Want to read this article later?
Just tap MyLCN+ to save it to your account
Not shaking hands with judges, avoiding tax anecdote bores, drinking for four and keeping your girlfriend (and mum) away from randy barristers… Our intrepid prospective pupil, Alex Aldridge, tells it like it is as he takes on the Herculean '12 dinners' BVC students must attend to be called to the Bar.
An account of my experiences attending the 12 dinners necessary to be called to the Bar
First qualifying session
My choice of Inn was made on a whim - basically I joined Middle Temple because
I quite liked the sound of the name. I had no idea it was founded by knights,
or that the hall was the location of the first ever performance of Shakespeare's
Twelfth Night, or even that Princess Diana had been an honorary member. I found
all this out during the various introductory speeches that comprised my first
'qualifying session'. As well as passing the BVC, students are required to attend
12 qualifying sessions (mostly formal dinners) in order to be called to the
Bar. However, the people making the speeches conspicuously failed to mention
the modern role of Middle Temple. This supported my suspicion that the Inns
had lost their relevance, having been usurped by modern law schools as providers
of legal education - their existence now just meaning that bar students have
to, rather oddly, attend 12 dinners in order to qualify as barristers.
Second qualifying session
Unluckily, I was the only one in my BVC small group at Middle Temple, so I persuaded my reluctant girlfriend to come along to my first dinner (second qualifying session), guests being allowed as it was a 'private guest night', each dinner having different themes which repeat themselves throughout the year. Before dining all students have to put on gowns (guests are exempted from this) before, Ryanair-style, taking any seat they can grab on one of the very long dining tables in the main hall. Next to me was a policeman called Rod doing the BVC part time and opposite a barrister in his late twenties called Charles. Like me, neither appeared to have any Middle Temple contacts and both were keen to chat, which we did merrily throughout the meal, Charles so overwhelmed by the friendly atmosphere at one stage that he started lecherously stroking my girlfriend's knee. The food was very nice too - Parma ham salad, roast chicken, suave looking rhubarb crumble, coffee - and by the time the traditional barristers' port arrived I'd started to seriously warm to the whole dining thing, although was less enthusiastic about Charles.
Third qualifying Session
According to my ticket it was 'All Inn Dining', which didn't mean much to me until the person opposite addressed the old guy next to me, who I'd assumed was a mature student, as 'judge'. Quickly, I realised that 'All Inn Dining' means the senior members of the Inn (the benchers) sit amongst the students and barristers, rather than on the normal high table at the front of the hall, giving students the opportunity to chat to judges and even Law Lords if they are lucky. Keen to ingratiate, I introduced myself to the judge, only to be met with a strangely curt nod, my unshaken hand left dangling conspicuously in the air. I guessed this fellow was used to quite high levels of deference, but it still seemed strange that he wouldn't even shake my hand. I only found out later about the strange old tradition amongst barristers never to shake each other's hands. So I decided to avoid the judge and chat to the guy next to me who confusingly, despite his full barrister status, initiated a handshake on our introduction. His name was Dave, he was in his late thirties, specialised in tax law and seemed to have come along to dinner in order to cop off with impressionable female BVC students. But chatting to the two female BVC students sitting in front of us, it became clear, as Dave reeled off tax anecdote after tax anecdote, that his pulling technique was little better than Charles'. Already, after only two dinners, the Bar's mystique had been shattered.
Fourth qualifying session
Along with the dinners there are a few lectures that you can attend which count as qualifying sessions. On the up side they are cheaper than the dinners. On the down side they tend to be mind-numbingly boring. This one, on the latest happenings in medical negligence, sounded not only dull, but also depressing and likely to prevent me from entering a hospital or doctor's surgery ever again. The sensible option seemed to be to miss it, but I needed the qualifying session and didn't want to waste the ticket, which had cost over a tenner. So I devised a plan to hand in my ticket, thus bagging the qualifying session point, then escape without attending the lecture by pretending to take an urgent phone call from a friend who couldn't find the hall and needed to be collected from the Strand. And it worked!
Fifth and sixth qualifying sessions
I was getting the hang of these dinners now and five and six were pretty standard stuff: arrived, sat with friendly strangers, interrupted my regular diet of frozen pizza to eat good food, drink decent wine, chat about pupillages, etc. One thing that struck me every time I went for a dinner was the contradiction between student living and the grandeur of a formal dinner at Middle Temple Hall. Okay, there are a fair proportion of bar students who live in flats in Notting Hill and take taxis in to dine, but I've noticed many others like me shuffling in to Middle Temple Hall in ill-fitting Matalan suits, still flustered from the latest rejection of their Switch cards and doing strange, desperate things, like stealing plates. And comfortingly, this seems to be in keeping with Middle Temple tradition, the rhyme going: "The Inner Temple for the rich, the Middle for the poor, Lincoln's for the gentleman, and", somewhat bizarrely, "Gray's for the whore"!?
Seventh qualifying session
So far I'd been careful not to drink excess amounts whilst dining, but at dinner seven I got drunk. Arriving direct from the pub round the corner where I'd had a few beers whilst watching football with friends, I was already feeling pretty good as I fatefully sat down among a group of vegetarian non-drinkers. The normal procedure is that every four diners share a bottle of wine, meaning that I got a bottle of wine to myself, which - with my appetite for booze already whetted - I managed to knock back rather quickly, becoming thrillingly passionate about a range of clean-living issues.
After dinner a choir performed (this being a themed 'music night'), which fortunately shut me up as I became lost in the beauty of the singing. And then suddenly it was over. As I came round I noticed that my co-diners had already made their escape - which seemed hasty as I had so much more to say about pilates and permaculture - so I stumbled out of the hall and made my way home to a terrible, cringe-worthy hangover.
Eighth qualifying session
Predictably, my mum was desperate to share in the Middle Temple dining experience and there was another private guest night, so I bought a couple of tickets and spent the days before the dinner dreading all the terribly embarrassing possibilities. Walking the half-hour journey from King's Cross station where I picked up my Mum to the Temple, I gave her a pretty stern briefing on what not to do, which she seemed to take on board. And everything went pretty smoothly until a barrister started to chat her up and she decided to do one of the things she'd expressly agreed not do: try to get me a pupillage. No surprises when having emailed my CV to this guy the next day as instructed, I got an embarrassed reply that I'd have to go through the standard application procedure.
Ninth & Tenth qualifying sessions
These came at a stage when I was feeling pretty disillusioned with the BVC. The early excitement of advocacy sessions had been replaced with frustration with my tutors for constantly pulling me up for not following various mystifying evidential rules, while I had a particularly tedious and surprisingly difficult legal research assessment on European competition law hanging over me. At the same time money was tight and preventing me from going out with friends on the career ladder not accustomed to scrimping over the price of a pint. So it wasn't with much enthusiasm that I trudged down Chancery Lane from Inns of Court School of Law to the Temple. As usual, I bumped into a few people I vaguely knew from the course/previous dinners, and as we chatted and ate it became apparent that some of them were also struggling a bit. This had been easy to forget in the strangely anonymous atmosphere of the library and in even tutorials, where people flit in for an hour and a half, then quickly disappear into their own little London worlds. It was really very helpful to find this out.
Eleventh qualifying session
Another lecture, and I'm sorry Guy Mansfield QC, but another quick hand in of ticket and crafty escape.
Twelfth qualifying session
Call day: I'd made it! I got my BVC results through and to my relief I had no resits. So all that remained was to be called to the Bar (and eat the buffet after the ceremony, which technically counts as the qualifying session). Being called to the Bar is similar to graduating from university - apart from the fact that at Middle Temple all the callees have to wear barrister wigs. Eventually, my name was read out and I appeared from the sea of wigs to be 'called to the Utter Bar' by the masonically-named master treasurer. And I'm a convert. Although it's undeniable that the BVC providers are now the main players, my Middle Temple dinners certainly enriched my BVC experience, an excellent counter-balance to the frequently one-dimensional drabness of the course. And I'd definitely rather eat a dinner than sit an exam.
This article was written by Alex Aldridge.