Simon says

thornton-wood

An interview with Simon Thornton-Wood by Rupert Jones of Citadel Chambers.

Simon Thornton-Wood is head of education and training at the Bar Standards Board. He’s not a lawyer, in fact, he previously worked for the Royal Horticultural Society, but says that experience helps him in his role: “It puts me in the sorts of shoes that barristers are in, having the intellectual confidence to pick up whole new subject areas with a brief and approach it with a fresh mind.”


Simon heads a team of 18 people. He spends much of his time meeting barristers, the Inns, academics, training providers and other regulators. Those relationships are all crucial to his role and maintaining them means he has a very busy schedule. It is therefore no surprise he is keen to use his time effectively. “I hate long meetings, so if I’m running them they don’t go over one hour. I prefer to catch someone at their desk if I can. As I seem to be seldom at a desk myself, I don’t really bother with one. My laptop is enough.”

Simon says a part of his job that he “really enjoys” is helping students, who can encounter an “extraordinary range of unexpected challenges through the course of their training”. It is a very busy time for his department. The Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) was published last year. This year, one of the providers of the BPTC has announced it will stop running the course.

Simon is acutely aware of the challenges ahead: “There are huge pressures facing everybody in the legal sector. The natural instinct is to clutch hold of that which you know and man the barricades.

But there are fantastic opportunities. That is no way to belittle the challenges that people face and particularly the Criminal Bar. Those challenges require a really good understanding from others, particularly the policy makers, to create an environment where the Bar can reach out and grab those opportunities.”

The Legal Education and Training Review

Following the publication of the LETR, the Bar Standards Board produced plans that the outgoing BSB Chair, Baroness Deech QC, acknowledged were expressed in “gobbledygook”. Simon will have to turn those plans into something concrete.

His first step will be to create a “competency framework” – a list of the key skills new barristers will need to demonstrate. He says: “There is a responsibility on us as regulator to have a very clear focus on what skills a barrister needs to have on the day they enter independent practice and others start to rely on them fully, as a professional. That’s the purpose of considering the introduction of a competency framework”.

So how will the BSB come up with the framework? “To a very great extent that has got to come from the bar itself. Nobody is better equipped to say what those capabilities are.”

Of course, different practice areas require different skills. The competencies required of criminal barristers are not necessarily the same as those in Chancery sets. Will a one-size-fits-all approach work? “I think for the sense of a single profession there must be a core. It’s right to pick out a concern that in real life people develop their sense of vocation, not simply for the Bar but for a particular area of practice, the rest is an inconvenient sideline on the journey there for some people. We are looking at it. The word ‘ticketing’ has been used for specific areas of practice, for people to demonstrate their competence. I suspect we will want to look at opportunities to prepare people in a more focused way for their specialist area of practice pre-qualification.”

The framework will also try to ensure that pupillage works effectively. “Pupillage, at its best, is an irreplaceable experience. It is when it goes wrong that we need to be really concerned. The competency framework can help. We can work with the Inns and Circuits to support the development of pupil supervisors so that they have a much clearer idea of their responsibilities.”

The BSB is not the only regulator producing a list of competencies. “The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has embarked on a similar enterprise,” says Simon. Clearly there will be a degree of overlap: “There must be a sort of commonality of language that enables people to cross reference to sorts of training in different domains. So, we need to develop a competence statement that both makes absolute sense for the Bar but also makes sense to a wider constituency.”

The Jeffrey Review highlighted the difference between the 120 days training criminal barristers complete, compared to the 22 hours undertaken by solicitor advocates. How can professions with such a vast difference in their training programmes share a common list of competencies? “It doesn’t mean the standards we set in training need to be diminished or made lower. I’m quite sure that the distinguishing characteristics of the Bar lie around the high quality advocacy training and capability. I’m absolutely sure that that will be sustained.”

The SRA has also announced plans to link its competency framework to its CPD requirements. Does the BSB have plans to follow suit? “We certainly have a huge interest in developing CPD,” says Simon, “but that is entirely focused on making it more focused on its real purpose rather than serving time. One can go too far in getting bogged down in things like competency frameworks in relation to ongoing practice if what you end up with is ticking boxes”.

“Barristers will be entrusted to take on responsibility for their own training without filling in endless forms and doing training just for the sake of training. One of the characteristics of the profession is a concern for self-development and we’re very excited about handing this over very much to barristers to determine what their own training requirements are, based upon the nature of their practice.”

The BPTC

Earlier this year, one of the providers of the BPTC, Kaplan, announced it will stop running the course. Does this mark beginning of the end for the Bar course? Simon says: “Looking at Kaplan doesn’t tell you anything about other providers. For their own business reasons, they adopted a particular approach to their BPTC. They had a high reputation for the course they delivered and inevitably that relied upon a high degree of selectivity in their admissions. They have found their business isn’t going to sustain that kind of enterprise and that is a purely strategic decision on their part, which probably says more about the direction they want to take their business in than it does about the future sustainability of training for the Bar as a whole.”

That said, it is clear the BSB believes improvements can be made to the qualifying process. “At the moment we ask people to commit up front to a substantial training programme, without any indication whether they’re going to have a successful career thereafter. You come out with nothing if you depart from that pathway before you come knocking on the door of chambers.”

There are no plans set in stone, but the BSB is keen to explore more flexible routes to qualifying. Simon envisages “a series of stepping stones, at each point giving them an opportunity to step off that pathway if they had a sense that it wasn’t for them, or that the market opportunity wasn’t what they had originally anticipated it to be, or with their maturity their commitment to see through that training goes”.

If the entire process is under review, could we see an end to the traditional “academic then vocational” training route? “It’s probably unhelpful to start painting scenarios until we have a better understanding of what the competencies look like and how we see those skills best acquired and then, and only then, look at where the opportunities might lie for alternative pathways in that satisfy those requirements,” he says.

New barristers must complete dining sessions at one of the Inns of Court. So how does dining fit in to the modern process? “We’ll have to look very hard at things like dining to understand where they fit into a regulatory context, but that’s not to say they don’t have a place in terms of what the profession want at all.”

The BSB introduced the Bar Aptitude Test in 2012 to try to ensure that only students with sufficient aptitude undertake the BPTC. Simon won’t be drawn on whether it’s working. “It is too early to tell. We’ve had a full year’s cycle. We won’t be able to talk about the outcome until we’ve been through a couple of full cycles. But you can infer from the fact we have run it for a second year that it’s good enough to progress to that point.”

The aptitude test costs £150 to take, which is somewhat ironic given that the other major concern about the BPTC is its cost. Simon says the BSB is very much alive to that issue. “We may find that the high cost of training is justifi ed to produce the high standards we want, but that cost is not necessarily indigestible if people can pay over time, rather than in lump sums. The Inns do a fantastic job with their scholarships. There are ways in which we set the environment for training that might foster that kind of support by enabling students to more effectively plan their investment.”

Despite the pressures, Simon clearly enjoys his job. “I love it because it is a fantastically stimulating environment. Working with people of such a highly intellectual ability who are so passionate about what they do. I hope I can bring something which respects that and seeks to build upon it, while being focused on what we’re doing as a regulator.”

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Rupert Jones

Rupert Jones is a criminal and media barrister at Citadel Chambers on the Midland Circuit.

Rupert Jones

Rupert is a criminal and media law barrister at Citadel Chambers practising on the Midland Circuit. He was Called in 2011 and previously worked as a journalist and radio presenter. He is also a member of the Bar Council.