Sunday, 9 April 2017

Revision tips from former BPTC students for 2017

Dear Current BPTC students,

It is easy, when you’re revising at home, to feel alone and isolated. It is also easy to feel like no-one understands what you are going through.

But you have allies and friends among former BPTC students. Here are their learning tips, tricks, and techniques.

You don’t just have to take it from me, you can learn from people who’ve done the BPTC and made it through to the other side!

Good luck with your revision and exams,

With love


PS – this is a long blog post – but it is worth reading in full. This is the distilled experience of people who have survived the BPTC and are thriving now.

Josh Giddens advocates teaching the subject to a fellow student or friend, as it encourages deep understanding, which helps retention. He also recommends diagrammatic notes, using either spider diagrams, flow charts or procedure diagrams. He says:

“Teach a topic to someone willing to listen! At the end of each topic I draw a spider diagram as a summary to that topic and draw flow charts/process flows for procedural steps.”

Andy Horton, former CLS librarian, legal research guru and quizzing supremo suggests that after putting in good, hard work, you need to know when to take a rest.

“The most useful revision technique I happened on was to take proper breaks - and stop at the end of the day. Formed informal club of finalists who met in bar for one beer and chat every evening, marking end of day's revision.”

Travis Ritch is a student after my own heart and shares my views completely:

“Snigdha, you know what I'm going to say: read the syllabus! You cannot be examined on anything outside of it. This simple shift in perspective from ‘OMG! I have to be a QC by next week’ to ‘Hey, I can manage this’ is critical.”      

Travis goes on to explain in greater detail:

“Allow me to expand on why this mindset is important. The examiner is bound by rules. You on the other hand, while learning (and preparing assessments for submission), are not. In other words, you can approach the task in many ways - not suggesting anything unethical or against the course requirements - and always in the knowledge that you can't be ambushed by something you weren't expected to know. I'm taking into account cultural factors here too. Most BPTC students are motivated by fear of failure, whether they want or have offers of pupillage or they don't, and many feel uncomfortable in the environment or simply uncompetitive altogether. Every assessment you sit has a scope limited by the syllabus. Find out what it is, ensure there are no gaps in your knowledge, and what you get is a feeling of control, which is the same feeling a practising barrister wants to take to court. Read AROUND what you have to know and now you're really on your way. It can all seem so overwhelming - approaching the task from the perspective that your examiner has to play with a straight bat is a smart idea, because it's true. I can also strongly recommend a Sunday roast (being lucky myself to have prep on Mondays!)”

The importance of using the syllabus was seconded by Shireen Cotto, who was candid and honest about her experience (for which I am particularly thankful):

“I failed both criminal and civil until I followed the syllabus and ticked off each area as I went along. I highlighted and discussed the content with a library buddy and I ended up somehow passing both even after deferring a year and therefore having no classroom study for nearly two years. I also used a really well written revision book which followed the syllabus.”

Peter Khoury, a student who has always given excellent and practical advice, agreed:

“Review the syllabus as Travis suggests. Check that your notes address each syllabus topic. Ensure you have questions and model answers for each topic. Study buddies are a must. Re-write your notes on a whiteboard over and over again. Get your study buddies to erase various sections of your study notes on the whiteboard and then you fill in the blanks. Sounds simplistic but it is effective. Good luck!”

Shah Ali Farhad says you should not neglect your need for downtime.

“I would give one general piece of advice, rather than specific revision tips. This helped me greatly during my own time at the BPTC. Notwithstanding the pressure, one MUST take a day off from anything and everything related to the BPTC. Every 3-4 days should be separated by a day off. BPTC is mental and psychological workload. One must give the body and mind that crucial one day to recuperate 3-4 days of gruelling workload. This should be followed during exams too. Believe me, your studies and academic priorities will be benefitted, not hampered, by this time off.”

Yee Ling Cheah has advice on how to use practice questions and how to be self-reflective:

“How I passed the BPTC, being in a blur for most of it?! I got through by doing lots of practice questions and understanding what the question wants. practice after a few topics, or pick questions that are on the topic you've just revised. after you've done all the topics, do all the practice questions again, even if it means repeating a few questions. Marking your own answers, no matter how brilliant or ridiculous they are, forces you to see where you've gotten it wrong, and how to make it right.”

Please read the above advice carefully. Students tend to think practicing exam questions is purely done to see if you pass. This is only half of their purpose. You should use any practice questions, whether from LGS or SGS or from a mock to check your weak areas and examine how the questions are put together. Reflecting on your technique and efficacy is essential.

Joseph Seo began his invaluable advice by giving some general suggestions.

“I passed both civil and crim lit back in 2015. Two things I paid attention to: - The law was written for a reason (i.e. there's an underlying rationale to find and once you do, you can connect the dots and commit it to memory) - Also, understand that many things studied in BPTC come in components, and in an orderly fashion (i.e. the legal requirements to fulfil - which also explains why I make my notes in the form of tree diagrams.”     

These thoughts were picked up by Travis who I hope you thank as much as I do for the time and trouble he has taken to pass on the benefit of his experience:

“Completely agree with both of these points. Having studied jurisprudence helps with the former but is by no means necessary - just get your head around what the rule/law is there for and what contribution it makes. By doing so you will understand when it comes into play. Also, in practice, you really can use things like the overriding objective! Got me a 3 week adjournment once. People learn so differently (diagrams have never worked for me for example) but whatever you have to do to expose the underlying rationale is definitely going to pay dividends when you have to apply the knowledge to a set of facts.”

This is important stuff being highlighted by Joseph and Travis. The "rationale" is often the peg to hang your knowledge from. As children, we used to ask "why?". As adults, we become scared to ask such a basic question. But is it "basic" (as in superficial) or is it actually "basic" as in FUNDAMENTAL?

Joseph Seo went on to share his method of making notes. Here is the diagram he sent me:

Joseph explains the diagram:
“From left to right:
- Blue box for the law
- White boxes for breaking down the law into components
- Then orange to explain each component, often with an attached example”.

Joseph then explains:

“Once you've distilled the law into this, you can read the chart in reverse order (i.e. orange --> white --> blue) to see if it makes sense. And most importantly, keep referring to your chart in the course of your studies. Repetition helps to further commit to memory.”

Joseph’s method is simple yet effective. It is easy to learn, easy to apply, but has strong methodology behind it. It is highly transferrable. Because the main objective of this method is achieving understanding, it begins on a steady foundation. Too many students, in my experience, try to learn/memorise without understanding. Joseph’s technique puts understanding and comprehension at the forefront. This means remembering is much easier, as it builds upon the foundation of the understanding.

David Kemeny, one of my best ever advocacy students said:

“I found the best thing I could do for the heavy knowledge subjects was to find a few study buddies and teach each other parts of the syllabus. If I can explain something to someone else, I find the knowledge sticks more reliably.”

His advice struck a chord with past BPTC students, who added the following brilliant and constructive advice:

Matthew Rees made a very helpful suggestion, which I’m sure the Library or School office can help with…. Get a room!

“And book a room with a whiteboard (such as the one in City's Gray's Inn library) to go through past paper questions with others.”

Dana Munnings agreed with this advice. She said:

“This is the best piece of advice ever. I would learn topic by topic, write them down, call family members abroad and tell them about each topic. They got tired and didn't know what the dickens I was talking about, but it's like talking gossip, make it juicy and it sticks. Another thing I did was record myself explaining it and play it back on the tube, on the way to class, heading to dinner, everywhere. Even if you're not paying close attention, it stays in your subconscious mind.”

Dana’s tip is extremely helpful because it recognises some people are communicators and/or use auditory memory. Too often we think learning is visual, when the reality is that it is linked to all of our senses.

Picking up on this advice, we have more sound advice from Travis:

Trying to teach someone else is the real test of understanding and a great way to check whether you have it, as well as developing it because it will likely involve expressing your understanding at different levels of detail and abstraction and that does make it stick. Completely agree.”

I will confess, but truest and completest understanding of civil litigation came as a result of teaching it in my first year at CLS. After that, I could understand what I’d had to constantly look up in practice.

Travis’ team-teaching tip was supported by David Kemeny, adding his second valuable tip:

“Yep, particularly if your study partners then stress-test your explanations by slightly tweaking the fact patterns.”

Laura Hollingbery added her superbly honest and highly realistic advice:

“I found myself getting really distracted and procrastinating during revision. I decided to mix things up so I bought myself a whiteboard from Rymans, some coloured markers and mounted it on the wall next to my desk. It was great for drawing diagrams, testing yourself quickly and provided a welcome break from the monotony of pen and paper note-taking.”

I agree with Laura that revision can be dull and boring and I applaud her advice on keeping it interesting. Laura went on to say:

“I think teaching someone is often the best way of checking you've learned something sufficiently. With some of the topics that I found harder to grasp, I either pretended to teach a non-existent class or found some poor but willing, non-legally minded family or friend to explain hearsay and the like to them, forcing them to ask questions on anything they didn't understand. Payment in coffee usually does the trick.”

Faridah Hemani reiterated that if you are an auditory learner and a good communicator, use those skills. She was always good at explaining things and conveying her understanding.

“The best way to study for me was just listening to the lectures and then having group discussions.  Not disregarding the fact that we have to read, but it just makes more sense after the lectures as I personally found it easier to understand and retain the information.”

Suzanne Reece, my amazing former colleague reminds us all that we perhaps have to reflect on what kind of 
a learner we are. We are not all the same, and we won’t respond to different stimuli in the same way.

“Students have different learning styles.  Find yours and you will find learning and revising easier. Learners can be-read/write students (who love note taking). Visual learners love to draw pictures. Audio learners learn by listening and ‘doing’ learners learn by modelling.”

Mohammed Golam Kibria Shimul reminds students that fear, particularly fear of failure can be debilitating, particularly realising such fear can be a cultural thing:

“First, remove fear from you student mind; especially Asian students!! I found if I had no fear then even the BPTC was not that hard!”

Finally, this utterly wonderful contribution from Simone Perry emphasises that using many different skills and techniques together, changing approach from day to day and time to time keeps things fresh. I also totally endorse her comments about taking time to reflect each day.

“Hi Snigdha! I just wanted to tell you that several skills you've posted about on your fb really helped me through my BPTC, and are still applicable in my working life now.

One of it is the Pomodoro technique. It made me more efficient - I avoided procrastination. I found it fun to constantly try to finish a task before the 25 mins interval end. When I managed to get something done just before an interval ends, or if I manage to finish many rounds in a day, or when I reflect on my day and find that I managed to learn many things/get many things done in a day, it feels incredibly rewarding.

Another technique I picked up was to put everything into mind maps (I mean, really, everything). I believe we learn and memorise materials best through visualisation and association. The mind map really does not have to be pretty. It does not even have to be very concise if one is not good at doing it. But it just has to be in a map form, on a piece of paper. Putting certain materials in certain places help you visualise and remember what it is about.

I also found that reconsolidating my notes at least twice, reading them out as I do so, recording myself, and replaying the recording back to myself, helped a lot with memorising a big bunch of materials. Surprisingly, the materials also stayed in my mind for quite a long time.

Every day, one should always spend some time to reflect back and visualise/replay everything that one has learned. You can do it in the gym, in the shower, while eating, or lying in your bed preparing to fall asleep. Visualise it in your head -- remember where you placed certain materials in the mind maps you did, imagine yourself writing them out and also think about how to apply it in certain scenarios or how to put them in an essay/a piece of work.

Lastly, I am a strong believer in visualising your success. Set a goal. Write it down on a piece of paper, stick it near your bed, look at it every morning. Visualise how you are going to achieve it. Visualise yourself attaining it. For myself, all I had in mind when I started BPTC was to pass everything in one go and get called to the Bar in July. I had rather low expectations for myself after hearing about how some people had to re-do the BPTC several times. However, from day 1 after I set my goal, I started to visualise myself checking my final results, I visualised myself being happy, I visualised my family being happy, and most importantly, I visualised myself walking down the aisle of Temple Church and collecting my call certificate. I visualised many details; and I memorised the lovely and happy feelings I thought I would feel at the end of it all.

I replay all these in my head whenever I feel lost, worn out and want to give up. It certainly helped me put things in perspective again and helped me remember how much I wanted that end result.

All these certainly has helped me in many aspects of my life, not just the BPTC. I want to thank you for posting the things that you have on your facebook, they have enlightened me a lot. Of course, these may not be applicable to every single person. One just has to experiment and see what method of working suits them best. And whenever you meet lost and tired BPTC students, remind them that it is okay to feel a fear of failure, remind them that it is all going to be okay at the end, and if they make it, they are going to be so much stronger and better, and they will feel proud of themselves. It also does not matter how long we take to do something, as long as we get it done. Each person has their own abilities and timeline in life, and one really shouldn't beat themselves up for not being able to achieve something as fast as another person. Things will come to us one day when we work hard (and smart) for it.”

Simone’s visualisation tip is excellent. How about doing this – borrow a wig and gown. Take a picture of yourself wearing them. Get the picture printed out. Stick it to your bedroom door or bedroom mirror. Look at it every day to remind you of what you are working towards.

Thank you to all of my contributors. You are amazing.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Opinion writing – Exam preparation

The opinion writing exam is drawing near and the nerves are building. There are a great many things you can do to help yourself, so I hope to home in on some practical and achievable steps which will help point you in the right direction.

Many students do not actually read the Case Preparation and Opinion Writing manual. This could be because they are not referred to much in classes (either SGS or LGS). This is because we are meant to focus on practitioner’s texts and not the manuals, rather than because the manual itself is unhelpful. Also, if former students have suggested to you that the manual is not worth reading, you may want to ask yourself what you might actually lose from spending some time reading some particularly appropriate chapters and paragraphs.

My suggestion to you is that there are several chapters which are essential preparation for the exam which need your attention.

Opinion writing is a composite skill. It is made up of:

-Legal research: looking up, reading from, making notes about and UNDERSTANDING the relevant areas of law. Simply printing or photocopying materials will not be enough.

-Case analysis and case preparation: reading your case papers, discerning which side you are on, working out whether you are likely to be claiming or defending, working out the cause of action, determining the facts relevant to make out each cause of action, proving (with evidence) the elements of the cause of action (or the defence), measuring the prospects of success and the remedy (or exposure to loss).

-Recording the above in documentary form by writing a cogent opinion which is a practical, problem solving document which considers litigation realities, burden of proof, funding (and costs) which states conclusions wherever possible, based on reasoning rooted in facts, law and evidence. 

For case analysis:

Please begin by reading the following chapters of the Case Preparation and Opinion Writing manual:
Chapter 10 - Overview of a Civil case
Chapter 12 - The Fact Management process (this will actually help you with all of your skills subjects)
Chapter 13 Presentation for the Practitioners (the CAP approach in action) [again - will help with all of the skills]

This is the “Opinion Forming” process – where you form the views which you will eventually record in the opinion.

Next comes the skill of opinion writing itself, because you do not simply set out your analysis process in writing. Please read:

Chapter 19 - Opinion Writing - IGNORE THIS AT YOUR PERIL!  

Chapter 21 - Getting Started - Read and even if you have already read it before, re-read it!

Suzanne Reece's book "10 Reasons You Didn't Write An Outstanding Opinion" is also a valuable and helpful read.

Why don’t you simply set out your thinking process? Because not all of your thinking will be relevant or important.

If a matter is not disputed, then you do not need to spend time considering how difficult it is to prove. For example, it is often undisputed that a contract existed or that a duty of care was owed. What is important is whether either were breached.

Once you have done that reading we come to a question I often get asked by students:

“Is there a secret to good opinion writing?”

Of course there is! But, to disappoint you all, it isn't a quick fix. The secret involves thinking like a lawyer. The secret definitely isn't copying suggested answers given to you at Bar School.

Think about it - if opinion writing was about quick fixes and copying suggested answers, why on earth would a solicitor pay you good money to write an opinion for them? They're qualified lawyers themselves! They have some idea of how to assess the merits of the case. They have procedural knowledge. They know about evidence and proof. They need your advice as Counsel are the specialists about how matters are handled and heard in court. That’s why they are asking you. Don’t assume any lack of knowledge or experience - and don't ever assume they are stupid.

The secret is... well, it isn't a single secret thing.  
You need to have a real understanding of the areas of law you are asked to research. Do your research, print up some legal resources, make some bullet point notes. Make sure you understand the law properly, before you think about anything else.

You need to have a good awareness of civil procedure (at CLS the opinion is a civil one). Pre-action procedure or post-issue procedure could be equally relevant. How well do you understand your civil procedure. In particular – pre-action conduct, limitation, commencing proceedings, responding and defending, Part 36.

You need to understand litigation tactics. When to sue, who to sue, how limitation affects your decisions, requests for further information, defending, how to stay for ADR, appropriate methods of ADR, use of part 36.

THEN - you have to make sure you carry out careful, methodical case analysis. (See below).

THEN - you have to plan the structure and content of your opinion. (Writing without a plan results in unstructured, rambling, unfocussed, directionless writing).

ONLY THEN - can you start writing. (But make sure you leave yourself enough time for the task!)

But what makes a good opinion?

You should realise by now it is not an essay. Not an academic discussion of the legal issues.

At degree or GDL level you can easily write “on the one hand this… on the other hand that…”. But it will not work for opinion writing.

This is because that sort of fence sitting, theoretical writing is not helpful for resolving your client’s legal problem. You are not being instructed to demonstrate your knowledge of the law.

Solving the problems of the client is the MOST important thing an opinion must achieve.

Should the client sue (or defend)?

-What are the realistic chances of success?

-How can the chances of success be improved by obtaining evidence?

-Which issues need greater investigation?

-What stage of the proceedings are we at?

-What comes next?

-Are any time limits looming around the corner?

-What will we get, if we win?

-Is it worth the time, money and heartache?

(Of course, none of these questions can be answered by sitting on the fence - or by copying from a suggested answer.)

NEVER tell the client what you think they want to hear. (Always be realistic, and support your opinion with reasoning based on facts, legal principle and evidence.)

Remember: if you tell them to sue, if you tell them they will win, if you say they'll recover lots of money, they will love you when they first read your opinion. When it goes wrong, whatever the reason, they will blame YOU.

When you advise a client to litigate, you are asking them to stake their money and take a risk on something they have no knowledge or understanding about.

How many of you know nothing about horseracing? Well, that's how the client feels about litigation. Would you put all your money on Fennann on today's 13:40 race at Plumpton because I told you I had a hunch it would win? No you wouldn't.

Hunches, maybes, possibilities are not going to reassure your client.

Solidly reasoned advice will.

Good luck to you all!

With very best wishes


Thursday, 11 August 2016

How should I prepare for the drafting resit exam?

I have been asked by drafting students how to prepare for the resit. These are my thoughts.

1.      Download the core law document from Moodle.

2.      Complete the legal research on the core law. Don’t forget to ensure you understand the areas of law, and don’t neglect the Remedies manual as a resource. If you have to start from basics, don’t be afraid to pick up the relevant Nutshell. Top up your understanding with research from practitioner sources. Make notes and printouts as needed.

3.      Put together a drafting file – with all of your drafting work and all of the suggested answers. Use sections or tabs to label up. Know where you will find helpful wordings and guidance. Make sure you’ve carefully read the commentaries to the suggested answers. Put your notes on the law from point 2 above in your file.

4.      If you did not do the 2nd formal feedback exercise, New Flow, please do so under timed conditions. 3.5 hours, like in the exam. Then compare your work to the suggested answer – and listen to my podcast. This should give you a lot of food for thought and tips on general student problems encountered in drafting.

5.      Read your failed feedback thoroughly, even if you read it when you first got your results. At the time you first got your results, you would have been angry. You would not have been willing to learn from the feedback and know how to improve. Read it with an open mind.

6.      Re-read chapters 7, 8 and 13 of the drafting manual. Really examine the “stages” approach to drafting in chapter 7, the method of preparing to draft in chapter 8 and the advice and discussion in chapter 13.

7.      Re-read the documents in the Revision Resources on moodle. My advice document and the revision notes are particularly of use.

8.      Go back through the LGS slides and general resources on moodle. Some of the grids may help you with efficient and logical case analysis.

9.      If you have often cut corners on case analysis, go back to the Case Preparation and Opinion Writing Manual.

10.  Write yourself short account of half a page of A4 relating to what you did during the drafting exam - how you spent your time, what tasks you did, what judgments and decisions you made. Reflect on whether you carried out adequate analysis and planning in the light of the work you have done above.

11.  Write yourself a short account of half a page of A4 setting out what you think you need to do differently. Refer to the failed feedback to do this.

The drafting process is: