updated on 20 March 2023
Reading time: five minutes
More than 1,500 students each year study for the Bar course in the hope of achieving their goal of becoming practising barristers. Many students are left disappointed without any real understanding of why they couldn’t secure pupillage.
The Bar course can cost anything from £12,000 outside of London to £20,000 in London which, many will argue, could be a deposit for their first home. Students can apply to any of the four Inns of Court for a scholarship to cover some or most of the cost, but the competition is fierce. Most students fund their study themselves with further debt in the form of a postgraduate loan from Student Finance, which they may never pay back from their earnings as a barrister. For the Bar course to be eligible for the postgraduate loan it must be extended by three months to study further credits, which makes it a master’s level 7 qualification.
‘Becoming a barrister: what are the Inns of Court?’ – find out more in this Feature.
Others may be able to secure some form of funding from their employer or a charity such as the Aziz Foundation, which can cover the entire cost of tuition for successful applicants. Bar course providers do have their own scholarships that they award each year but again the competition is fierce. The Bar course alone doesn’t guarantee pupillage even for the students who work round the clock to bag themselves a grade of ‘outstanding’. Many will agree that there are a variety of factors that determine who’ll be fortunate enough to obtain pupillage, and ultimately tenancy, with their desired chambers.
I’m a mature student and have several years of understanding regarding the difficulties encountered by students applying for pupillage, so I wanted to share my view of one of the factors that many students lack and then spend years trying to make up for, when in fact it can be rectified at the beginning: commercial awareness.
Commercial awareness and experience of the law may not be a pre-requisite for securing pupillage, but it can set you apart from other candidates. Some students take a year off after completing the Bar course, having secured pupillage, to work and gain that experience, but this isn’t always necessary. Other candidates, who might not have pupillage offers in sight, work in various jobs while repeatedly making pupillage applications.
However, there’s another way forward that allows you to combine the Bar course with a job in the legal sector to make yourselves Bar-ready.
Full time or part time?
I always ask students who are studying the Bar course, “What made you choose to study it full time given that everyone knows how notoriously time consuming and volume heavy this course is?”. I almost always get the same reply – “I just want to get it out of the way, as I’ve been studying forever”.
While I understand that the academic life that comes with pursuing a career at the Bar is long, I often wonder why more Bar students aren’t considering completing the Bar course on a part-time basis. Studying the Bar course part time can enable candidates to combine their studies with legal work which will complement what they’re learning and help them to grow into commercially aware and strong candidates.
The Bar course is run part time by some universities with The University of Law offering this option at its London Bloomsbury, Birmingham and Leeds campus. The part-time route allows students to spread the cost over two years while studying, on average, one weekend in three. This should make the workload more manageable and provide deeper insights into the profession when combined with a legal career.
After speaking to multiple students who’ve successfully passed the Bar course, I understand an average week for a full-time student can be a minimum of 50 hours and more during exam time. A full-time Bar course student, who passed the course with an outstanding grade and is beginning pupillage in September 2023, said: “There’s no time to blink.” He explained how he found the course very fast paced. The part-time route, which involves an average of 22 hours of study per week, gives students more time to balance their studies between other commitments, especially when applying for pupillage or trying to fit in mini-pupillages.
Building commercial awareness during part-time study
Where could Bar students work that would allow them to gain the commercial awareness, advocacy skills of both written and oral form, client management, attention to detail, thinking on your feet, working under pressure, self-motivation, leadership and research skills all while developing an understanding for the law in real-life scenarios?
There are several options, including law firms (as a legal secretary, paralegal or legal assistant), banks within their legal sectors, local government offices, the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the Bar Standards Board, and the various ombudsman schemes including the Legal Ombudsman as an assessor or investigator. There are further organisations, such as Criminal Cases Review Commission and charities that require advocates, and even chambers on occasion that are looking for research assistants. The Law Commission recruit legal research assistants every year and the Court of Appeal also recruit several judicial assistants for fixed-term contracts. These positions, though highly sought, would allow law students to demonstrate their employability on their CV.
Many aspiring barristers study the Bar course full time, and no doubt will continue to. However, it’s definitely worth thinking about the part-time option. It’s possible that the work experience you gain while studying part time is enough to convince chambers that you’re serious about a career at the Bar and looking to invest the best of yourself, instead of just desperate to reach the finish line.
Noreen Siddique is a legal investigator at the Legal Ombudsman, as well as an incoming Bar student starting in September 2023 (part time) at The University of Law, Birmingham.