Surviving the BPTC – Ethics

Surviving the BPTC – Ethics

We don’t know about your cohort, but probably one of the most disliked subject for ours was Professional Ethics. When you think about it, that is a fairly daft approach to take – whilst you may get a judge to let you start an utterly fluffed submission a second time, make a substantial mess on the ethics front and you can find yourself looking for a new career… Ethics really is an important topic to get to grips with, even if not the most enjoyable!

Some of the rules on ethics are fairly obvious, but some are actually quite surprising…

Many people will scoff, and say it is all just common sense, but we found it often wasn’t – there were some more tricky details to thrash out and think about. Some of the rules on ethics are fairly obvious, but some are actually quite surprising, and therefore important to note. For example, Helen was surprised to read that she would need her Pupil Master or Head of Chambers’ permission for her to continue in a part-time job that she had.

The Ethics exam in 2011–12 was one that caused a fair amount of controversy. It was the first year that the paper was centrally set by the Bar Standards Board, and it’s fair to say that, among Emily’s cohort at least, people were pretty disgruntled. We had all prepared using some sample papers, and by looking at the Bar Standards Board FAQ section (really handy!), but found that the exam paper really didn’t correlate to any of this. That aside, people did much better than they thought – Emily was very pleased to have scored an Outstanding in the paper.

To get the knack of ethics, you need to make sure that you read your Ethics manual and start trying to work through some sample questions and imaginary scenarios. Also, as mentioned above, the Bar Standards Board FAQ section is useful too. Then, once you think you’ve assimilated as much information as you can, have a go at a few sample or past papers – your provider should be giving you these anyway, but do ask if not.

The exam paper last year consisted of a mixture of SAQs (Short Answer Questions) and MCQs (Multiple Choice Questions). Unfortunately, the MCQ section isn’t quite as obvious as you might think – there generally isn’t an obviously wrong answer! The SAQ sections involved a few scenarios which are broken down into sub-sections with smaller questions, each worth a few marks.

The beautiful thing about papers like Ethics is that you don’t need to be too worried about writing in elegant prose (or at least, we didn’t last year – do double check this!). The most important thing was to get the points on the page in a way that makes sense. If you could answer a question with seven bullet points, rather than a page of prose, we were very much encouraged to do this. However, do remember that your marker has to be able to read and understand your answer, so do ensure it all makes sense and is logical!

As an absolute minimum, try and remember the general gist of the main rules under the Code…

I think the key is to pick out your obvious ‘fall-back’ responses, in case the worst happens and you genuinely have no idea what to write (this really shouldn’t happen if you have prepared enough!). As an absolute minimum, try and remember the general gist of the main rules under the Code  – for example, to name a few, the rules relating to professional embarrassment, your varying duties and which take precedence, the limitations where a client tells you he is guilty, rules relating to witnesses and disclosure gone wrong… etc.

Whenever you get a question, think which parts of the Code may be affected, outline these and then think logically about how you would address it. Would you speak to your client? The judge? Your opponent? Your Head of Chambers? Would this change your approach to the case? Would you have to withdraw altogether? If you do withdraw, what steps do you need to take?

Exam aside, even outside of the BPTC course, a glimpse through the rules is well worth it during pupillage application season, as many interviews involve a sneaky ‘what would you do if…’ style of ethical question.

Buffing up on ethics may also help you to avoid the fate of one David Harris, a barrister who previously hit the news by being struck off, in part thanks to his use of Twitter. Leaving aside the legal issues of him owning a file-sharing company, the first issue raised was that of being a witness in his own case (Rule 603(d) for those of you following in the Code). This is one of those sections that are worth paying special attention to as it has a habit of cropping up somewhat obliquely in questions.  Just remember though, it does not have any bearing if you are defending and your client told you he did it. Then you are caught in the grip of Rule 302, of not misleading the court. Of more practical interest in many ways to us as aspiring barristers though, was the charge of bringing the profession into disrepute via Twitter (Rule 301(a)(iii)).

We are sure we do not have to tell you that following the example of Mr Harris isn’t going to do anything but harm to your career.

Similarly, anyone interviewing you for a future career (not only as a barrister – for any route you end up taking) is not going to take kindly to naked photos on Facebook, drunken parties filmed on YouTube or general gibberish spouted 140 characters at a time.

With the pupillage application season looming, it is therefore interesting to have a look at what your virtual-first-impression looks like.

Taking Helen as an example, of the first ten Google hits for her name, two are actually her.  One is for this column and the other is completely employer-friendly. Unless you know her personally, chances are you won’t find her on Facebook, and her friends have long since learnt not to waste their time tagging her on their photos. Twitter, although she uses it would take a lot of tracking to lead it back to her. That said, she deliberately runs two accounts. One for her hobbies, the other for work related feeds and tweets. The same goes for the various forums for which she is a moderator and member.

If you were to google Emily, only five out of the first ten results relate to her, and include various employer-friendly things such as LinkedIn, several links relating to The Student Lawyer, her Twitter feed (which is private) and a report of a competition she took part in a long while back. Everything else relates to other people of the same name .

For us, it is about creating an image of a professional, current, hard working individual who is interested in the law and advancing our career.  It goes beyond not posting the bad stuff, but actively promoting the good stuff and hiding the parts of your life that employers really just don’t need to know about. With competition tighter than ever for pupillage, you never know, it might make the difference between being invited for an interview or not… By all means let your hair down every now and then, but remember, the overriding message is that you must not bring the profession into disrepute.

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