updated on 09 December 2019
Joining an Inn of Court is compulsory if you want to become a barrister. For BPTC students, there has always been a requirement to complete a number of sessions as part of your membership of an inn before you can be called to the Bar. These sessions were once known as the “12 dinners”, but for a few years now they have been called “qualifying sessions”.
Previously, the dining sessions traditionally focused on – as you might expect – having dinner with senior practitioners, which also provided networking opportunities and the chance to share best practice. Now, things have become slightly more structured and, arguably, more useful. BPTC students must complete 12 qualifying units in order to be called to the Bar. These units are defined by the Bar Standards Board as "educational and collegiate activities arranged by or on behalf of the Inn(s)" for the purpose of preparing BPTC students for practice.
Deputy director of education (acting) at Inner Temple, Struan Campbell, explains how the sessions are structured and their purpose: “Qualifying sessions complement students’ academic and vocational education and form a bridge to pupillage. The sessions equip BPTC students to undertake the next stage of training by enabling them to meet and learn from practising members of the Bar and judiciary and from experts. The sessions include lectures on legal topics; advocacy training taught by practising members of the Bar and judiciary; student conference weekends where students have the opportunity to explore a particular legal topic with experts in that field; presentational skills courses; legal research training; and moots and debates.”
There are still dinners, but variety exists there too – they might have an educational, networking or social focus. There is a lot of variety in terms of the ways in which you can extract significant benefit from attending Inns events, although note that only educational events can count towards qualifying points.
Struan advises: “In no other profession is there such a structured and regular meeting of the most senior with the most junior of practitioners, with the former giving their time pro bono because they want to support those entering the profession. These are great opportunities for students to meet and learn from practising barristers and judges in a supportive, non-assessed atmosphere. Our advice to students would be to turn up and take part with enthusiasm.”
A couple of years ago, we spoke to Chloe Ashley, then a BPTC student at UWE and now a barrister at No5 Chambers in Birmingham, about her view of the qualifying sessions. She studied philosophy at the University of Sheffield, took a year out to work for the John Lewis Partnership, came back to do her GDL and then spent a year as a research assistant for a criminal chambers in London and for the NGO, Reprieve. She filled us in on how the qualifying sessions experience at Inner Temple was for her:
Did you know what to expect from the sessions?
My background is not all that typical, and I had heard all sorts of stereotypes, with a picture painted of indulgent dinners, copious wine and port, and lots of upper-class snobs! I couldn’t see why my Inn would make ‘new recruits’ attend a series of decadent meals in order to qualify into a profession. But I now know that the view I was given was totally distorted and the reality was refreshingly different.
The dinners themselves are actually very good value, at £16 for three delicious courses. You get to talk to QCs, pupils, junior tenants and other students in a very egalitarian environment about all kinds of things, including what to expect from pupillage and current topics at the Bar. My scepticism has been put aside and I now think that the sessions are a very worthwhile requirement.
Describe some of the key moments you’ve had when taking part.
There are academic lectures, conferences, residential weekends – it’s very varied, there really is something to cater to all tastes. My residential weekend, for example, was centred on a single topic – inquests. It was incredibly enlightening and was something that I didn’t really know anything about beforehand, but am now keen to incorporate it into my practice. It was a transformative weekend; the fact that all the sessions are run by practitioners, who are leaders in their fields, is key.
What benefits have you derived from attending?
It’s quite hard to quantify precisely, but I think it impacts subconsciously on a personal level. I always think that the BPTC is like getting your provisional driver’s licence, its pupillage that actually teaches you how to drive so qualifying sessions, many of which are orientated around you developing essential skills like the advocacy you’re later expected to provide later on help you on your way to getting that driving licence. There is a very practical element to them, which really helps at interviews and to prepare you for the reality of practice. You’re networking and meeting people that you wouldn’t have the chance to meet elsewhere – it’s also a chance to get to ask the questions you can’t anywhere else, for example when determining which chambers to apply to for pupillage. You’ll get an honest response. You get really detailed, constructive feedback in the trial preparation sessions held at the advocacy weekends, which is a great boost and really helped refine my style before the BPTC advocacy exams.
How can students get the most out of the sessions?
My advice is really simple - try to participate in as vast a range of sessions as possible, so dinners, residential courses and advocacy sessions. I would really emphasise the advocacy sessions to anyone; although it does seem daunting at first getting in front of a panel of judges, QCs and other talented barristers and being critiqued, it helps you improve immeasurably. Also, get the dates and synopses of the sessions early on - most Inns bring out their list at the beginning of the course - and book them in. If you’re travelling from outside London as I did, some sessions count for two or three units, so it’s worth doing a session that gives you more than one unit, simply to save on costs. And most Inns will help with travel expenses for the more expensive residential weekends.