A pupil barrister did a PhD about social mobility at the bar — and it makes for uncomfortable reading

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By Katie King on

Elite reputation puts off potential future stars — especially those who live outside the South East


Aspiring barristers from non-traditional backgrounds are still struggling to get their foot in the door, research has revealed.

A new report claims that — despite various pro-social mobility initiatives — wannabe lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds still face “serious challenges” trying to access the profession.

The study — a PhD project jointly funded by the Inner Temple and Keele University — draws on the experience of student participants in the Pegasus Access and Support Scheme (PASS). This social mobility programme is designed to help students from non-traditional backgrounds access the profession by helping them find mini-pupillages.

According to the research, the challenges facing non-traditional aspiring barristers are many and varied: gaps in aspiring barristers’ understanding of the profession, financial constraints which make it hard for students to get involved with work placements, substandard career advice, to name but a few.

The report even states that many students surveyed had been discouraged from considering the bar by staff at their unis “who felt they were unlikely to succeed, even where they had very strong academic records, suggesting that some institutions still consider the bar as only being ‘open’ to those from traditional backgrounds”.

Unfortunately, it’s understandable why some universities feel that way — the bar has a real social mobility problem. Reassuringly, there is acknowledgement in the report from practitioners that diversity at the bar is a benefit not only to aspiring entrants but chambers too. One chambers’ representative, commenting on the PASS scheme, said:

I don’t think we get any immediate benefit but in the long term hopefully we can benefit from a more diverse pool of applicants.

From a business point of view, therefore, diversity seems to work. With that said, a solution to this entrenched social mobility problem is key. According to the report’s author, 5 Paper Buildings pupil barrister Elaine Freer:

It is clear we need more mutual understanding between potential students, higher education, and the bar to ensure that gifted students from non-traditional backgrounds do not slip through the net.

So what’s the solution? Freer — who studied law at Cambridge before embarking on her social mobility PhD in 2012 — makes a number of recommendations.

To help financially challenges students, chambers should offer to pay for mini pupils’ travel expenses. About half (49%) of those surveyed for the report described paid-for travel as a crucial factor in their decision to undertake their mini pupillage. One of the 49 respondents also commented that — by doing so — the bar is acknowledging that not everyone has a stash of money to spare, and looks to be making a “genuine effort” to assist disadvantaged students.

Freer also suggested that it is important that the bar interacts with universities, and makes it clear that recruitment into the profession isn’t based on students’ background and university prestige, but on merit.

You can read the full report here: