‘Social mobility initiatives are targeting the wrong people: I would know — I was one of them’

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Legal Cheek’s Katie King explains why they must be more selective

Over the past ten years, the legal profession has pushed for better inclusion and representation, and it has pushed hard. Social mobility programmes are now targeting children as young as 12, providing education and experience to students they believe are in some way less able to go out and get it for themselves.

These programmes include the Citizenship Foundation, whose focus is running mock trials and conferences for school children to give them a flavour of life as a lawyer. I’ve attended some of these events and they are excellent.

There’s also Big Voice London, which helps young people feel empowered through legal education. The team runs fantastic interactive sessions on, for example, law reform and criminal law advocacy. Pathways to Law, by the Sutton Trust, does a similar thing, though its scheme is more of a commitment because it runs over two years.

I did the Pathways to Law programme with the London School of Economics when I was in sixth form, and it was one of the best things I ever did. I enjoyed it so much, I worked as a mentor for the scheme while I was in the second year of my LLB at the University of Bristol.

But the Pathways to Law programme’s big sell isn’t fun, it’s social mobility. The whole premise of these schemes is to give underprivileged aspiring lawyers the tools to make it to university and, later, the profession.

There has to be a filter in place here, some sort of definition of what it means to be somehow in need of help from social mobility programmes.

The words that get bandied around a fair bit are ‘underprivileged’ (Oxford English dictionary: “not enjoying the same standard of living or rights as the majority of people in a society”) and ‘disadvantaged’ (“in unfavourable circumstances, especially with regard to financial or social opportunities”). Though we could argue all day about what these words mean in practice, in my opinion the criteria adopted by the initiatives are just so far away from the OED definitions it’s running their credibility into the ground.

Citizenship Foundation and Big Voice London first. On the social mobility side of things, all you have to do to benefit from a place on these programmes is to be from a state school — that’s it.

So first of all a big congratulations to the 90% of the country who meet that criteria, and secondly how is it possible for someone to be from a “disadvantaged background” if they’re not even below average? They’re in exactly the same situation as the vast, vast majority of all other 11-18-year-olds in the country.

It’s also worth noting ‘state school’, for these purposes, includes ‘grammar school’ too. The winners of this year’s Bar Mock Trial competition, run by the Citizenship Foundation, were from a top grammar school in Plymouth whose website claims “the vast majority of our students go on to study at university”. Few would call these girls ‘disadvantaged’. When we got in touch with the Citizenship Foundation, Ruth Dwight, programme director, said:

Our well established and popular public legal education programmes… are primarily designed to increase young people’s legal capability — i.e. their ability to recognise when they have a legal problem and to be able to deal with it if and when they have. A clear secondary outcome of these initiatives is to build social mobility within the legal profession, as they reach a wide range of young people across the UK — many of whom have had little (particularly positive) previous experience of the law — although this is not the main aim of the Citizenship Foundation.

The Pathways to Law programme is more stringent in its entry criteria.

To apply, you must attend a state school plus be either in the first generation of your family to attend university or be eligible (or have been eligible) for free school meals.

The extra hoop applicants must jump through helps, but there were still people in my cohort swimming in legal work experience offers from their barrister uncles and legal executive cousins. There were others whose parents had enrolled at university, but dropped out because they received good job offers and were now, to put it bluntly, pretty rich. ‘Disadvantaged’ — I’m really not convinced.

As I’ve stressed above, the Pathways to Law programme was absolutely excellent, I completed the full two years and had a place to study law waiting for me at the end of it all. I can’t throw my toys out of the pram too much, but there are two big concerns I have regarding these social mobility initiatives and their entry criteria.

The first is the most obvious: for every rich kid from a top performing grammar school that gets a place on the scheme, someone, and possibly someone more *lots of quote marks* disadvantaged, doesn’t.

Because there’s often grade requirements for the scheme (at Pathways it’s a minimum of 5 As at GCSE), aspiring lawyers from underperforming schools may be bumped out in favour of strong candidates from good state schools who probably would’ve got into law school without the programme’s help anyway. It takes more work to find candidates truly deserving of a place on these schemes, but if the programmes want to fulfil their mantra — getting ACTUAL, REAL disadvantaged children into good universities to study law — the work must be done.

Binda Patel, head of programmes at the Sutton Trust, realises this. She told us:

For social mobility initiatives to really make a difference, it’s crucial they get to the young people who will benefit the most. To make sure we do that with Pathways to Law, we’ve developed a set of eligibility criteria that take a number of different factors into account. Aside from academic potential, we look at things like whether an applicant comes from a particularly deprived neighbourhood, or goes to a school where not many young people go on to higher education.

Secondly, has anyone ever considered the impact on 12-year-old kids from pretty well off families being constantly referred to as “under-privileged” and “disadvantaged”? They’re not nice words — having them drummed into you just before you head off to a posh university with a large public school population can make you feel like quite an outsider.

Telling people at university you’ve benefited from a diversity initiative often leads to raised eyebrows and questions. People think there’s something weird about you, or take a disliking to you because you’ve secured your university place on a lower, contextual offer. There is the expectation of a sob story. In my case, and I’m sure most people caught by ‘the social mobility initiative net’, there never was one.

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Yes, we need more diversity initiatives like this. Current order of priority:

1) Muslims to counter Islamophobia
2) LGBT candidates
3) Refugees
4) Women



We should actually tackle the problem head on by recruiting able people on merits only, irrespective of their skill colour, gender or sexual preference – as opposed to having some random quotas which are just unfair and do little to improve things.


Sleepy lawyer

But how can you do that. Frankly, 5 A’s from Eton is far less worthy than 5 B’s from a rubbish comprehensive in the rough bit of Glasgow. But on a blind cv Eton guy gets in, and if we include school names some firms will invite Eton just because they think he will fit in.

How do you do it in practice?



That may be true. However, people need to stop obsessing with trying to make everyone and everything fair and equal, getting high on some weird ideas of colonial blame, and try to prosecute entire groups of people for something a few demented individuals do/did.

Literally, being totally honest people – have we all lost our minds? Is the modern day world full of identity politics, guilt and political correctness not just some absolute insanity? What happened to just fucking living, enjoying life and being normal?


Sleepy lawyer

What sort of person doesn’t see intrinsic worth in fairness?

Ignoring all moral elements for a moment, practically if we allow people with privellegeed backgrounds to take a disproportionate amount the standard of legal practice decreases. Someone who got those 5 B’s under those circumstances is probably more intelligent or at least far more hard working. Isn’t that what you want from a lawyer?

As for saying you don’t care about fairness, I would say the design a system with a vale of ignorance as to where you would find yourself in it. With that vale, do you not think we should reward hard work and skill?


“Someone who got those 5 B’s under those circumstances is probably more intelligent or at least far more hard working.”

What a facile statement. If the archetypal Etonian in this situation gets 5 A*s, it is impossible to say whether they worked less hard or are less intelligent than the 5 B student. The Etonian has got the highest marks available to him / her (in this case him). He wasn’t able to get anything more. Indeed, to have down 5 A-levels rather than the conventional 3 or 4 demonstrates some serious hard work in and of itself.

Doing people down for genuine achievements just because they went to a fee paying school, or are more “privileged”, is such a tedious, poor way of running this argument. The way to improve things is to make the worse off better off, not to attack the people who are doing everything that’s asked of them.

And no I didn’t go to Eton.

Sleepy lawyer

I have to say, if you don’t think that a person with sever social pressure and poorer education must work harder to get less than someone who has the world at there finger tips, I afraid you are the facile one.

As for doing down someone for achievement- when did I do that? Saying one person must work harder to get less doesn’t mean or imply another person hasn’t worked or achieved themselves. I’m not arguing 5 A’s isn’t an achievement, I’m arguing 5 B’s under more difficult and challenging circumstances is a greater achievement.

As for the Eton comment at the end. If you don’t agree that poor schooling and poorer areas make achievement more difficult- I can only assume you have never lived or learnt in one.


“Doing people down for genuine achievements just because they went to a fee paying school, or are more “privileged”, is such a tedious, poor way of running this argument. The way to improve things is to make the worse off better off, not to attack the people who are doing everything that’s asked of them.”

Isn’t making the worse off, better off not through social mobility initiatives (like the ones this article bashes)? Nobody is taking away from those who go to private school’s achievements. The issue is more that it is much harder to achieve 5 A*’s when you aren’t in small classes of 10 with parents who can pay for one to one tutoring on the side.

Tim NicebutDim

Anonymous’ argument seems essentially to be, ‘That’s the way it is, let’s leave it at that’.

Good. Progressive. Thoughtful.



Says the person speaking from an entitled position. Its not about political correctness or whichever other watchword you use. Its about fairness and opportunity for all.

Its also about empathy valuing your fellow man… you know all the things an enlightened forward thinking society aspires too. Just a thought.


What an arbitrary ranking of need. Surely diversity schemes should look at the individual as a whole and consider all relevant factors?



Can I suggest an initiative to discourage posh white males from applying to help balance things up?



Keep on posting shit like that and somebody will report to for a hate crime – discrimination is ugly and disgusting no matter against whom it is.



Report you*



I hate myself, that’s why I post here all the time. Sorry mate.



Then do us a favour and post it by stickers on your wall – you know, in your room at your parents’ house, so we do not have to read that nonsense.



I will. I’m so sorry. Thanks for caring about me.


Counterfeit “Tim,” why don’t you go use a toothpick while riding a roller-coaster?

From now on I’m anonymous.


It amazes me how RARE (for ethnic minorities) accepts white people.



This is their tag line “Rare Recruitment connects exceptional people from diverse backgrounds with great jobs in top organisations.” So I believe you’re misinformed.



What a telling article. Being from a real “under-privileged” background and BAME graduate its clear that the experience Katie is detailing is still pretty privileged. There are real students who have no connections, no matter what “state” school they go to, have real parents who couldn’t afford to go to university and if they did they it was the poly of all poly, universities whilst working and looking after a family.

Sorry but this story isn’t convincing, these aren’t social mobility initiatives but pathways to help capable students reach good heights (which isn’t a bad thing). These “initiatives” need to follow in the footsteps of groups like RARE who actually make a difference and are specific with who they are helping and not just those who tag themselves as “under-privileged”.


Je m'appelle Anon

That’s pretty much the point of the article….



Jesus christ read the article before vomiting up stupid comments



Other than the fact that you clearly haven’t read the article, I’m afraid your comment about RARE doesn’t really apply in all situations.

As someone who was a candidate, it amazed me how a surprising amount of the other BAME candidates appeared to have come from middle-class backgrounds. While being BAME has its disadvantages, your socio-economic background does also make a huge difference. Which is why I was also glad that I saw a few white working-class kids there too (albeit not enough IMO).



I recant…


Jones Day Junior Associate.

I hope you are okay Katie, I did not realise that you were from an under-privileged background. You are an inspiration though, you went to university, have a job now where you write words to thousands, and most importantly of all you do it all with such a lovely smile still in your face. Sure you aren’t the poorest, and maybe your parents could buy you the odd meal, but I’m sure you haven’t had it easy. You hero.



I think scrap all scholarships based on disadvantage or what university or indeed if your parents went to university and instead bring back, exam based scholarships and entrance exams.



Then what happens to students with learning disabilities who’s best skills are not well demonstrated in exams?



It is impossible to give everyone a leg-up in a meritocracy; if that happens, it is no longer a meritocracy. Someone who is not good at exams should look to make their mark in areas of society that don’t use success in exams as a measure of aptitude.



coming from a firm where (despite being touted as one of the most diverse firms in the city) majority of the guys are white, with rich parents and have a sigil ring…I wonder how effective these programs are.

there’s no easy solution, if you do it purely by merit sure, obviously the kids with the resources will have plump-ier CVs (think well-connected parents with work placements and extra-circular activities). if you hire to meet some quota (oh boy so many firms are guilty of this), then it wouldn’t be fair to those who have objectively better applications. to drum into kids that they are “underprivileged” and therefore they can attend diversity events surely isn’t good for their psyche.

so how? provide more funding to poorer schools? idk. but the answer definitely aint cutting school funding.



Diversity schemes at firms are a joke: they only require certain quotas or targets to come to interview (if it is even that formal of a system). After interviews, it’s still up to the partners to decide who they would like to spend time with.

I genuinely agree with the struggles raised in your second paragraph. However, I propose that the biggest problem is that literally anyone can from any degree can get into a law firm, as long as they fit certain preferred criteria. I’ve met so many Simmons & Simmons, CMS, and Magic Circle firm trainees/lawyers who did an Oxbridge art history or drama degree, realised they don’t have many career options in that field so they went to their dad’s law firm and got work experience to then help apply to the City firms. How is the Northern kid who always wanted to be a lawyer, managed to scrape by in their failing state school to get into a LLB programme at Northumbria, UWE or the like, going to compete with that? Even if they finish with a strong 2:1 or a first?

Half of trainees now have non-law degrees? Well there’s the easy first step: get rid of them. Make the LLB (or BA in Jurisprudence/Law for Oxon/Cantab) a prerequisite to the LPC and training contract. No more GDL or combined GDL/LPC – LLB in legal practice. If you want to do another degree first? Awesome, do a two-year undergraduate “senior status” LLB then apply for the LPC/TC. Is this a completely fair option? No, but neither is a 2:1 LLB from a non-RG uni being outclassed by a 2:1 non-law degree from Oxbridge. Make the undergraduate LLB the minimum requirement to show dedication to a career in law, and cut down the number of applicants per year. That way no matter the background, the dedication to the law can be shown. I never thought it would seem silly to restrict the law profession to law graduates, but it would be a start and help those from a more diverse or underprivileged background compete in the legal job market.

Also, I am aware the SRA’s new SQE will muddy the waters even more, but there’s no law or rule against firms having a preference or requirement for the LLB to be completed. Degree choice is not a protected characteristic.


Tim NicebutDim

Fully back this – I am a GDL convert with a secured city TC. I really do not feel prepared to tackle any real law – currently a paralegal pushing paper, but not the foggiest of what is really happening.

Other countries (US for example) is way ahead in terms of legal training. How can doing an unrelated degree, then being pushed through the meat-grinder of BPP/UOL really prepare you to become a fully fledged lawyer?!

Think the split degree suggestion is a cracking plan.


RG GDL Convert City 2PQE


The idea that an LLB should be required and that a conversion should not be allowed doesn’t make a huge deal of sense to me. It is a sharp learning curve at times, but it really is about what you learn on the job. Perhaps law at Oxbridge is a few steps above BPP/UOL in terms of preparing you, but we are talking entering at step 5 or step 45 of a 1000 step ladder. In reality it makes little difference to your ability to succeed in this job. It isn’t about coming in straight out of law school and to be able to call yourself a fully fledged lawyer, that takes years of actual experience and the learning never stops.

To get back to the original discussion, insisting that people do a second degree is only going to act to make the process more unaffordable for underprivileged students. Dedication to the law can be gauged through interviews and other selection methods and shouldn’t be judged upon the basis that at 18 a student decided to study law as their degree. Often students, including myself, come to a decision that they want to be a lawyer whilst at university, or even after. This is often a more informed decision. Also, regardless of whether it is a law student or a GDL student, rich mummy and daddy can get people work experience. It is not about GDL vs LLB.



think about doctors, if you decide to be a doctor at age 35 you have to go through the whole damned course to be qualified.

law should be like that. if you want to be a lawyer, go through the whole LLB. saying that being a lawyer is ONLY about learning on the job and not appreciating the entire legal education/history…well then you just a wanna-be


You don’t say whether you were a high-ranking GDL convert. I’m currently doing an LLM at high-ranking institution after doing the GDL, plenty of formidable barristers did the law conversion and GDL converts continue to get pupillages (and, as we know, barristers work so much more with the black letter law). It’s simply a question of knowing your stuff and being quick to learn extra when needed.



As you are using yourself as a case study, any chance you could explain how you were actually disadvantaged Katy? Or else get someone who really was?


Same boat

Somebody really really really disadvantaged isn’t going to be able to write as well as Katie though. I think it sounds like Katie had it bad enough. She probably grew up having to eat own-brand cornflakes. Holidays to Cornwall or Devon rather than the Maldives. Re-using backs of pages of notebooks. Um Bongo instead of Tropicana. Dell instead of Apple. Apple instead of Mango. The list goes on. I was in the same boat, which is still a boat that is far outshone by the cruise ship lifestyles most lawyers had as a child. Katie and I were in our little Tesco value dinghy.


Rupert from Esher

That does sound tough. I had a poor friend that I knew from my cricket team – I could tell that he was poor due to the fact he had to use old club equipment. He also dressed like a bit of a ruffian, had a scruffy haircut, and sometimes looked poorly kept and unwashed. What really opened my eyes was when I visited his house for “dinner”. They didn’t have an AGA which immediately set my suspicions off. It went further downhill from there – no table cloth, cheap stainless steel cutlery, etc.

I could not believe what they served me. Some form of stew that resembled vomit with some fatty pieces of chewy meat and vegetables you would feel bad feeding to livestock. To top it off we were given “potato smiley faces” that did not taste like potato at all. Nobody who eats those things are happy, they should be sold as unhappy potato faces to resemble how children growing up having to eat those things must feel.



I think you misunderstand the point of the article


Scep Tick

“They’re in exactly the same situation as the vast, vast majority of all other 11-18-year-olds in the country.”

Indeed. And that’s the problem. It is much easier to get into law – especially the Bar – if you are NOT in the same situation as the vast, vast majority of all other 11-18 year olds in the country.

Private school is a gargantuan unfair advantage because of the connexions and the money. Easy enough to live on starvation wages for a few years when you’ve got a trust fund backing you up.



I think this article is written in poor taste.

You argue that the requirement for someone to be from a state school is wrong because 90% of the country are. That may well be the case. However when you look at the top universities in the country that statistic is not representative at all, especially in law degrees. The Oxbridge law cohort is not going to be made of 90% state school student and that is why being at a state school is a ‘disadvantage’. It depends on your definition of disadvatage- I would say the lack of representation makes something a disadvantage. The magic circle firm state school statistics would likely follow a very similar pattern and again that is why I would suggest it is a disadvantage.

You can argue all day about the meaning of disadvantage and sadly there will always be people worse off than you. But these initiatives largely aim to encourage a more representative interest in law, who then hopefully have something to talk about in university applications and interviews. This in turn aims to get law students to eventually be more representative of society. But the schemes arent some sort of angel from above, they can only accept applications from those who apply and those very disadvantaged may not have that option, which is of course an issue. But that doesn’t mean they don’t play a huge role in furthering the experience of young people who would otherwise not have the opportunity. Any charity trying to make law more representative deserves to be celebrated not criticised for not being able to help those that are disadvantaged ‘enough’ by your scale.



It’s called paying lip service. These people don’t want change.



Under-represented groups have the right to INSIST that diversity fully and properly takes place.

This is because the people who reserve for themselves and their mates all the best legal jobs are often the same ones who will vote to remove social security from the under-represented groups.

No social security? Then we’re demanding our places in your cosy law offices.



This article is of an even more moronic nature than that which we’ve all come to expect from KK. We all know the stats regarding the numbers of those privately educated at the top of the profession. As stated above, the issue is that the legal world is disproportionately represented by those from the top 10% so evidently there is something amis for those with a state education



The only fair way around the problem is to massively increase funding in primary and secondary state education. We’re still a rich country, no matter what the papers say. We shouldn’t be talking about how best to handle disadvantaged kids, we should be insisting that our taxes increase to ensure that each pupil receives an education that does not put him or her at a disadvantage (not to mention enough food to ensure he or she is capable of concentrating on said education). The sooner we even out social inequality, the sooner we can drop diversity initiatives altogether.



If you knew anything about education you’d be aware that the correlation between money and achievement in a state’s education system is weak at best.

Teaching children in a rigorous, unashamedly academic manners far more important. Something that is very rare in today’s schools.



My issue with this article is that it focuses on those aged over 18. Surely a bigger impact could be made on those who feel they are not capable of completing sixth form, rather than those already attending university – where they’re half way there to improving their chances already? I would implore anyone that might be interested to get involved with local charitable organisations (who have first hand experience dealing with “disadvantaged” youth) helping those between the ages of 11 to 18, e.g. Southside Young Leaders Academy.



Seems very wrong to turn away applicants based on colour, academics and/or family background. Even “rich” white kids make mistakes, and who knows whether their parents are dysfunctional lawyers with drinking problems giving them the wrong kind of “guiding hand”. These schemes should be open to all and have a criteria (arguably) based along the lines of (i) means available to the individual (ii) prospect of success without assistance on their own merits and (iii) realistic potential.



I was pretty prepared to get annoyed about this article, but it actually makes some good points. I went to an assessment day for an internship offered through one of these diversity access programs (I’m from a very poor background, my parents are in manual labour jobs and my dad is functionally illiterate- whoopee!) and during the standard ‘name a fact about yourself’ introduction, it became pretty clear I was the only person who hadn’t been either internationally educated or able to work/volunteer/travel and get drunk abroad on a gap year. One persons fact was that they’d had dinner with the president of Iran, another talked about going on their parent’s business trips to Dubai, another went travelling around Cambodia. I was actually embarrassed that my fun fact was only a silly anecdote about sport. I would love to have done some of these things, but I ended up using all my wages and a good chunk of my student loan & grants to make sure that I would actually have a home to go back to at the end of undergraduate. It’s bad etiquette to ask what makes someone ‘underrepresented’ at one of these events but I really had to wonder. In a place which was supposed to be for students from under represented backgrounds, I don’t think I ever felt more out of place!



Hi, I want to be a lawyer. I can’t do exams very well, and I’m not much better at the coursework truth be told. I struggle to write coherently and rarely base my arguments very well. Attention to detail? Nope. BUT I went to a school in a rough part of Sunderland and couldn’t go on holiday every year.

But I want it, so can I have it?

Oh and I’ll be really annoyed and spit my dummy out if I can’t have it and some well educated student gets a TC ahead of me.


One of the elite

Get back to the mines, pond scum. Oh wait, no mines. Greggs or McDonalds for you, who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky and get to marry fat Betty from the local chippy.



at Pathways it’s a minimum of 5 As at GCSE

While I appreciate that these schemes want to cater for the bright students, or at least those who have the pieces of paper that say they are bright, this looks a lot like the kind of ‘sorting’ that City law firms do – you need a minimum of AAB at A-level to apply here.

As someone with no A-levels and a first class law degree I seem not to be able to get over their hurdles.

I think the social mobility mantra is that we shouldn’t be sorting kids into successes and failures at any stage, because they al have the potential to improve – whether it’s 7-plus, 11-plus, GCSEs or A-levels. If these schemes are doing that kind of sorting, they are just playing the same game.


LL and P

If your first is from Birkbeck, then respectable. If your first is from Kingston or Salford Uni, then may I suggest sending your CV to my firm. We are currently looking for a waste management executive and I think you will make our toilets…I mean facilities operate far more effectively.



Yeah, lets not bother with grades at all? Let’s just let everyone in who really, reallllllllly always and forever definitely wants to be a lawyer. Got a B and 2 C’s? Yeah, well come here and I’ll give you a cuddle and really believe in you until you become a super fantastic lawyer!

Come on. Not everyone can do this job. It is a bloody difficult job which requires a high level of academic rigour. Are exams and the current schooling system perfect? No, but they remain a viable indicator. The profession must not be diluted – this does not mean ones background should figure in any decision making process, but it should mean that standards are preserved.



I agree with Anonymous but disagree with Anonymous


Ciaran Goggins

Pass the jellied eels Tarquin.


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