How to Survive and Thrive on the BPTCBy Christian Weaver Published 12 September, 2016
The BPTC is undeniably one of the most difficult and expensive postgraduate courses.
If, despite this, you decide that the BPTC is for you, think of this article as a self-help guide on how you can survive and thrive on the course. It will detail the challenges you will face, how to get through them, and the positive changes you will experience as a result.
I have split the course in to four distinct phases, each phase requiring the use of different skills. Every Law School operates the BPTC slightly differently, so tailor these principles so that they best meet your specific course requirements.
Phase 1: From the start of the BPTC until the Christmas Holiday (September until late-December)
My first memory on the BPTC was my Course Leader telling us to “treat the BPTC as the first year of your professional life, not the last year of your student life”. Having completed the course, I could not agree more. The BPTC is not just about studying, but about embarking on extra-curricular activities, gaining legal work experience, finding time to write pupillage applications, and crucially, attending the 12 Qualifying Sessions (QS’s) you need to have completed in advance of being called to the Bar.
As lessons commence, the first thing you will notice is the high workload. Although the material is not particularly complex, you would be in the minority of students if you are not waking up at 5am each morning to complete your seminar prep. Don’t panic – this stage is temporary, but make no mistake, the workload never decreases, rather, your time management skills improve.
As soon as you are able to get yourself in to the rhythm of the course (and preferably no later than by late-October), I recommend conducting a self-assessment. Ask yourself the following questions, designed to ensure that you are actively considering your prospects for after the BPTC:
- Have I done enough mini-pupillages? (3 at minimum in different areas is recommended).
- Have I done any pro-bono work? (If not, this should be a priority).
- Have I researched the chambers in which I wish to apply for pupillage? (If not, you must do so soon, as the vast majority have a February deadline).
This assessment of yourself is important. With most BPTC providers setting the timetable over four days, you can use your one ‘free’ day per week to fix any issues you may have identified. Phase 1 is the least busy you will be for a while, and as such is the best time to undertake any necessary activities.
The jump from university to Phase 1 of Law School is huge and your lifestyle will likely have to change if you are to make it through. You may never feel ‘settled in’ on the course, but I would suggest the following in helping you get closer to that ideal position:
First, ditch the ego. Quite understandably, you might feel a pressure to appear intelligent and competent in front of your new classmates. This is fine, but do not let it stop you asking questions in class. Your teachers will have years of experience in seeing students give the impression of being a ‘know it all’ and then failing the course. In addition, Phase 2 and 3 are all-systems-go, so it is crucial that you have detailed notes and a strong understanding of everything you are taught during Phase 1. There will be little time to go back and fill any knowledge gaps.
My next tip is to master the art of using ‘dead’ time. If, like I was, you are at a BPTC provider based outside of London, you will find yourself spending a lot of time on trains attending your Inn of Court for QS’s. Maximise the use of this ‘dead’ time by studying, reading up on legal updates and replying to academic emails. The art of saving time is important too – increasingly, the Inn’s allow students to obtain QS’s by participating in events located close to their BPTC provider and students can obtain three QS’s in one go by attending an Inn ‘Residential Weekend’. Obtaining QS’s in this manner is highly recommended to save you time and money.
In terms of your social life, inform you friends that you cannot promise to immediately return their calls/reply to their texts as you might previously have done. Provided you explain your reasoning they will understand, but it is better to be honest with them as opposed to continually letting them down.
Finally, I cannot recommend enough the need to invest in a wheelie suitcase to carry your heavy course books. Microsoft One Note is also a must have computer programme. It works as an electronic ring binder and largely eradicates the need for you to use paper when notetaking. The BPTC is content heavy, and the ‘search’ feature (Ctrl+F) you can employ if your notes are electronic will save you hours of time sifting through papers.
Phase 2: After the Christmas holiday, to the end of course teaching hours before Optional Modules are taught (January to mid-March)
If your BPTC course is like mine, you will have your first set of internally set exams from late January to mid-March (I had ‘Opinion Writing’, ‘Conference’, ‘Resolution of Dispute Outside of Court’ and ‘Drafting’). Most of these assessments are ‘skills-based’, so, for example, the ‘Conference’ exam assesses your skill in conducting a 1-1 conference (a meeting) with a client. Like any skill, practice makes perfect, and if you followed my advice in Phase 1 to stay on top of your seminar work, you should already have developed the core skills needed to succeed in these modules.
Do not get too comfortable, though! The month of January also marks the opening of the Pupillage Gateway - the online portal in which the vast majority of chambers advertise their pupillage vacancies and accept applications. The Gateway does not close until the first week of February, but finish your applications in plenty of time so that you have time to proof read them. Finishing early also give you time to focus on your assessments.
Much of your focus in the latter stages of Phase 2 should be trying to mitigate the impact of Phase 3. This means creating a revision plan for it from now and continuing to keep on top of your class work. At minimum, any plan should include full reading of the Ethics Manual, ‘Civil Litigation and Remedies’ by Daniel Khoo & Tom Windsor and ‘Criminal Litigation Evidence and Sentencing and Remedies’ by Rory Clarke & Rosalind Earis. Notwithstanding this, there is no substitute to printing off your syllabus and reading all of the relevant provisions from the ‘White Book’ for Civil Litigation and from ‘Blackstone’s Criminal Practice’ for Criminal Litigation.
Phase 3: The Centrally Set Exam Period (Mid-March until the Start of April)
Teaching usually ends in mid-March, giving you time to focus on the centrally set exams – Ethics, Civil Litigation and Criminal Litigation.
You should have already devised a revision plan in Phase 2 to get through this period. In addition I would suggest getting your hands on as many past papers as possible – they are a huge aid to learning.
If there is ever a part of the course where it is acceptable to drop everything else, Phase 3 is that time. Whether it is halting your gym membership or binging on fast food – your key focus must be your revision. My only health tips would be to stay hydrated and to try and get a reasonable amount of sleep each night.
Phase 4: Post Centrally Set Exams until End of Course (Start of April until mid-June)
The completion of your centrally set exams provides a brief opportunity to recover from your exam hangover. If your course is like mine, the teaching of your Optional Modules (your final two assessments) will not start until the end of April, giving you time to focus on the advocacy assessments (Cross Examination, Examination in Chief and Civil Advocacy) you will have beforehand. If you have been properly practising your advocacy skills throughout the year, this should not be too daunting. Try and restart the positive lifestyle habits you sacrificed during Phase 3.
In mid-May, you are likely to get the results back from the internally-set exams you had done in Phase 2. You cannot guess BPTC results! It is worth accepting that you may have at least one result lower than expected. A ‘bad’ result is disheartening (I have first hand experience), but keep pushing forward. An actual barrister has little time to mourn past losses as this could jeopardise their next case. The same principle applies to your exams. In any event, you still have sufficient time to make amends by securing excellent marks in your two Optional Modules. There are always unbelievable ‘come-back’ stories on the BPTC.
The person you are at the start of the BPTC is completely different to the person at the end. As a result of the hours of advocacy training you undergo, and the pages of notes, emails and applications you will write, your verbal and written communication noticeably improves. Additionally, having repeatedly forced yourself to perform at a high level, often with little sleep or preparation, you will become much more confident and assured in your abilities.
This article is very honest, but should not deter anybody willing to put in the hard work the course requires. I can truly say undertaking the BPTC was one of the best life decisions I made.
Christian Weaver is predicted a Very Competent from Nottingham Law School and was Winner of The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn Inter-Provider Mooting Competition 2016.
He attained Nottingham Law School’s highest Family Law mark. He tweets from ‘@ChristianKamali’Article picture: A barrister's wigs, Parliament Hall, Edinburgh. Source: Kim Traynor, Wikipedia.
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