If you are ready to choose a Bar training course provider then you have already decided to bet on yourself, against the odds, in your quest to become a barrister.

You will have completed your undergraduate degree. Passed the GDL, or the LLB. You will have sat, or be about to sit, the BCAT. You have probably already joined one of the Inns of Court.

Now, you wonder where to complete the vocational aspect of Bar training. It is like the Baccarat scene from the Bond film Casino Royale. Sweat beads your brow as you face an important, expensive choice; preparing to put all your chips on the table.

Who will you go with?

You are being eyed across the table. Not by a supervillain, but by nine authorised providers of training for aspirant barristers. They all intimate that future success is assured with them. Your future; your career; pupillage itself may hang in the balance.

What to look for in a provider

Obviously, geographical location is one consideration: where you want to be based while studying, and beyond. Providers cultivate links to the local Bar, which can be helpful for those seeking pupillage in a particular region.

It is worth noting the cost differences between providers, and the scholarships, awards and alumnus discounts they offer. Scholarships – from providers and Inns of Court – can considerably lighten the load on your wallet and make you stand out as a candidate.

The Bar Standards Board has given providers greater flexibility in the way they deliver Bar training. This means each provider’s Bar course varies in terms of its structure and emphasis. Katherine Dunn, programme leader at Northumbria University, explained that their new course is very different to the old course. Northumbria have streamed their skills training (including advocacy, drafting and conference techniques) into civil, criminal and family divisions to give students a tailored experience according to their practice area of interest.

Lynda Gibbs QC, Dean of the Inns of Court College of Advocacy (ICCA), showed me the way in which they have separated out the knowledge and skills aspects of their course. The first, knowledge-focused, part of the course is completely online and involves case study, interactive e-learning and hundreds of practice questions. Other providers blend their skills and knowledge training. UWE Bristol claim that this is ‘the way that is most reflective of life in chambers’.

Whatever the shape of a respective Bar course, the quality of tuition will be vital. The providers typically employ practitioners on their teaching staff. Barristers, solicitors and deputy district judges are on the teaching team at Manchester Metropolitan University, and MMU also boast strong links across the Northern Circuit.

As well as top-notch teaching, you will also want excellent course materials, provided to you right on time. If there are any problems, you will want responsive, personal attention, and quick resolution of issues from the provider’s administrative body.

And then there’s having opportunities for work experience and pro bono work to get your head in the advocacy game and beef up your CV. Ian Fox, BTC Course Leader at Nottingham Trent University, told me that their award-winning Legal Advice Centre was the first ‘teaching law firm’ providing this kind of legal advice and representation experience. NTU sets a high standard, as the only organisation outside London permitted to train Free Representation Unit (FRU) representatives.

You will also need access to a careers department who understand the Bar and who can help you hone your pupillage applications to perfection. The Bar course is a means to an end: the goal is pupillage. Those who gain pupillage have in most cases found that the assistance of a careers service has been pivotal to their success. The University of Law’s Anna Williams, a Bar Careers Specialist, is a somewhat legendary figure in this regard. Her advice and support has helped many a Bar student bag a coveted pupillage.

Lastly, look for a rich and varied student scene, clubs and societies and… oh… wait.

In reality, there’s precious little time for all that jazz. You will spend your evenings becoming deeply intimate with the White Book, and Blackstone’s Criminal Practice.

What the providers look for

Providers seek students who can pass exams and stand a fighting chance of gaining pupillage: they all have reputations to uphold. Cardiff University requires applicants to have ‘good academic qualifications plus an application form which answers the questions asked and shows aptitude for the course’. NTU looks for commitment to the legal profession, contested advocacy experience and, of course, fluency in English.

The University of Law holds pre-selection interviews. The ICCA also pre-select their students carefully in a blind selection process which, they say, helps eliminate bias. Prepare to discuss which five historic people you would like to have dinner with, or which character you would be in a Disney film. Also, get ready to pull a rapid handbrake turn and argue the other side of whatever argument you have just put forward: they want to see you can play devil’s advocate. Persuade me to sit in a bath of slugs… Give me three good reasons to start smoking... and so on. A ‘Plea in Mitigation’ is a common selection-interview advocacy exercise, so find out how to structure one.

A disconcerting reality is that there are many more people wanting to train as barristers, than there are golden pupillages at the end of the academic rainbow. Most people who complete a Bar course will not gain pupillage. But hope springs eternal, and demand for courses is strong. The providers are competing for your business, and a cynic might say that if they can persuade you to upgrade from the basic PGDip to an LLM (Masters) degree then they will do. The LLM can be £3k or so more expensive than the basic Bar course, depending on where you look. (Cardiff and Manchester seem to be exceptions to this rule.)

Whether the LLM helps in any respect in the quest for pupillage at the independent Bar of England and Wales is a matter of some doubt. It is certainly not a necessity, and does involve more work. However, the LLM is internationally recognised, plus students can draw on the government postgraduate loan to fund it. As with the latest phone handsets, many people – if not most – seem apt to trade up to the Masters model with its extra widgets.

The student experience

Students accustomed to the leisurely stroll through an undergraduate degree are often shocked by the Bar course and its truckload of reading. Overtime is unavoidable, because – as well as the coursework – you will, in all likelihood, also be trying to accrue mini-pupillage experience and complete Qualifying Sessions at your Inn.

You will be running hard, so pay attention to the basics of good nutrition and quality sleep. You cannot succeed if you are perpetually sleep deprived and malnourished. Eat your greens, go easy on the cocktails and caffeine, get to bed early – and be able to participate fully in class.

For those who want to spread things out over a longer period, or who have to work while studying, six of the nine providers have part-time study options. A word to the wise: it is generally not a good idea, if you can afford not to, to attempt the full-time Bar course while working: you may well implode.

Whichever way you slice it, the Bar course is a hard-core professional qualification covering large tracts of the civil and criminal legal landscape. It is a hothouse environment, in which you are studying alongside your competitors for pupillage. In this atmosphere, it can be detrimental to compare yourself to others, especially for twisted souls like me who relate to Gore Vidal’s famous confession:

Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.’

If you can manage it, focus only on your own progress. It doesn’t need to be a cut-throat competition. Many people find their fellow students to be supportive, helpful study companions. Testing one another as the finals approach can help improve your chances of passing.

And if your pips start to squeak while on the course: reach out for the wellbeing support on offer. All the providers know it is important. There is no shame whatever in accessing counselling and other support services. Many trainee barristers, like myself, have benefited from talking to a professional counsellor. Someone I know enlisted the help of a coach through the course and said it was the boost he needed to overcome his titanic capacity to procrastinate – and to get pupillage.

In a totally scientific (ahem) study of student experiences conducted on Twitter, I garnered comments from people with varying experiences of studying on the Bar course. Sure, this feedback is anecdotal; but these anonymised examples give you some sense of people’s experience.

Mike said of the part-time course at City, University of London, that it was ‘well paced’ with ‘outstanding tutors’. Overall, City kept very focused on the vital business of helping students pass the centrally set exams. They have a reputation of doing so.

Aliya said her experience of Nottingham Law School (NTU) was ‘nothing but positive’. She said that the standard of teaching and feedback was very high and the course content is generally well organised. In light of this, she said ‘I would definitely recommend it.’

Nadia said that the University of Law had provided a good standard of tuition and that the career service, although heavily subscribed, had been very useful in helping craft her pupillage applications. Her experience of trying to resolve accounts issues had, however, been frustrating.

By far the highest numbers of ‘thumbs down’ reviews were for BPP. Nine people went to the trouble of writing to me at length about their experiences of woe at this provider. Ben commented: ‘while the quality of teaching is quite good and staff are supportive, the administration is beyond tragic. Generally, I’m quite astounded at how money driven/unsupportive BPP’s rules are as well. For an institution priding itself on good grades, they don’t seem at all bothered about helping students.’

Bad administration was the main charge levelled against BPP. Sarah shared her thoughts as follows: ‘Registration I remember being a nightmare – timetables took ages for us to receive so we only knew our schedules at the last moment.’

Maki remarked that: ‘Those in management positions show a lack of care for pupils. I have felt far more like a commodity than a student during the past two years and cannot wait to leave BPP behind.’

BPP’s profits trebled during lockdown. Ironically, it seems that this vast increase in income for shareholders was synchronous with a number of students ruing the day they chose BPP.

Replying to these comments, Andrew Chadwick, Dean of BPP University Law School said:

We understand and are extremely sympathetic to students who have been impacted by any disruption to their administration/ onboarding experience. While the unprecedented nature of Covid-19 has made starting a new programme online in some cases difficult, we acknowledge that certain improvements are required from BPP to ensure that the student onboarding experience is one that provides adequate support. To provide reassurance ongoing student feedback surveys indicate that the average student satisfaction with teaching across the law school is 4.73 out of 5. We will continue to listen to student feedback and ensure issues raised are resolved internally.’

Prospective students would do well to reflect on all this. In my experience, there isn’t as much Latin to learn in the law these days; many prefer the modernised versions of old legal terms. However, as you confront the big-ticket purchase of the Bar course there is one Latin maxim I would urge you to bear in mind: caveat emptor