BPTC as part of an integrated LLM programme.  To be clear, this is distinct from previous offerings where on completion of the BPTC you could take a extra module to gain sufficient credits to ‘top-up’ your BPTC in to an LLM.  (Here is my post on whether the LLM version of the course is the right one for you)

With an integrated LLM you sign up to take those extra modules from the start and they are delivered alongside the BPTC.  An integrated LLM (but not a top-up) allows eligible students (see here) to access up to £10,000 as a loan from the Government on similar terms/rates as undergraduate students.  You don’t have to pay back the loan until you are earning over a threshold and the rates should be lower than from a bank or other financial provider.

On the face of it this is a great source of funding and might make the course affordable where previously it wasn’t.  Remember, it’s still a loan and not a discount.  Second you are signing up to do more than just the BPTC modules and this means more work in what is already a busy year.  If this option interests you, check carefully what the extra LLM module are, whether they interest you, how they fit into the programme and whether the overall cost of the course is the same or higher than the ‘vanilla’ BPTC.

  1. Cohort size

There are 8 BPTC providers with BPP and the University of Law offering their course in more than one city. The size of the cohorts range from 36 to 360.   Cohort size is important, not from the point of view of tutors knowing you because the staff student ratio set by the BSB and so class sizes will be no larger with a big cohort, but instead as to how many of your fellow BPTC students you meet and get to know.

The BSB mandate that classes are no bigger than groups of 18 for knowledge subjects, so no matter where you go, you’ll spend a large amount of time with 11-17 other people for most of the year. In a small cohort however, you are likely to get to know and socialise with a small group of like minded people with a similar focus on being called to the Bar in just under a year. In a large cohort, your classmates and tutors will get to know you (and you them) just as well, but you are unlikely to meet and socialise with the entire cohort. Indeed there will be some who you never speak to.

Which do you prefer? Which are you used to from University, schooling or your current employment?

BPP: Our largest cohort is London full-time at 264. By contrast, our Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham  and Bristol cohorts are around 48 students.

  1. Which city?

Another declaration of interest here: London is the greatest city in the world. I love New York and it represents the only other city I’d live in without hesitation, but London is the greatest city in the world. There, I’ve said it. I understand however, that there are some who disagree.  (2017 update: I’m adding Bilbao, Madrid and Manchester to places that I could live but London is still number 1)

I’m led to believe that there are people who like fields (we have some, though we moved them all out to zone 6), cleaner air (the extra oxygen would probably hurt my lungs), soft water (I like my tea and coffee with a limescale crunch) and rent/mortgage that doesn’t make you wince in pain once a month (I’ve got nothing except to repeat my first point, London is the greatest city in the world). For those people, I understand that despite my well put submission above, they may want to live elsewhere during the BPTC. Perhaps you intend to seek pupillage in London and fancy a break from the greatest city in the world (I’ll stop now) for a year. Perhaps you want to be in chambers outside of London and want to show your commitment to another part of the country. It’s also true to say that the BPTC is cheaper outside of London.

In London you’ll have easy access to the Inns of Court and the extra support that they offer, though note all of the Inns are doing more than ever to expand their support outside of London with initiatives such as qualifying events on circuit.

BPP: We offer a full-time course in London, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol. We also offer a part-time course in both London and Leeds.

  1. Advocacy

For many, advocacy is the big draw of both the BPTC and a career at the Bar. Whilst all providers must offer a minimum number of hours of advocacy tuition and assess your submission advocacy, examination-in-chief and cross-examination skills, it’s worth considering how that is delivered. All of the providers offer more than the BSB minimum number of hours. How is the module structured? When are the assessments? How is feedback delivered?

BPP: We teach advocacy in groups of 4 with submission advocacy in term 1 and witness handling in terms 2 (examination-in-chief) and 3 (cross-examination). Your performance is recorded onto a memory stick so that you can review it immediately. Written feedback is provided for each session along with either an indication of your skill level or an actual mark depending on the session. Though there is some advocacy in the other compulsory modules, we only count the actual advocacy sessions when calculating how much advocacy tuition you receive.

  1. Structure, method of delivery and assessment

The BSB mandate the minimum number of hours of small group sessions (tutorials) and large group sessions (lectures) that you must receive for each module. The providers however, differ in the way in which they deliver those. Lectures can be delivered live, online or both. Which best suits your learning style? During the year you will need to access practitioner texts, statutes and case law. What does your chosen provider offer you in paper form and what do you have access to online. Some students have all but abandoned paper in place of a laptop or tablet; does what the provider offers match with your paper vs online mix. Are there formal revision sessions? What are the library opening hours? No provider can please all of the students, all of the time. Look for a structure, method and provision of material that best matches the way you learn.

BPP: We provide students with paper and online copies of the two main practitioner texts (The White Book and Blackstone’s Criminal Practice) along with supporting materials such as our in-house Criminal Litigation and Advocacy manuals. While we have some live lectures for advocacy and written skills, the majority of our lectures are provided online for you to watch when convenient to you. For Civil and Criminal litigation we have moved away from lecturers talking over slides to lecturers speaking directly to camera with words and images on the screen to illustrate what they say. Finally, we allow students to use their laptop computer to type their two written skills assessments within proctored exam conditions.

  1. Options

The BPTC comprises of 10 compulsory assessments and 2 options. The options are two short courses in specialist areas of the law with a focus on the knowledge and skills required by members of the Bar in that area. Perhaps you have a fixed idea at this stage of the area or areas that you want to go into. Each provider offers its own suite of options assessed either by a piece of advocacy, a conference or a written advice. Check that the provider you are thinking of going to offers at the very least, the main area you are interested in, but given that you have to take two, that there is a second that interests you too. If options are subject to numbers (and they usually are) find out the likelihood of your preferred option(s) running in your year.

BPP: On the London full-time course we offer 13 options including Commercial Dispute Resolution, Company Law, Professional Discipline and International Criminal Law. Outside of London and on our part-time courses we offer up to 11 options though the final number is subject to demand.

  1. Extras

Given that the BPTC is a highly regulated course with prescriptive requirements from the BSB heavily restricting what is delivered as part of the course, the providers look to add extras in a bid to differentiate. Look carefully not only at the extras on paper, but what they involve. Pro-bono work for example can be a wonderful way of giving back to the community while improving your CV. Examine what the pro-bono opportunities are. If what you want is pro-bono advocacy, then look specifically to see whether that is offered and if so, what the opportunities are.

BPP: Aside from an award winning Pro-bono centre with a multitude of opportunities, we offer (i) Practice Ready – a free add-on that improves your commercial awareness and let’s you expand upon the skills you learn on the BPTC, (ii) An Internationally recognised ADR qualification at a heavily subsidised price and (iii) Our Career Guarantee: If you pass the BPTC and don’t obtain a pupillage or other regular employment in the law, we will let you take (almost any) other BPP qualification for free including a condensed LPC conversion course. Terms, conditions and exclusions apply so please take a look at our website if this of interest to you.

  1. Pupillage statistics

Whilst going to a provider with good pupillage statistics won’t by itself get you a pupillage, it will give you an idea of the composition of your future cohort. People with a pupillage before the course starts (and that might include you) are usually willing to share their experiences of applying for pupillage and the rigorous process employed by chambers in selecting a pupil. In addition, tutors at providers who teach those who get pupillage are able to get a feel for what chambers are looking for from year to year.

BPP: Our pupillage rates are excellent coupled with great support for those seeking pupillage.

  1. Support

Students come and see their tutors for all sorts of reasons, from personal issues that arise during the course to careers advice and references. Some students need more support for issues particular to them, for example, learning support. Tutors at all the providers can and will help you during the course with the usual careers requests. Providers must accommodate your learning support needs where you have evidence to support them; the more unusual your needs, the more I’d advise you to speak to a provider early to ascertain the format of the reasonable adjustment that they will offer.

All students might want to enquire as to the professional background of the teaching team and whether any retain a court practice. A blend of experience in practice across a number of areas means that even if your Personal Tutor can’t help, there is likely to be another who can.

BPP: We have a large teaching team across our four sites with tutors at the self-employed Bar, the employed Bar and a number of Solicitors. We have a dedicated Learning Support team experienced in dealing with many forms of reasonable adjustments.

  1. Mode of study

This final point may not apply to everyone. Some students apply for a place on a full-time and part-time BPTC in the same application round because they are unsure as to which mode of study they want to embark upon. In my view, part-time study is more difficult than full-time. You have to study at the same time as working, caring for a family and/or whatever else it is you do Monday-Friday when you would otherwise be doing the BPTC. Secondly, it can be difficult to keep up the same momentum when you only attend your provider once a week/fortnight/one weekend a month. Do you really have time to fit in the equivalent of a week or two on the full-time BPTC around your already busy life? Do you have the self-motivation and drive to do so? Part-time study is not for the faint hearted or those who need the weekly pressure of preparing for class. It is however, ideal for the independent learner capable of building their own timetable to spread their work over a month.

I hope that helps you reach a decision. If you have any questions for a provider then speak to them at the Pupillage Fair, an Open Day or contact them by email or phone.   I wish you the best of luck with your decision and the BPTC in due course. Once you’ve made your decision, perhaps take a look at my 5 tips for prospective BPTC students on this blog. Between now and September I shall be posting on articles on thinking, writing and speaking like a lawyer to help you with the transition from student to practitioner.