Studying the Bar Practice Course during a pandemic

The Bar Practice Course or, ‘BPTC’ as formally known, is a difficult year of study for most and forms the vocational part of training to become a barrister. Those whom have studied it might consider it impossible to complete virtually. This too was an opinion I shared hence why, when applying for the course in early 2020, a huge part of my decision to study with ULaw was the knowledge that they aimed to offer a face-to-face course with the option of studying remotely. By summer of 2020, with lockdown easing and schools due to open in September it appeared that face-to-face university teaching would go ahead. Having completed the latter half of my final year of my LLB remotely I was looking forward to being in a classroom environment again, seeing faces, networking with new people.

Covid-19 changed the classroom environment significantly. Masks had to be worn at all times and we were seated exam style, individual desks two metres apart. This created challenges I had not considered. It made any sort of group work or sharing of ideas impossible as students couldn’t get close enough to interact with. Initially I was concerned about building relationships during the course as whilst on breaks we were unable to socialise with peers due to restricted seating. This meant that we often found ourselves shouting across the dining areas to have any sort of conversation. Despite this I do feel that I was able to build lasting relationships with my peers. Circumstances forced us to unite rather than separate into smaller groups and as a result I felt we had a strong bond which assisted particularly when sharing the stress of the course and writing pupillage applications. Mask wearing also became somewhat of a difficulty when advocating. Not only did we have to advocate from a distance but also had to overcome the difficulties of our muffled voices and it was difficult to read facial reactions which is important in advocacy.

Further difficulties were caused whenever a colleague or tutor contracted Covid-19 resulting in the class having to move to online lessons for two weeks to facilitate isolation. Whilst this couldn’t be avoided, it was very disruptive and it made planning tricky from one week from the next. This made adaptation to an already busy and stressful period more problematic. However, the university made a seamless transition from face-to-face to online and at short notice, which was very reassuring.

We broke for Christmas in early December with the intention to return to face-to-face teaching early the following January. Unfortunately, the country was placed in a third lockdown on 6th January forcing schools and universities to close. It became apparent to me at that point that the rest of my course would be provided online. Whilst remote working was not an unfamiliar concept, it not a method I’d choose as I enjoy the classroom setting and feel I learn best in that environment. However, I settled into it given that I had been able to get to know my tutors and my classmates so I was confident that, as a class, we would be just as productive online.

To begin with I missed the physical environment of a classroom and the social aspect of being around others. I found it difficult to avoid distractions at home. It was always very tempting to fold laundry or tidy during online classes, things I had been neglecting previously! I anticipated the challenge of separating work from home but eventually I found ways to achieve this. I kept everything bar course related in one room, set schedules and mimicked the routine of a working day. Therefore, at the end of the day I could close the door and relax.

For the first couple of weeks I wasn’t sure studying remotely was for me. Looking back I realise that being forced to study online has in some ways been a blessing in disguise. Commuting several days a week ate into my study time and I often worried about balancing my workload. No longer having to travel into university meant I gained hours in my day that I was then able to put into ensuring my preparation was more thorough. I was able to engage more in class because I logged in having had the time to fully read up on and digest the concepts. I also avoided the stress of traffic and being late to class and had more time to complete consolidation activities following class which are an essential part of learning. Another huge benefit was not having to lug the White Book in to class several times a week! I had every piece of material I needed within arms reach and no longer had to worry about forgetting my laptop charger or to print a key document.

Unsurprisingly, I felt the skill that was most negatively affected by online learning was advocacy. This was a module to which I was looking forward and I had hoped, over the period of the course, to get more familiar and comfortable with a courtroom setting and being on my feet. Not having a mock courtroom at home meant that I didn’t practice standing on my feet and tackling the annoying habits of swaying and leaning over the lectern in which I had previously indulged. It often felt artificial to be advocating in an online environment as it just doesn’t mimic real court advocacy. I found it was difficult to know where to look to maintain eye contact when advocating to a computer screen.

However, advocating online has forced me to adapt my approach and think creatively about witness handling and conferences. Unlike in a courtroom or in a face-to-face environment, it is very difficult and sometimes impossible (if cameras are off) to read body language. Reading body language and adapting your own is an essential skill and one I was concerned about missing out on learning. Often when examining witnesses I found I had to pay careful attention to facial expressions and the way in which a witness responded and language used. In terms of adapting my own body language I found that it really comes down to your camera set up and the way you position yourself. I found that by simply purchasing a laptop stand it forced me to adjust my posture and in some way mimicked standing in court. I came to appreciate the nuances of body language which I may not have been exposed to if I had been advocating in person.

At the time of writing I am just one exam away from finishing the bar course all of them so far having been undertaken online in my home environment. This too came with its own swings and roundabouts. I found that being in my own environment I was naturally more comfortable and relaxed which eased my anxiety somewhat. Proctored exams were a particular challenge as I was constantly worried a neighbour would suddenly start drilling or there’d be an unexpected knock at the door or worse, a Wi-Fi outage.

 

In total I only experienced 7 full weeks of a 20 week course on campus. In that time I performed one oral advocacy session on campus but never experienced advocacy in a mock courtroom environment. I have worried about the effect this may have moving forward in my career. However, I have developed and discovered virtual advocacy skills which I otherwise would not have had the opportunity to develop. With society modernising and perhaps the justice system realising the potential for online hearings I feel the skills I have gained are an asset and one that will enable me to more easily adapt in the future. The concept of an online hearing is no longer unfamiliar and perhaps one I now feel quite comfortable with.

Overall, I do not regret my decision to study the BPC during the Covid-19 pandemic and I feel that I have not been disadvantaged hugely by studying remotely. I feel I have come out the other end as a stronger and more flexible person. I have learnt skills I would otherwise not have been able to had I been studying in person. I believe those who have continued study throughout the pandemic, particularly on the BPC, have demonstrated adaptability and a perseverance which will likely be key attributes for a career at the bar.

Verity Barnes, current BPC student at The University of Law

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