Experience is the best teacher

Simon Thornton-Wood explains the BSB review of pupillages and the purpose of its upcoming consultation

“Nothing can substitute experience,” wrote the author Paulo Coelho.


And he was right. For an aspiring barrister nothing can quite replace the experience of real world practice – accompanied by the insight, advice, and guidance from a good teacher. It is hard to envisage an alternative to such an immersive experience.

At present, pupillage is punctiliously prescribed; the Bar Standards Board (BSB) must approve any pupillages that deviate from the standard format. The intention behind this is a good one: it is the BSB’s role as the regulator to ensure standards are maintained, not just to safeguard the public, but to protect pupils too. The structure established for pupillages has, to date, emerged from traditions of practice among the independent Bar and, as a result, served well the needs of many barristers and their clients. That same structure may continue to serve many sets well.

But the Bar is undergoing dramatic, perhaps unprecedented, change. The first BSB-regulated entities are now entering the market. Only last year, barristers could start applying to the regulator for permission to conduct litigation – allowing them to provide a genuine one-stop shop and enabling them to handle clients’ needs without the intervention of a solicitor. Barristers’ services and the way in which they do business are shifting swiftly and significantly.

As they do so, the BSB believes that pupillage should be adapted in order for it to continue providing pivotal preparation for life at the Bar. The BSB has become less convinced that we need to dictate how pupillage is structured. Pupillage is extremely important in providing the next generation of the Bar with the exposure and expert advice they need to become barristers. And at a time of great change across the profession, who is better placed to design and deliver the pupillage experience than the professionals themselves?

In February, the BSB announced its intention to put chambers and employers back in charge of pupillage, through shifting responsibility for the way in which pupillages are structured back to pupillage training organisations (PTOs). The BSB also wants to make it easier for PTOs that are unable to provide certain aspects of pupillage to offer to pupils alternative arrangements – such as secondments.

Of course, a regulator must safeguard standards. However, the BSB can introduce more freedom and flexibility into the system, so that it continues to provide vital preparation for practice. And if this greater flexibility means there can be more pupillages on offer that is also good.

We know from our frequent conversations with students, pupils and barristers that the present paucity of pupillages is a serious concern and raises questions about the future of some important fields of practise. The BSB cannot demand that PTOs provide more pupillages; hosting pupillage is a significant commitment for any organisation. But what it can do is to ensure that rules do not get in the way of those keen to offer these vital opportunities to aspiring advocates.

This is all about relaxing regulation; it is about focusing our efforts and endeavours where we think they are most needed. Earlier this year the BSB published a pamphlet that set out its vision for reforming legal education and training as part of the Future Bar Training programme. It is available to download on the BSB website (www.barstandardsboard.org.uk). The key idea animating the pamphlet is that of establishing a Professional Statement that clearly sets out what a barrister needs to be able to do at the point of being issued a Full Practising Certificate.

Providing a clear point of reference for the capabilities that a barrister needs to be able to demonstrate before authorisation will allow for much more flexibility in delivery of the Bar course and pupillage. The BSB will want to work with training organisations to establish the right safeguards assuring quality in this different system.

Just as pupils benefit greatly from the profession’s ideas and insights, so can the BSB. And that is why an open consultation will soon be launched in an effort to reap as rich a range of views on pupillage as possible. Focus groups with members of the Bar, as well as current and former BPTC students and pupils, have already taken place. These have provided very valuable information that will inform the reforms as they take shape. I would urge you to take a moment to look at the Future Bar Training section of our website and see how you can get involved and contribute to what the BSB is doing.

After all, experience is the best teacher.

Contributor Simon Thornton-Wood

Director of Education and Training at the Bar Standards Board

 

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Simon Thornton-Wood

Director of Education and Training at the Bar Standards Board, Simon is responsible for education and training regulation policy and practice, across all stages of pre-qualification training and CPD, including the quality assurance of training providers and the administration of BPTC centralised assessments.