Becoming a barrister - should I do the BCL or a training contract?

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jdianne_law
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Hi everyone,

I've just graduated from a top university (Oxbridge) with a 2:1 in Law, just missing out on a first. I'm grateful to have an offer to sit the Oxford BCL and also have a training contract offer from a top tier law firm.

My ideal plan was to graduate with a first, and while completing the Oxford BCL apply for commercial pupillages at chambers based in London. However, after just missing out on a first I can still sit the BCL but I'm not sure if it's worthwhile given most chambers tend to only offer pupillages to students with a first in their undergrad.

I would really appreciate advice on whether it would be wise to still complete the BCL or to instead start a training contract with a top tier law firm (with the view to apply for pupillages after completing my training contract).

Further, if I was to sit the BCL would it be better to apply for pupillages during the BCL year or to focus purely on attaining a distinction in the BCL so I can apply the year after for pupillages with a stronger application? (Note: my training contract can only be delayed by 1 year, so if I choose to sit the BCL and then apply for pupillages the following year I would lose my safety net of having a training contract offer)

Given the cost of the BCL, I'm torn on what the best option would be. I really want to be a barrister and believe I will enjoy it a lot more than being a solicitor. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks!
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Johnny ~
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Defer TC for one year, do BCL, start LPC + training contract. You can apply for pupillage whenever you want (the BCL + accelerated LPC will both be pretty intense, so I'm guessing that you'll only find the time to really put time into it when you're training). The TC is a very good safety net in the event that the Bar apps don't work out. It may also add to your application.
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leage_beagle
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If you have an offer to do the BCL with a 2.ii, take it. They are not common. It is a more reliable and concise route to the bar than a training contract too. The BCL is incredibly academically rewarding and enjoyable, as well as being an excellent preparation for the bar; if you have the choice of that over spending two years at a city law firm, I would recommend taking it. Whether you end up at the bar or elsewhere in commercial law, the cost is likely to be covered by your future earnings, so if you can afford it that shouldn't be a worry. If you do well on the BCL (distinction/prizes etc) that will also look very good on pupillage applications.

As for whether to apply during the BCL of wait, in my cohort there were people who did both. I think, on balance, it is probably slightly easier to wait, but plenty of people (including me) applied during the course. It leads to a tough few weeks around interviews, but to be completely honest I actually found the trips to and from London quite a pleasant break from what can otherwise be an all-consuming course. It is worth considering doing a smaller number of applications on the BCL year, targeted only at sets you are absolutely sure you want to practice at, so you don't risk having to spend too long on interviews if things go well, but still get the experience and learn the ropes in case you have to reapply the year after, which is not unlikely even for absolutely stellar candidates.
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jdianne_law
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Thank you Johnny and leage_beagle, very kind of you to offer your valuable advice. I am definitely leaning towards taking the BCL offer and applying for a limited number of pupillages during the BCL year. If I do get a pupillage then fantastic but otherwise I will start my TC after the BCL, but will hopefully have a good performance on the BCL to strengthen my CV for future applications.

On a side note, do you have any advice on how I can spend the next two months before starting the BCL:
- Extracurriculars to strengthen my CV and pupillage application (I have completed 4 minis and have participated in a few mooting competitions during my undergrad)
- Preparation for the BCL to improve my chances of doing well
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Kessler`
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This is a very strange situation. Why the desire to go to the Bar if you have already invested so much time and effort in getting a TC? Instead of throwing away everything that you have, why not take up the TC - complete it - then when you've got a couple of years under your belt transfer to the Bar (if indeed advocacy is your thing). Pupillages are massively competitive at the moment and the Bar is an uncertain state post-COVID (if indeed that pandemic is winding down). You certainly cannot guarantee a pupillage, even if you do complete the BCL. Even then, something like the BCL is only going to matter if you apply to top drawer commercial sets who, frankly, would appreciate an applicant with actual experience in a commercial firm far more.

I'm not calling you a liar, nor am I undermining your acheivements, but this is a very strange question to be asking with someone of your qualification and at the stage you are at. CrazyJamie, what do you think?
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leage_beagle
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jdianne, I would think the best use of your time would be to rest and relax, as there will be plenty of work to do once you get there. If you are absolutely set on pre-reading, it would depend on what modules you were planning on taking. Feel free to PM me if you want to talk specifics or have questions about that!

Kessler, I'm not so sure it is all that unusual a situation for a BCL offer holder. It is something of a moonshoot application for a lot of us, and so applications for TCs at the same time are pretty de rigeur as a backup. I've not seen much evidence from my own chambers (I am starting pupillage this September), or other London based commercial sets of the kind BCL grads commonly aim for, that a TC is preferable to the BCL, so I am not entirely sure it is a good idea to spend two years in a job that isn't actually your first choice and which you plan to leave when there is another well trodden path available. Not disputing that both are difficult, of course, and that the TC doesn't have the same financial cost, but I am not sure it is right to say that it is 'far more' desirable to top drawer commercial sets - they are both good routes.
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Kessler`
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I think what concerns me, leage_beagle, is that the OP seems to be thinking about pupillage/the Bar almost like a afterthought. Having obtained pupillage yourself (congratulations), I'm sure you appreciate the amount of work and preparation that goes into the process. The OP's situation does not indicate that they have even made any applications for pupillage previously. Equally, getting a TC - especially at a 'good' commercial firm - is not an easy process. I went through the GDL with some good friends who slaved over vac-scheme apps, vac schemes themselves and TC apps. I certainly never heard of anyone running both sets of applications in parallel. If the OP has got where they are, they have a tremendous opportunity in their hand. They have clearly committed themselves to going down the solicitor route and I can't see this is a situation where they would be spending "two years in a job that isn't [their] first choice". Have they done any mini-pupillages? Why do they feel that the Bar is what they want?

I would certainly discourage the OP from thinking that a 2.1 from Oxford and/or a BCL gives them an easy road in. I've known many people with that belief who have ended up disappointed. I know one particular individual who had the BCL and other highly rated qualifications but never managed to get pupillage and is now a retail executive! To some extent, one can prioritise academics when aiming at very high end sets because that is the norm for most of their tenants. For most chambers, real-world experience is very highly prized. I note that you say the BCL is 'excellent preparation for the Bar'. I'm not sure in what sense you say that, but I would certainly rate an applicant who has a few years experience of running cases within a decent firm, has demonstrated the ability to handle, interact and succeed with various levels of society, and might even bring some useful contacts within their firm to chambers. I would certainly value that over someone who has spent the last few years in academia, however big a brain they might have, but might struggle when they have to interact with lay and/or professional clients.

What I'm trying to say is this: if the OP really felt that strongly about the Bar, why have they not advanced that route and instead gone all the way to obtaining a decent TC offer? The OP notes that her TC can only be delayed by one year and wants to keep the 'safety net'. There is absolutely no way they can guarantee getting pupillage in that time period, especially since they have not made any applications so far. The amount of work to get into a competitive position is going to exceed that 'safety net' period. Frankly, many people would kill to be in the OP's situation. There is a route to the Bar, if that is really what they want to explore, that can be undertaken through cross-qualification and, frankly, the OP is likely to find that much easier since they will be in a stronger position financially, have a much more developed CV and application, whilst also requiring less time in pupillage itself!

I think it's a no-brainer. Stick with what you have OP, don't gamble unneccessarily with your future! Just imagine how you will feel if you reject the TC and struggle to get pupillage...!
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leage_beagle
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Kessler, I agree completely with your analysis, and I suppose my slight difference on conclusion just comes from personal preference - I would have hated being a solicitor, and was delighted when I didn't get the TCs I applied for, leaving the BCL/Bar the obvious route!

In terms of being good prep for the bar, I bow to your experience, though I know a few of my friends have found particular modules they studied (the really monstrous black letter stuff, like conflicts and restitution) huge boon in pupillage. I also know from trawling profiles a few years ago that there are as many BCLers as transferring MC solicitors going to most of the big hitter commercial sets; whether the solicitors are at an advantage on arrival I don't know, but the BCL seems to be at least as good in terms of getting through the door and nailing down an offer. Of course that might be because of the candidates themselves rather than the value added.

I also think the BCL is a wonderful experience in its own right, and made me a much better and more interested lawyer, giving me the chance to really get to grips with practical and theoretical issues I just didn't have the time or intellect for as an undergraduate - I am, of course, biased in that respect.

But OP you should definitely heed Kessler on the difficulty, especially for the sets you are aiming for. Where have you done minis? What other work experience do you have? In short, does your CV match those (or nearly - many are boosted post-offer by other activities in the year off) of junior tenants at the sets you would want to go to? If not, a TC (followed by the BCL even) might be a safer route.
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Kessler`
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Well, you certainly do a good job advertising the BCL! I'm glad you have so much enthusiasm for the work, and I'm sure that must have come across in your interviews! I certainly accept that the BCL is something of note on an application form, and it is certainly evidence that an applicant has the intellectual rigour/capacity for the work. I think we agree as encapsulated by your last two sentences, leage_beagle, and that is one of the reasons why the OP mystified me. At the moment, I don't think they do have that standard of CV which would make their current prospects all that more attractive!
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nulli tertius
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(Original post by Kessler`)
This is a very strange situation. Why the desire to go to the Bar if you have already invested so much time and effort in getting a TC? Instead of throwing away everything that you have, why not take up the TC - complete it - then when you've got a couple of years under your belt transfer to the Bar (if indeed advocacy is your thing). Pupillages are massively competitive at the moment and the Bar is an uncertain state post-COVID (if indeed that pandemic is winding down). You certainly cannot guarantee a pupillage, even if you do complete the BCL. Even then, something like the BCL is only going to matter if you apply to top drawer commercial sets who, frankly, would appreciate an applicant with actual experience in a commercial firm far more.

I'm not calling you a liar, nor am I undermining your acheivements, but this is a very strange question to be asking with someone of your qualification and at the stage you are at. CrazyJamie, what do you think?
I wholeheartedly agree with this.
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Crazy Jamie
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(Original post by Kessler`)
This is a very strange situation. Why the desire to go to the Bar if you have already invested so much time and effort in getting a TC? Instead of throwing away everything that you have, why not take up the TC - complete it - then when you've got a couple of years under your belt transfer to the Bar (if indeed advocacy is your thing). Pupillages are massively competitive at the moment and the Bar is an uncertain state post-COVID (if indeed that pandemic is winding down). You certainly cannot guarantee a pupillage, even if you do complete the BCL. Even then, something like the BCL is only going to matter if you apply to top drawer commercial sets who, frankly, would appreciate an applicant with actual experience in a commercial firm far more.

I'm not calling you a liar, nor am I undermining your acheivements, but this is a very strange question to be asking with someone of your qualification and at the stage you are at. CrazyJamie, what do you think?
As much as this makes me feel like the third of three appellate judges, with Kessler` giving the lead judgment and me following nulli tertius, I too agree.
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jdianne_law
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Thanks leage_beagle for the offer, I’ll drop you a message about BCL options!

Kessler, apologies - I didn’t mean to come across as being ungrateful for a TC offer. I only completed Vac Scheme applications during my second year because I didn’t want to rule out the solicitor path without any information about the career. I was lucky enough to convert my vac schemes into TCs, which is how I ended up with the offer, despite the fact that I now know that the career isn’t for me. I understand your point about the BCL not offering any guarantees of pupillage, and it’s certainly not something I am expecting to get within a year - hence the ‘backup’ of the TC. But as leage_beagle said, I know I would hate being a solicitor. I’ve always been interested in the Bar, and I’ve completed four minis during my undergrad at commercial/ chancery sets (including OEC and Maitland). In addition, I’ve done a lot of mooting and I’ve represented my university at international competitions. Although my CV is definitely more tailored to the Bar, I still don’t know whether this will be enough given the weight placed on academic success, hence the desire to do the BCL in the hope that it shows the 2.1 in a better light. Ultimately though, my end goal is to be a barrister and if that means that the better route is to take a TC for a couple of years in order to differentiate myself at the Bar, it’s something I am willing to do.
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Kessler`
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Well, your application is certainly improving my point of view. You've got mooting ticked and you've got mini-pupillages under your belt. I'm still puzzled as to why, with all that you've got, you decided to strike out and apply for TC's rather than pupillage! I can appreciate that you might have changed your mind, but I think a pupillage committee is going to look askance at this pattern of events unless you can give them a very convincing explanation as to why and how you are fully committed to the Bar at this point.

If I was in your situation, genuinely I would complete the TC and re-assess in 5 or so years time. Do not underestimate the value of that experience, especially if you get some quality advocacy under your belt whilst a solicitor (check HCA qualifications). Also, do not underestimate the fantastic advantage that being financially secure/independent will give you when hunting down pupillage at a later date. Your situation currently feels like one of my cases where a client has been made a very good offer to settle, pretty much equal to what they could expect at trial, and yet is determined to roll the dice and push on. The reasoning is because they want a 'total' win, even though if they lose it will be absolutely devastating and almost certainly lead to their bankruptcy. I'm sure the other practising lawyers here will agree that this sort of attitude is not uncommon among lay clients and very often leads to wailing and gnashing of teeth outside the courtroom- "Why oh why didn't you persuade me HARDER to accept the offer?!" - whilst we stand to the side with a grim face. There's no rush to get into the Bar, it's not going to disappear! Take your time and enjoy the hand that you've been dealt so far.
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Crazy Jamie
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Just to give some more fleshed out thoughts on this, but fundamentally the process here is no different to anyone else who is making decisions around improving their application and applying for pupillage. It's a matter of weighing up the pros and cons of each approach, and ultimately deciding on which set of risk you're happiest taking on. The difference here is that your position is very different to the average applicant, for two reasons. The first is the TC offer, which is not only a safety net but also offers a different route into the profession. The second is actually that, on paper at least, your application looks pretty strong. I obviously cannot say how likely you are to impress in person, but you can judge that for yourself and I suspect you back yourself to be able to impress in interview.

Kessler has made some excellent points in favour of you taking the TC. It is important to note that you will likely struggle to apply for pupillages straight after you've completed your training contract (as you've said in your initial post). It is far more realistic to do as Kessler says and reassess in five years or so. The reason for that is that converting to the Bar as a solicitor is a much better position in terms of the odds than going straight for pupillage, precisely because you're not competing against other students for pupillage. You will apply potentially for advertised vacancies, but in practice will likely proactively enquire as to the possibility of applying to several different sets. The catch is that whilst you don't bring the same level of risk with you that a pupil does, you do not need to demonstrate the value that you would bring to a set by converting. That includes not only the skills that you bring over (having some advocacy experience with the experience of actually running cases is valuable) but also other things like knowledge of the market and the potential to bring work with you. It's very difficult to do any of that straight out of a training contract, hence why you need that extra few years (at least) of experience. But providing you get it, the odds are much higher of ultimately ending up at the Bar with this approach. It just takes more time. The other key point is the financial one. Unless you have a source of financial support already (usually parents), don't underestimate that. It makes a big difference.

However, all of that said, there are some counter points that I would want to throw out. First, while you can potentially manoeuvre yourself into a position to gain advocacy experience knowing that you'll need it, it can be very different to get substantial advocacy experience as a solicitor in certain practice areas. So building those skills relevant to practising as a barrister can be difficult depending on where you end up practising. Second, whilst you don't exactly get to pick your set when applying for pupillage, you may find your options in terms of sets more restricted than you would like when transferring. This again depends on a lot of variables, but it's just to highlight that you may ultimately transfer to a set that is not in the same area or of the same calibre as you would aim for if you were applying for (but not necessarily getting offered) pupillage. Third, five years (at a guess) is a long time to do something that you don't enjoy, particularly when there is something else in the same industry that you actively want to do instead.

And fourth, you actually do seem to potentially be a pretty strong candidate for pupillage. Not necessarily for one of the absolute top commercial sets (because no one can really be confident that they're a good candidate for those sets), but certainly potentially good enough to secure a good pupillage at a good set which will allow you to build a good career as a barrister. Now I don't know how high you're setting your sights when it comes to pupillage and what sort of pupillage you'd be willing to settle for (a terrible way to phrase that given the statistics, but you know what I mean), but providing you are realistic about both your prospects of securing pupillage (which may be pretty good, relatively speaking) and what sort of pupillage you'd aim for (the viable options probably being wider than you currently realise), it may well be a legitimate approach here to ignore the TC and just aim for pupillage form the start.

It should be without saying that going straight for pupillage is far riskier compared to the safety net and alternative route of the TC, but there are plenty of people who would be screaming at their monitor at the mere suggestion that you don't take the TC, but this choice is ultimately a personal one and I think both options are probably viable here. Providing you make a well informed and realistic decision regarding the risks and rewards of both I don't think there's a definitive right answer. The important thing is making the one that's right for you, and more importantly making the one that you could accept if things don't go according to plan (and both options certainly have the potential to not go according to plan).
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jdianne_law
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Thank you so much Kessler and Crazy Jamie - I really appreciate the advice! I now realise the advantage that the TC will give me so will probably take that up either immediately or after doing the BCL, and will try to apply for pupillage later in my career.
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username2549021
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(Original post by jdianne_law)
Hi everyone,

I've just graduated from a top university (Oxbridge) with a 2:1 in Law, just missing out on a first. I'm grateful to have an offer to sit the Oxford BCL and also have a training contract offer from a top tier law firm.

My ideal plan was to graduate with a first, and while completing the Oxford BCL apply for commercial pupillages at chambers based in London. However, after just missing out on a first I can still sit the BCL but I'm not sure if it's worthwhile given most chambers tend to only offer pupillages to students with a first in their undergrad.

I would really appreciate advice on whether it would be wise to still complete the BCL or to instead start a training contract with a top tier law firm (with the view to apply for pupillages after completing my training contract).

Further, if I was to sit the BCL would it be better to apply for pupillages during the BCL year or to focus purely on attaining a distinction in the BCL so I can apply the year after for pupillages with a stronger application? (Note: my training contract can only be delayed by 1 year, so if I choose to sit the BCL and then apply for pupillages the following year I would lose my safety net of having a training contract offer)

Given the cost of the BCL, I'm torn on what the best option would be. I really want to be a barrister and believe I will enjoy it a lot more than being a solicitor. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks!
I did the BCL last year. Very intense course. I got a pupillage interview I probably didn't deserve on the basis of my application, and that maybe can be put down to the BCL. Nevertheless, I would recommend that you take the TC and do not do the BCL. If your ultimate goal is to be barrister, switching to the profession on the back of a TC (and all the experience you shall have accrued from it) will likely put you ahead of any BCL graduates without work experience for pupillage applications. Especially, since you did Oxbridge at undergrad!!!!!!!!! Not to mention, the TC route brings in the money
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