Completing the BVC is a necessary step in the process of becoming a barrister. I started it without any real preconceptions as to what it would entail, although I had heard heavy criticisms of the course, for example that most of pupillage is spent “undoing” what was taught. I was, therefore, intrigued to find out how the course was going to assit me in becoming a barrister and whether it provided good value for the £12,000 course fee.

Despite the criticisms, the BVC does teach the basic skills that students need and are unlikely to have encountered in anything other than a mini-pupillage. For example, in relation to written work, classes cover how to draft basic statements of case, the format and content for providing advice and how to write skeleton arguments. With respect to advocacy, within a week of starting the course, I was on my feet making a bail application in class and, shortly after, making another application in front of a practitioner. Our tutor allowed us to make our application uninterrupted with the exception of one judicial intervention question (from a conformed list of permitted questions). In front of the practitioner, there was more judicial intervention. Although this was probably more akin to reality, some students were put off by the stark change in style.

This really represents the difference between the BVC and other advocacy training. The BVC focussed on ensuring you completed an application—appropriately addressing the court, covering all the required submissions and effectively concluding the application. The classes, therefore, concentrated on the content of your advocacy, rather than on style. Comments were made on advocacy style almost as a secondary consideration. My course provider did, however, video each exercise so, although it was a little cringe worthy to watch, the replay was helpful in spotting one’s own flaws. The biggest drawback to this system was that you were often in a mad rush to get through all the points in your application within your ten minute slot and this wasn’t very reflective of reality. Although we all knew that being succinct was important, I’m not sure having to keep an eye on the stopwatch was helpful in improving my advocacy.

The Middle Temple method

The Middle Temple method of teaching advocacy is different. I attended the residential course at Cumberland Lodge during my BVC and have recently completed the pupils’ advocacy course. Students are interrupted when the trainer has heard enough to give constructive feed back. He does so by giving a headline statement, an explanation of that headline, followed by a demonstration and then the student is given the opportunity to have another go. At Cumberland Lodge, I was in awe of the trainers who gave far more meaningful feedback on my advocacy style than I felt I had received on the BVC. During the demonstration, the trainers adopted the students’ style and it was the most helpful part of seeing how advocacy should be done well.

The trainers were also not afraid of being direct. When one student used the dreaded phrase “I think”, our trainer jumped in saying, “I don’t care what you think, I don’t care what your opinion is, you’re the advocate.” The kid gloves were officially off. The pupils’ course was equally helpful, especially since it had been over two years since I had done any formal training. However, sometimes, because the trainer focussed on only one headline point, the feedback given wasn’t always something I felt would substantially improve my advocacy. For example, one trainer’s feedback was that I hadn’t provided a copy of an authority I had relied on and another that I used my hands too much. Whilst these are obviously valid points, I was sure there were more important issues which could have been highlighted.

No conflict in substance

In my experience, the training given on the BVC and at the Inns isn’t as conflicting as is commonly thought. There were odd points where the advice given differed. Tutors on the BVC were adamant that one should not say “I put it to you” whereas my Inn trainers seemed happy with this. However, the substantial difference was in the importance placed on content and on style. The BVC taught students how to make an application and what ought to be covered, but the Inn assumed you knew what had to be said and focussed on the way in which you presented your arguments. This often meant that the Inn trainer wanted you to get to the point a little quicker, whereas in front of a BVC tutor you had to ensure you set out your application to cover all the aspects of the skills guide against which you were being marked. The Inn advocacy training, in that respect, is more reflective of practice.

Both the BVC and the Inns provide training which has given me the basic skills I need to become a good advocate; one focussing on content, the other on style. My experiences and those of my contemporaries are that stylistically, the Inns and the BVC providers have very different approaches to teaching advocacy and emphasise different skills. However, what they actually teach is not as different as one may think.

Advocacy in practice

Attending court as a pupil I’m observing both aspects of advocacy at play and seeing that they are equally important. The clearest and most confident submissions are always the ones which sound the most convincing. Making headline points and then delving into more detailed argument gives direction and clarity to applications. I have noticed that by observing which points the judge really takes note of, one can discern what his view is and, therefore, which arguments to pursue most vehemently. Each of these is good advice given by the BVC and the Inn.

However, there are other points taught which do not seem to be quite so important in practice. I recently observed an application for summary judgment. Counsel did not start by saying “I am applying for summary judgment under Part 24 of the CPR” and setting out the full test to be applied, as we were expected to do on the BVC. In fact, if he had done so, I think the judge may have found it a little patronising. Nor did counsel concern himself with standing rigidly still or not leaning over the lectern. The application was more of a conversation with the judge where the test to be applied was incorporated into his submissions.

I also watched four Silks almost bantering with each other at a pre-trial review. These were very experienced barristers who were just as much friends as they were opponents. Although they did not make overly formal applications, this did not detract from the strength of their submissions or the extent to which they represented their clients’ interests. They certainly wouldn’t have passed the BVC, however.
Whilst on a court visit during my Inn training, I was initially impressed by the persuasiveness of a barrister presenting what turned out to be, on judicial probing, a weak case. Her opponent clearly had the stronger case, but his style of advocacy detracted from this. His submissions were not as clear and he reacted to opposing arguments by shaking his head and was quick to jump up and object to particular submissions. The judge, however, was not distracted by either style of advocacy and saw straight through the weak arguments, got to the point and gave his judgment accordingly.

Building on the lessons learnt

Pupillage is now giving me the opportunity to use the advice I have been given to discern for myself what I think is effective. It is now up to me to combine the lessons learnt and the skills observed to continue to improve my advocacy and build a successful career. Learning the formalities and best practice are clearly crucial for students and pupils. As one becomes more experienced, perhaps some of these skills fall by the wayside, but, to me, this does not make the advice given any less important.

Catherine Piercy is currently a pupil at Keating Chambers