Breaking down barriers
Gaining entry into the legal profession must be the preserve for the most able and hard-working of our young people, regardless of their background, or the school they attend. But, many students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not fulfil their potential often because (i) they don’t have access to the right kind of knowledge to become sufficiently informed about the realities of what it takes to forge a legal career, or do not understand the various routes into the legal profession, (ii) they believe a legal career is beyond their reach as they have not gone to the "right" university and are concerned that a quiet elitism persists in law, (ii) the huge financial pressures of having to self-fund their legal education fees puts a number of students off pursuing a legal career, and (iv) many other students lack the self-confidence to successfully navigate their way through the ultra-competitive legal recruitment journey.
Law firms and the legal profession as a whole have made some important strides in the issue of diversity; increasing diversity is now at the forefront of their agendas with many law firms addressing the importance of equality of opportunity, widening access and social inclusion within the legal profession. However, there is still a along way to go before we reach the finishing line, for example, the Neuberger report published in 2007 identified that white students from higher socio-economic backgrounds dominated pupillages and training contracts, and this shows that the old issue of background still exists to a large degree and more progress is still required.
Is the class ceiling breakable or there for good?
Recent qualitative research has evidenced that gaining entry into law has actually become even more difficult for those from poorer backgrounds. Why is this? Well, if you are not part of the middle-class support network you are much less likely to become a lawyer, because you are less likely to have built-up links and connections or established support networks with practising lawyers or have family members, teachers and friends to guide you, inspire the self-confidence, character, and know-how to gain entry into the legal profession. This is why it can be very hit and miss for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to realise their talent and gain access to the legal profession.
The Government has recently established a commission on social mobility in response to the perceived “class ceiling” remaining prevalent within the leading professional careers: Alan Milburn, MP has been appointed to chair the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, which is looking into how leading professional bodies such as the Law Society of England and Wales and the Bar Council can improve access to the legal profession.
There remains a great disparity between the number of students from state schools and private schools that go on to successfully gain training contracts and become partners at the country’s top law firms. Students from private schools are disproportionately more likely to secure training contracts at the leading law firms. The Sutton Trust, a leading educational charity and The College of Law recently launched the Pathways to Law after a report published by the Sutton Trust in 2005 found that the majority of partners at the leading law firms had been educated at private schools. In addition, the report highlights that one of the challenges we face is making the profession more diverse as 55 per cent of undergraduates studying for law degrees attended private school, yet students being educated at private schools account for only 7 per cent of the UK school population. It is therefore clear that the school background of people at the top of the legal profession has not changed, and there may be significant scope to open the doors to people from a wider range of educational backgrounds so that the most able are given the opportunity to succeed.
Educational opportunity is the most powerful tool we have to increase social mobility.
Pathways to Law: Every year, the Pathways to Law Project targets 250 potential law students’ from state schools and socially disadvantaged backgrounds who will be the first in their families to go on to university and who are likely to face the most obstacles in gaining access to university and the profession, yet have the potential to proceed to a career in law. The project provides the students with career workshops and invaluable work placements at sponsoring law firms. Ultimate Law Guide also provides students on the Pathways to Law with mentoring support, career advice and talks to students about our own interesting route into law and our work as commercial lawyers. Ultimate Law Guide helps students to bridge the gap between education and employment through our mentoring programme, group workshops, career guide – Ultimate Guide to Training Contract Success and e-learning via our website.