Although nobody embarking upon the journey to become a barrister expects it to be plain sailing, few fully anticipate the storm that is the BPTC. But in those times where you feel like you are drowning, consider this article as your compass to help navigate you.
First, a piece of general advice: start as you mean to go on. Beginning the course in the correct mentality is half of the battle. If you create a routine of early morning starts and late nights in the university common rooms you are on the right track. The realisation that you are spending triple the amount of time on campus than you do at home is completely normal!
Second, on a more practical level, if you are not naturally equipped at being obsessively organised (something that I was not blessed with!) I would strongly suggest purchasing a diary or Filofax. During the course, not only do you have an ever-changing timetable with individual advocacy slots and compulsory guest lectures, but you must also participate in a number of other activities. These include; twelve qualifying sessions, CV clinics, mooting and mediation competitions, mini-pupillages, court visitation weeks, pro-bono work and, if you are lucky, some form of a social life! Without my trusty Filofax I would have been buried by week three with all these new found responsibilities. Organisation is paramount.
Third, buy a sturdy suitcase. This will be your closest friend throughout the course. Do make sure that it is reasonably sized. Depending on your timetable, you may have to carry both volumes of the Civil Procedure Rules and Blackstone’s Criminal Practice around in one day. If you are unaware of these books then to put them in context, they are also useful as door stops or gym weights.
Fourth, a lesson I wish I had learnt at the start of the course and which I want to stress, is that it is perfectly normal to feel like you are drowning in work. You are not the only one. Accepting that you are at breaking point at times is crucial, because you cannot work when your brain is not engaged. Pushing yourself hard on this course is a necessity; however don’t allow yourself to bend until you break. An anecdote of my experience during the dreaded BSB exam period consists of me breaking down at seven in the morning purely because I had knocked my very heavy suitcase over. Pathetic? Maybe – but do not underestimate the pressure and stress you will go through. Note that the only people that will truly understand these emotions are your peers, so make sure to form friendships with your cohort. Do not make the mistake of treating them as purely your competition. I would not have received the grade I did without having my support system of friends and family.
Although I have mentioned generic tips, it may be useful to share briefly my experiences of how I managed to get through each module differently:
The Big Three
I apologise to have to be the bearer of bad news, however these three exams are all in the same month. Furthermore, in my experience (and as it has been so for the past five years) you will have one day in between your Criminal Litigation and Civil Litigation papers. Scary, I know! Before I focus on these topics separately, it is crucial to emphasise that you cannot leave revision for these until the last minute. You need to be revising the topics as you are still learning the syllabus, and never be afraid to ask for help – it’s what your tutors are there for!
1. Criminal Litigation
Criminal Litigation is a ridiculously large module varying from bail, sentencing, court procedures, juveniles and much more. My key piece of advice is after every session you have in class, type or write up tidy and legible notes. If you do this, when March rolls around and you are on very little sleep with very high stress levels, things will feel manageable. There are a number of revision guides available, however be very aware that with the ever-changing curriculum a lot of these are out of date!
Once you receive Blackstone’s Criminal Practice, the main Criminal text, you will feel overwhelmed, if only from the weight of its plus four thousand pages. I struggled to remember the large volumes due to the format of the book; you have to jump back and forth whilst doing your preparation for class. I would recommend looking at the online version as it makes the sheer volume of reading feel more feasible.
2. Civil Litigation
Most people on the course said the CPR rules were the bane of their lives! Although tedious, personally I found these to be logical and relatable (at points!). Speaking with my cohort there seem to be a number of different ways to learn these rules varying from flash cards to lists to spider diagrams; however the content is the same. I should stress that you cannot take short cuts on this module. You need to know the exact wording of the rules, or else you will be marked down in the exam.
I was informed that there are a variation of guides and texts to assist, however nothing can beat the dreaded white book. If you are struggling on this module and want to understand the basic principles before tackling the white book, then I would recommend purchasing Daniel Khoo’s Civil Litigation and Remedies little blue book. Again, compare this to your current syllabus, as it can be slightly outdated.
3. Professional Ethics
Sadly folks, there are no tips or tricks with this module. The way most of us revised Ethics was by printing out the BSB handbook and all relevant guidance on the curriculum. I know this is tedious and dry, however it is crucial. The only way I made it slightly more tolerable was by creating silly acronyms in an attempt to make it easier to remember. However, this may just be one of those ‘Read, write, cover and repeat’ jobs for some of you.
Opinion Writing and Drafting
Find a structure and stick to it. Writing opinions and drafting particulars of claims can be long-winded exercises. However, having a structure to follow allows you to focus on the scenario you have been given. Although this is an ‘open book’ exam you will find there is so much information and law to apply during the exam, the last thing you want to worry about is how to structure it. Practical Law is a very good resource to use to understand what structure to use for different exercises, whether it be a Contract or Personal Injury problem.
Resolutions of Disputes Outside of Court (RDOC/REDOC)
The pinnacle of this subject for me was during the practical scenarios. Although the exam for this module (at most providers) is only a written paper, participating fully in the practical examples allows you to really understand how these non-adversarial systems function. The key textbook that assisted me in this module was Sime’s ‘A Practical Approach to Alternative Dispute Resolution’.
In my opinion this is a piece of advocacy in its own right. The ability to be personable and yet professional is crucial to being successful at the Bar. In conferencing you must ensure that you are affable. When speaking with clients whether it be in a criminal or civil case, often they have no clue what is happening. You need to be able to demonstrate that you can explain succinctly the legal principles without confusing your client.
Every provider is different in how they approach advocacy, however my top tip is to listen to your tutors and exude confidence. Attending advocacy when you are unprepared is a complete waste of everybody’s time and you will look like a fool.
Ironically, advocacy was the skill that I lacked confidence in. I quickly learnt that any critique is not personal and strictly to assist your improvement. If you are nervous about advocacy, like I was, take the personal element away. It is not about you, it is about endeavouring to represent your client. It takes time to perfect your own style, and trust me when I say that everybody advocates differently. Find what suits you and run with it!
To sum up, though the BPTC may seem intimidating, even with all those difficult hurdles it is worth it. Hopefully this article has given you some extra spring to clear them. I was called to the Bar at Middle Temple on 28th July 2016 and on my own account can say that the last nine academic months, filled with tears, tantrums and sleepless nights, were worth every second.
Laura achieved an Outstanding in the BPTC at the University of the West of England and was called to the Bar at Middle Temple with a Certificate of Honour.