You should expect this stage of training to be very different from your experience of studying law either at undergraduate level or on the GDL. Even if you have studied law at postgraduate level, the Vocational Stage of Bar Training will introduce you to many new skills. It is useful to think of the Vocational Stage as the bridge between academic study and practical work experience in pupillage or work-based learning.
First of all, you should expect this stage of training to be very different from your experience of studying law either at undergraduate level or on the GDL. Even if you have studied law at postgraduate level, the Vocational Stage of Bar training will introduce you to many new skills. It is useful to think of the Vocational Stage as the bridge between academic study and practical work experience in pupillage or work-based learning.
You will be learning the procedural and practical aspects of civil litigation, alternative dispute resolution and criminal litigation, evidence and sentencing. You will learn the fundamental skills of advocacy, from making submissions to a judge to handling witnesses in examination-in-chief and cross-examination.
You will be introduced to the skills utilised in conducting effective conferences with clients, to how to draft pleadings or statements of case and how to write legal opinions. You will be introduced to Professional Ethics, including the core duties of barristers to the court and to clients.
When looking at Bar training courses on the websites of individual course providers, you could be forgiven for thinking they all look alike. The principal reason for this is that all Bar Training Courses have to meet certain minimum curriculum requirements set by the BSB.
As a starting point, all Bar Training Courses follow the BSB Curriculum and Assessment Strategy which sets out these fundamental course and assessment requirements. In addition, as you move through your Bar Training Course and, after this, into pupillage or work-based learning, the Professional Statement for Barristers describes the knowledge, skills and attributes that you are expected to have on ‘day one’ of practice. As such, the Professional Statement describes what you are seeking to achieve and the Curriculum and Assessment Strategy sets out the method of achievement.
Each Bar training course will therefore teach you:
Civil Litigation/Alternative Dispute Resolution and Criminal Litigation, Evidence and Sentencing are subjects in which the assessments are set and marked by the Bar Standards Board. For this reason, they are known as centralised assessments or centrally-set assessments and they are assessed by multiple choice/single best answer. The assessments in all other subjects are set and marked by individual course providers; the integrity of these assessments and their marking processes are overseen by a Bar Standards Board external examiner.
You may have noticed that Professional Ethics is taught and assessed both during the Bar Course and again during pupillage. This is now a Bar Standards Board requirement. It means that professional ethics during your Bar training course is at a foundation level, with a more detailed approach adopted during pupillage.
For more information on course content and assessment, please look at the BSB Curriculum and Assessment Strategy (CAS). Bear in mind that the CAS contains the minimum requirements which each course provider must follow, but individual providers can add to this curriculum if they choose to do so. For example, the ICCA ensures that students experience both civil and criminal mock trials, that they learn additional skills through modules dealing with vulnerable witnesses and with children in conflict with the law, as well as introducing students to advocates from a range of specialist practice areas.
It is worth pointing out to any prospective Bar Course student that training to become a barrister is challenging. Bar training courses are volume-heavy and time-consuming. You will need to be effective in managing your time to stay on top of the workload. As an example of the challenging nature of the course, see Bar Training Course Results for the number of students that pass and fail their Bar Standards Board assessments.
Each course provider may adopt different methods of teaching. For example, some courses follow a traditional pattern of face-to-face teaching from September to June. By contrast, the ICCA breaks its Bar Course into two distinct parts:
A two-part course approach allows for flexibility and affordability – students complete Part One following the guided pathway of approximately 14 weeks, or for those with caring or work responsibilities they may take a longer period and take the assessments when they are ready.
Students may, for example, start Part One of the ICCA Bar Course in September 2023, studying in their own time while working, before they take their Part One civil and criminal exams in April 2024 and move on to Part Two in September 2024, completing the course in January 2025.
Others who start in September 2023 may take their Part One exams at the first opportunity in December 2023, followed by a break until March 2024 to allow them time to concentrate on submitting pupillage applications in February. They can then start their Part Two course in March 2024 finishing in July the same year, ready for pupillage which often commences in September or October.
When you apply for your Bar Training Course it is always worth taking some time to look at how the precise course on offer will work for you – there is no ‘one size fits all’ option and time spent studying the detail can pay dividends later on.
Class sizes will vary depending on the course provider and you should feel free to check this when you make your application. The ICCA, for example, believes in focussed teaching in small groups – for this reason, on Part Two advocacy is taught in groups of 4, conference in double-length sessions with 6 students and Drafting and Opinion Writing in groups of up to 12.
Where a course provider is located geographically may be important to you. The ICCA two-part model allows for students to study Part One at any time and from any location, with Part Two being based in London within the Inns of Court. Other Bar Training Course providers are based throughout England & Wales, some of which have a London base as well as regional locations.
The BSB website contains a downloadable list of all Bar Course training providers (AETOS), including locations.
When considering pass rates, the BSB have recently published the results of students across all Bar training course providers in the BSB civil and criminal litigation assessments. The Inns of Court College of Advocacy (ICCA) is proud to be leading the field by some considerable distance, with a pass rate across 4 assessment sittings between December 2020 to December 2021 of 93.98% as compared to aggregate cumulative pass rates of between 31.36% to 55.12% for students at other providers.*
*Source: Bar Standards Board Central Examinations Board Chair’s Report (paragraph 5.5.2).
Of course, assessment results are only one part of the story concerning student outcomes. As a vocational training course many students will be hoping to secure pupillage or work-based learning opportunities following its completion.
In this regard, 75% of the first 2021 graduating cohort at the ICCA had secured pupillage, either when they applied during the course or having secured pupillage in advance of joining the ICCA Bar Course. As previously mentioned, students have 5 years following successful completion of their Bar training course to secure pupillage, so this 75% figure has since increased to 80% for this cohort of ICCA students.