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Lord Neuberger: Top judges should visit non-traditional unis and encourage students to apply for training contracts

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Exclusive: Head of Supreme Court wants to see judiciary out on campus but is against imposing diversity quotas

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The most senior judge in England and Wales has called on his fellow members of the judiciary to help promote diversity by visiting non-Russell Group universities to encourage students to apply for training contracts and pupillages.

But Supreme Court head Lord Neuberger is against using quotas to change the make-up of the legal profession, whose members continue to disproportionately hail from privileged backgrounds.

Speaking at Legal Cheek‘s ‘Why the legal profession needs people who see the world differently’ event — a video of which is here — Neuberger backed the recent enthusiasm shown by many big law firms to reach out to students at universities outside the Russell Group.

But he acknowledged that this was often beyond the means of smaller firms and barristers’ chambers with limited resources.

This is where the judiciary could lend a hand as part of a broader legal profession strategy to “think outside the box” to a greater extent when it comes to graduate recruitment, said Neuberger. He explained:

I think one role for judges who don’t have to worry too much about recruiting is that we should be going out to the universities and the schools where people are not necessarily so aware of the opportunities and are often rather reticent about applying to firms and chambers.

Neuberger went on to praise the contextual recruitment techniques being adopted by City firms including Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells and RPC — all of which were represented at the event — to help them find talented students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.

Commenting on RPC’s related policy of taking at least two candidates each year on its vac scheme who don’t meet the firm’s graduate educational requirements, Neuberger said:

Taking people on vacation schemes who may not be particularly academically successful or would not normally have applied is the sort of thing that firms should be doing. Because we do have to think outside the box and do have to be thinking about going to institutions where people are not motivated and knowledgeable because they are disadvantaged from the first base.

He continued:

We need to get [disadvantaged students] aware of what is going on and more confident about applying — and getting ready for applying. It’s not just applying out of the blue, you have got to be prepared … you have to know how to make yourself attractive and how to perform in interviews.

It is these methods, rather than quotas, that Neuberger — who spent an hour speaking to individual students in the networking session after the event — hopes to see employed over the years ahead to make the legal profession more diverse. On fixed diversity targets, the Supreme Court chief had this to say:

In a sense we have targets — the very fact that we are saying there is insufficient diversity means that we are accepting there is a target because we haven’t reached it. In the sense of having a specific target, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it concentrates the mind; on the other hand it is a bit artificial … the more we start headlining with targets, the more in a way we start compartmentalising people rather than emphasising diversity.

Neuberger proceeded to describe quotas as “patronising and self-defeating”, commenting:

The other problem with targets is that they can quite easily shade into quotas. They have obvious attractions, but in end I think they are patronising and self-defeating. I’m quite comfortable with the way we are proceeding; namely, conscious that we have insufficient women and BME people at the top — both of the legal profession and in the judiciary.

According to the Legal Cheek Careers Firms Most List, in 48 out of 60 top law firms the percentage of partnership positions filled by women is less than 25%, while the Chambers Most List shows 42 out of 50 top barristers’ chambers have less than a quarter female QCs.

The Firms Most List also shows that the partnership of only four out of 60 firms reflect the proportion of ethnic minorities in the British population, with 14% or more ethnic minority partners. Most chambers do not even harvest comprehensive racial diversity data. Meanwhile across the legal profession socio-economic diversity is generally scetchy, but research has found that as many as 40% of young lawyers at top firms and chambers have been privately-educated.

The full video of ‘Why the legal profession needs people who see the world differently’ is here.

13 Comments

Not Amused

“I think one role for judges who don’t have to worry too much about recruiting”

Actually David, the problem is at your end. It would help us immensely if you did have a few more worries about the total failure to recruit a second woman since 2004 and any BME candidate at all.

If you sort that then I’m sure the rest of us can sort out our graduate level entry – which you are somewhat distant from.

(10)(3)

Anonymous

The profession has changed so much since the Supreme Court justices were in practice at the Bar (with the obvious exception of Jonathan Sumption!) that I would think it would be more helpful for junior barristers to visit universities; students would get a much more realistic idea about the profession and the process of applying from people under 5 years call than from a judge.

(3)(2)

Anonymous

We have had eminent woman barristers for decades, ffs. It’s not as if there is this enormous shortage of capable women for the bench. If Rosalyn Higgins could make the ICJ in 1995, and Brenda Hale could make the HoL in 2004, it is appalling that we have not since had woman appointed to the judiciary at the top level. It’s been 11 years since the first woman. How much longer do we have to wait?

(0)(0)

Barwoman

I don’t think it’s a great idea for students at very poor universities such as Southampton Solent to be actively encouraged to go for the Bar. How many will make it? And how many will join the ranks of those left in significant debt from pursuing a dream that was never realistic?

(3)(1)

Anonymous

jesus. all he is saying is that firms are doing well, as are chambers, but judges could help too. is that really controversial? stop looking for a fight.

(4)(1)

Dat dere equity partnah

‘Southampton Solent’ looooooool

Congratz to all their students for comfortably plopping at the bottom of the league table

(7)(0)

Anonymous

As a TC applicant, I would not have been comforted by the opinion of a judge, regardless of seniority. They don’t make the hiring decisions.

(2)(1)

Anonymous

It’s one thing to try and make recruitment at the Bar less Oxbridge heavy. However,
1) it’s not as bad as is commonly perceived (e.g. Pupillage stats in 2011/12 were 28% Oxbridge, 36% Russell Group not inc. oxbridge)
2) you can’t stop chambers from recruiting from good universities as academic
ability is important if you’re going to be a barrister

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Welcoming applications from ex-polys is undoubtedly necessary in order to expand diversity at the bar. I came out of an extremely disadvantaged comprehensive school that was under special measures and had very limited resources (e.g. 1 book between 4 and we were required to supply our own paper) and as such this impacted on my a-level grades. I got into a middle-table ex-poly and achieved a first class degree followed by a masters distinction. I have undertaken numerous mini pupillages, solicitors placements and volunteering placements and I undoubtedly have what it takes to succeed at the bar. Put simply, people like me should not be discouraged from going to the bar because of the limited chances we were given early on in life particularly when we have excelled educationally in spite of such challenges.

(5)(3)

Anonymous

How do you know you ‘undoubtedly have what it takes to succeed at the bar’? The truth is that your middle-table ex-poly education may not have introduced you to the kind of academic rigour you could get at certain other universities – and it is exactly that rigour and intellectual challenge that the Bar requires. Not at all to say that you yourself lack those skills, but I don’t think we can badmouth sets of Chambers for not taking a risk when they know that the Oxbridge candidate in front of them has been tested academically at the highest level.

(3)(4)

Anonymous

In no way do I intend to (nor do I) ‘badmouth’ sets of chambers for ‘not taking a risk’ I am simply saying that I support Lord Neuberger’s stance and I believe the bar ought to diversify as there are skills and qualities that people from less advantaged backgrounds can bring to the bar that people from other backgrounds may lack and this ought to be recognised.

(6)(1)

Barwoman

I don’t know how you can know that you undoubtedly have what it takes to succeed at the Bar. More pertinently, I don’t see why the Bar “undoubtedly” needs to welcome applications from ex-polys. You seem to be eliding the issues of social diversity and academic diversity – it is not the case that all students of poor schools end up at ex-polys, and it is not the case that all students of good unis went to good schools. Why should the Bar prefer those who end up at bad unis? What do disadvantaged students at ex-polys have to offer that disadvantaged students at good unis do not?

Your comment fails to grasp that the Bar is incredibly competitive, such that most students with very good CVs will not get a pupillage. It is all very well actively encouraging students from ex-polys to go for the Bar, but to my mind it would be irresponsible or even immoral to do so, given that their prospects of success (especially in an area of law that will enable them to have a reasonable standard of living) are very slim indeed.

(1)(4)

Deed U No

In the USA there is no TC’s!

That you can re take your bar exams several more times !

(0)(0)

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