Top lawyers are ten times more likely to be privately educated than anyone else

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By Katie King on

The legal profession just can’t seem to shake its ‘old boys’ club’ reputation — for good reason


New research has shown that the highest status areas of the law are predominantly a private school kid’s game, and that little improvement has been made to fix this in the past 30 years.

The analysis, conducted by the Sutton Trust and PRIME, shows that top lawyers are being drawn in hugely disproportionate numbers from the 7% of the population that attended independent schools.

Judges and QCs are the least representative of all — 74% of judges and 71% of QCs went to private schools, which is more than ten times the general population level

And law firms aren’t doing too well, either. Nationally, 32% of partners attended private school, with this figure rising to 41% when London firms are looked at in isolation. In the magic circle it’s 50%.

The research — that was first reported in daily legal newsletter The Brief — also shows that the profession is largely dominated by Oxbridge grads, with over 70% of judges and QCs and 55% of top solicitors hailing from these universities.

These figures demonstrate what Sir Peter Lampl, Sutton Trust chair, terms “a big social mobility problem within the legal sector”.

Other separate research also out today from LSE assistant professor Michael Blackwell shows that this “social mobility problem” has a domino effect right up to the top.

Focusing on the bar, Blackwell explains that junior barristers are more likely to take silk if they are male, Oxbridge-educated, and practise in London chambers. Because the majority of High Court judges are taken from the pool of practising QCs, a lack of gender diversity at the lower levels filters upwards and goes on to impede judicial diversity.

This lack of social mobility is beginning to be framed more and more in Lampl’s terms — as a problem. 52% of senior legal figures polled by the Sutton Trust agreed that improving social mobility would be beneficial to their firms, with 71% acknowledging wider benefits to society as a whole.

Problems like these need solving, but, unfortunately, not a lot of improvement is being made.

The multi-faceted nature of the problem means that finding a solution will not be easy — and, according to the research, it’s the job of law firms to come up with it.

Senior partner at Allen & Overy and chairman of PRIME David Morley — who, by the way, is not privately educated — has spoken out about the vital role law firms have in reshaping the current picture. He commented:

The research shows that a large part of the responsibility for solving this issue lies with law firms, so we need to ensure they attack the problem with the energy and enthusiasm it deserves.

Despite well-meaning pronouncements like this, there are still a number of reasons why wannabe lawyers from less advantaged backgrounds are being barred from entering the profession.

Respondents to the Sutton Trust’s survey put the interview presentation of state school educated candidates as their biggest barrier to getting a training contract. Second was a lack of pre-university educational attainment, and third was a lack of understanding of the profession and business.