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Social mobility report’s shallow analysis of legal profession

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Headline figures slam judiciary for being public school-educated toffs, but provide little insight demographics of wider sectors

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It’s the latest report dominating conversation around academia — the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s broadside fired at British elitism and the role of private schools in its continuance.

The media flurry has involved commentators bidding to outdo each, with perhaps The Independent’s “group content director” (whatever that means) leading the way as he called for the total abolition of private schools.

The report — ‘Elitist Britain’, which was released today by the Department of Education-affiliated commission — certainly takes a pop at the legal profession. And the mainstream media jumped all over statistics showing more than 70% of the country’s senior judges were privately educated. Indeed, 14% of senior judges went to just five independent schools: Eton, Westminster, Radley, Charterhouse and St Paul’s Boys.

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But scratch the surface and there isn’t much substance to the report’s analysis of elitism in the law. The fact that a large chunk of the senior bench went to top public schools and Oxbridge colleges — as depressing as it is — should fall squarely into the dog-bites-man tray at any news desk.

Apart from that headline figure and statistics showing that most judges went to school in the south east of England, the report itself provides little analysis relating specifically to the judiciary. It also provides a scant, and somewhat confusing, assessment of the wider legal profession, offering only two sparse case studies of anonymous “leading” law firms (pictured below).

According to the researchers, 41% of the partners at the first unidentified practice attended a UK fee-paying school. But curiously, marginally more — 42% — of the partners at the same firm went to UK state or non-fee-paying grammar schools.

There was a similar split among the senior associates at the mystery firm — with 31% having been at public schools and 33% at state or grammar schools. Only among junior associates was the split in favour of public schools, where 36% of lawyers at that level were educated, compared with 28% having attended state schools. 7% of the general population has been privately educated.

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Indeed, the most interesting figure illustrated that this firm at least was interested in recruiting more lawyers who had studied abroad. Some 32% of senior associates fell into that category, as did 31% of junior associates.

Figures from the second case study were confusing to the point of being useless. According to the study, the firm had no partners but instead had a range of other titles including “of counsel” and consultants, most of whom were educated abroad.

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Headline-grabbing the report may be, but as far as lawyers are concerned, it shed little light on just how elitist the legal profession is, the causes and potential solutions to any problem.

Perhaps the triumvirate of the Law Society, Bar Council and Chartered Institute of Legal Executives should jointly conduct some comprehensive research and analysis of the issue of elitism in the legal profession. Then again, the idea of those tribal organisations putting aside the sectarian interests for the common social good might be a step too far.

The report can be read in full here.