Ethics is a feared exam on the BPTC. Being a centrally set assessment, providers cannot anticipate the type of questions to come up. Further, because the exam is in SAQ format, with a fixed marking scheme, the answers given must comply with the marking scheme points.
The former BPTC students, having survived the process were, as ever, ready to share their experience and advice to help you make through this very difficult BPTC assessment. As always, I am unbelievably grateful to my contributors for their insights and willingness to help my current students. The City Law School alumni are awesome people, whose help is very much appreciated by me. Thank you, everyone!
Please make sure you finish reading this blog post right down to the bottom, as my final contribution is a revision plan worth following!
The most common theme is the importance of knowing the core duties, verbatim. This advice came up in several times, with different reasons and techniques being suggested for both remembering them and for exam technique.
Tanzim Ahmed said this: “The 10 core duties are the most important, especially for SAQs. It’s very essential to refer the relevant core duties in every SAQ!”
Eloise Turnnidge echoes that advice, adding some useful revision techniques for students to her helpful advice: “Personally, I wrote out the core duties so many times. If you’re stuck for an answer, you’ll be able to cite at least one (and often two or three) core duties as being applicable. Other than that, the usual revision techniques should stand you in good stead. Flash cards, multiple colours, etc. Writing things out repetitively has always been the best way for me.”
Nicola Augousti made sure she had memory triggers to help her recall, an ingenious tip: “I wrote out all of the duties in 'trigger word' form and memorised them. I summarised the guidance with bullet points. I also studied the answers to mock papers because it helped me to structure my answers.”
Careful focus on the core duties has paid off for former student Brendon La Touche: “My approach was to memorize all the core rules under the major headings and apply a 'machine gun' approach in the exam. i.e. I put down all the answers I deemed applicable to the issue as ethics rules are dynamic and can be transferable to other issues. worked for me. got a VC.”
Deepti Bismohun adds that understanding the prioritisation of the duties is vital: “I think one should absolutely learn to identify the "red flags" i.e. know the fundamental duties that you cannot breach and which ones take precedence over the other in case of conflicting duties. Well, it worked for me!”
Lauren Le Franc advocated making use of "dead time", particularly when travelling, along with use of the full text of the Professional Ethics: “Read the additional guidance. Learn all the core duties and rules and apply to the question. Download the app, this helped me revise on the tube.”
Hesh Kumar (in his first contribution to this post) says: “I don’t know how the new exams work, but I found knowing the core duties inside and out can get you through any ethical situation. The most reassuring thing I found about ethics was, once you know and understand the core duties, your instincts are usually pretty spot on, and it’s just a matter of showing your thinking as you go through.”
Learn your core duties so that you have an idea for the kind of issues you need to have a sensitivity for. Then look carefully at the facts in your scenario, and trust your instincts that the ethical concerns you have are going to be the right ones. The idea of “showing your thinking” is a powerful one, make sure your answers achieve this aim.
Clearly, identifying which part of the factual scenario causes the ethical issues to be engaged is part of the thinking process.
Charlie Merrett puts it like this: “You really do get marks for repeating the relevant facts in the questions. Between identifying the core duties that are engaged and the aforementioned facts, you'll already be scoring a surprising amount of marks.”
Make sure you have shown which facts relate to which factual dilemmas, so the examiner knows you have worked out what is relevant, what is not and how they relate to the principles of ethics.
Kevin Lim brings these ideas together with his advice: “I found format to be very relevant. The style taught at City is simple, but it allows the examiner to see that the student understands what is the issue, which rule is engaged, and what is the appropriate course of action. It must be understood what an answer needs all 3 of these points in order to score the marks.
In order to communicate this to the examiner, students must: firstly, know what the rules are, and to that end memorisation of all the rules is important. I read the textbook front to back 2 times in order the get a firm understanding of the rules (not all at once, of course; over the span of 2-3 weeks), but different people have different opinions on this. Students must also take into account what stage they are at in the question (e.g, is this during trial, before trial, outside of court, etc.) and as such need to have a working understanding of civil and criminal procedure.
Lastly, an issue may have several rules engaged simultaneously (e.g, the common question about a client lying will involve rules regarding honesty, confidentiality, civil procedure, process of stepping down etc.). Repeating relevant facts in answers is completely normal.”
Hesh Kumar reminds students that there is no “quick fix”, spending time on the reading and studying is essential. He says: “There is absolutely no substitute for reading the BSB handbook. The textbooks etc will help, but you MUST go through the relevant parts of the handbook. It would be like doing Civil Litigation without touching the White Book or Criminal litigation without an Archbold or Blackstones! Whether you use the app or a paper based approach is definitely about personal preference. I am a big advocate of paper, something about flicking through it, knowing how many pages between each rule, writing on it, but many, many people tell me they prefer electronically. The important thing is to find what works for you.”
Another theme which featured strongly in my former students’ contributions is the importance of practicing questions, trying to do as many SAQ practice questions as possible and regular self-testing.
Kita L. Deveaux says: “SAQ mocks are essential for getting a good feel of the types of questions. Complete the questions in a group setting mark them and the discuss within the group sometimes talking with your peers will help you look at a question in a way that wouldn't have normally. The mark scheme for pass questions will also show what the examiners look for.”
I would endorse Kita’s advice about working with fellow students. Well disciplined peer learning is always a great way to learn.
Pal Krisnaveni puts it this way: “My advice will be to practise all the SAQs as often as you can and it is essential that you time yourself while you do the SAQs as time will go really quickly in exams and it is helpful to practise the SAQs under time pressure.”
I have always felt that not enough students take the opportunity to practice as much as possible. Students fear ethics and therefore avoid it, which, whilst understandable, is a bad, bad, idea! Confronting and thereby conquering the subject in the way Pal suggests is, to me, the right way of going about it.
Sammy Campbell draws these points together and echoes Hesh’s “no quick fix” approach: “Go through each chapter of the textbook, make detailed notes on the rules and memorize. Super important to do as many SAQ's as possible to get a feel for what the examiners want.”
A very innovative, but extremely astute tip comes from Shajib Mahmood: “Going through the past disciplinary tribunal findings found on BSB web-site really helped me a lot with my understanding of the subject overall.”
Seeing how the BSB actually apply their own rules is going to help you understand the rules and their purpose. It is like reading a leading judge’s judgement – you see the reasoning and application explained for you.
Ferdousi Kabir Helaly took a pragmatic approach: “I believe that learning the whole book from A to Z is not going to help. In an exam situation, to pick and drop in the answer in only 2 hours is going to be extremely difficult for an average student like me. I have only solved a lot of questions and learnt the duties, guidance and outcomes as I went through them. The exam paper was, as I remember, mostly based on practical difficulties and facts rather in a robotic or theoretical manner.”
I personally would say that not studying the Professional Ethics manual and the Code of Conduct carefully is quite a risk. But it is clear Ferdousi learned the guidance through practice questions and self testing. I would not read this advice as a suggestion to forgo the reading and revision required of you.
Ali Khan was philosophical, theorising about why students feel so threatened by the study of legal ethics: “Aside from all the wisdom above I would also say don’t take it personally. It’s a simple process of doing what you can to get confidence in jumping the hoop. Something about ethics makes a surprising number of students feel like it’s examining their own core values.”
As you become a seasoned practitioner, the values of the code become your own professional values, but to begin with it can be difficult. Before one becomes cynical, it is easy to trust the client too much. Experience teaches you the rules are there to protect you.
Shireen Cotto makes this point: “My advice is become more interested in humanity and moral obligations. I found it a breeze and got a VC with very little revision because it's in line with my own morals. I did it the year it became centrally set too.”
Understanding the consequences of your professional actions for the client and others is vital. Hence I agree with Shireen that understanding and appreciating your moral obligations in society as a lawyer is important. What we do has a profound effect, not just on clients, but on how the rest of society view lawyers and the legal profession.
Olivia Cork provides some novel advice: “Learning the core duties by heart is definitely essential and I would do that right now. However, I found it easier to apply the duties to scenarios that came up in other classes (particularly the criminal lit/evidence seminars). You can usually think around any of the questions set for the seminar work and practice identifying which core duties and rules etc they might engage. It helps to think as you go along with ethics because it’s based around practical examples and the answers are so formulaic in that you have to mention particular words.”
This is fascinating and astute advice; students don’t always realise that their other subjects present ethical issues. I find that students tend to think each subject belongs in a little box, all by itself. Trying to draw together the contexts will give you better oversight and make you a better lawyer in real life.
Laura Hollingbery took a highly effective systematic approach: “From the practice questions available, I compiled a list of every ethical scenario imaginable. I then wrote model bullet point answers with all relevant Core Duties, guidance, etc. and more or less memorised each one. I had to resit Ethics, mainly because I ran out of time in the exam. I managed to pass a second time using this technique...and being more familiar with the Core Duties than my own family.”
Daniel Herbert rounds off this post with his excellent comments on his revision techniques and his exam advice:
- Compile ALL of the practice questions together from all of the seminars, lectures, powerpoints etc. Attempt each one of the questions and then mark them. Read through the answers. Repeat process until you get full marks for each questions.
- If you haven't written full detailed notes out, do so. Once you have your set of detailed notes, keep rewriting them until you have a very basic set of notes. I found that writing things down on paper helped me recall the information easier than writing notes on a laptop.
- Use colour coordination in your notes. By using different colours, it was easier for me to recall certain information. For example, on my notes I would use red for core duties (or info you needed to know word for word), blue for information/explaining, green for any cases etc. I replicated this format across all modules so when I looked at my notes, certain parts stuck out. Also, if I wanted to skim read my notes, I could skim read through the red and green. I believe this helped me to recall information better when taking the exams.
- Write up the 10 ethical "commandments" (core duties) on A4 paper, and large enough to see from a distance, and put them up on a wall in your bedroom or a room you spend a lot of time in. Test yourself when you can by trying to recite the core duties in order without looking. Do this until you can recite all of the Core Duties every day for a week without looking at them.
- Write up parts of the syllabus on A4 paper and stick them up around your house. When walking around the house doing day to day things, like cooking, cleaning, having a bath, etc., you can revise without needing to look at a book or a laptop.
- I also distinctly remember going into the ethics exam and the first thing I did when it started was to write down all of the core duties at the back of the booklet. This was just in case I got a memory block during the exam due to the stress and pressure, and could not think of a core duty.
This is a brilliant step by step strategy, which I am very grateful that Daniel was generous enough to share with you all.
Good luck to all of you taking ethics. Thank you so much to all of my wonderful contributors.