According to statistics recently cited by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, 70% of high court judges and 68% of top barristers are privately-educated, more than half of solicitors attended independent schools, only one in four partners are women, and nine out of ten QCs are male – including nineteen out of twenty who are white.
The adage, “I wouldn’t start from here” (made in response to a traveller’s request for directions), seems a fitting one to use in addressing concerns about social mobility and the law.
Clegg’s speech to the Financial Services Lawyers Association in October called for the legal profession to be more open to people of diverse backgrounds and implored it to “stamp out” nepotism. The sentiment he expressed is considered to be widely felt by the public: “Your profession judges and represents people in court – so it should represent them in membership too,” Clegg said.
This call came fairly soon after the launch of a government ‘business compact’ scheme in April, which saw a number of major UK businesses – including accountancy giants KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers – sign up to provide internships for pupils from deprived backgrounds. The City law equivalent, dubbed the ‘PRIME initiative’, marks the first industry-wide effort to improve social mobility in this branch of the legal profession.
Launched in September, PRIME requires its 23 member firms to provide work experience totalling at least 30-35 hours, and to commit to maintaining contact after work experience has ended. Firms must also offer work experience places that total no fewer than 50 per cent of the annual training contracts given each year, as well as provide financial help during the programme.
So, returning to the old traveller’s adage above, why wouldn’t I start from here?
It’s my fundamental belief that people are written off far too early in England and Wales at present. We have an education system that seems to punish certain bright people who fail to get perfect grades at GCSE and A-level. It doesn’t help that students are forced to make very specialised educational choices for their 16-18 studies at an age where they may not be totally convinced about their career choices.
I feel that the education and assessment environment needs an overhaul to prevent recruiters from using arbitrary academic achievement to ‘sift’ candidates out of sheer laziness. Talented people are being deprived access to jobs in the legal profession. Instead, we should be encouraging people to learn how to learn for themselves, and know where to find relevant information.
To this end, I feel law firms should be able to hire people straight out of school, if they wish, but also to take advantage to a greater extent of the enormous breadth of experience from other spheres of life mature candidates might offer. Unfortunately, we’re not in a place where that sort of flexibility can happen.
LegalAware is the head of the BPP Legal Awareness Society, and a keen and devoted legal blogger.