Three ways to open up the legal profession

Britain’s most senior female judge, Baroness Hale of Richmond, has criticised the extent to which most judges come from sheltered and privileged upbringings.

Baroness Hale said,

“If the life-blood of the law is experience and common sense, then whose experience and common sense are we talking about?

“Surely it cannot only be the experience and common sense of the judges, many of whom have led such sheltered lives? As I was once rude enough to say publicly, ‘one man’s common sense is another woman’s hopeless idiocy’.”

The judicial system is well known for its narrow representation of society. A 2007 study found that 70% of High Court judges had attended private school. Shockingly the percentage of judges who went to independent school had dropped by only 4% since 1989. Currently of the twelve Supreme Court judges one is a woman and there is no one from an ethnic minority.

A 2010 report by the Legal Services Board analysed the barriers to the legal profession. Here are three important steps that could help the legal profession be more represenative of society as a whole:

1.      Law firms should develop links with state schools

Research has shown that law firms have developed stronger links with private and selective schools than with comprehensive schools. More and more law firms need to get out there, giving talks to pupils in state schools and advising them on how to progress in the legal profession.

For many young people entering the legal profession does not seem like a realistic option, but a talk from a successful lawyer who has come from a similiar background and can explain the process of becoming a lawyer could be the motivational and educational experience needed. Another crucially important way that the legal profession could open up is through more lawyers mentoring and providing work experience to pupils who are interested in a career in law. There has to be a greater effort to form connections with state schools.

2.      Getting more deprived students to top universities

At the moment law firms are more likely to recruit from top universities, but the social makeup of these universities don’t reflect society. This is a major problem generally, because figures show that whereas 64% of students from private schools went to top universities (defined for these figures as the third of universities with the highest entrance grades) only 24% of students from state schools attended them. Opening up these universities to students from more diverse backgrounds has been on the political agenda for decades, but much more work needs to be done.

The Reach for Excellence programme at the University of Leeds gives support to disadvantaged pupils from the local area by providing individual mentoring, advice sessions, a summer school and university visits. The success rate of the programme is deeply impressive. Students who had attended the Reach for Excellence programme were twice as likely to attend a research-intensive university. More schemes like this should be introduced, with universities, charities and the government working together to promote a programme that has a proven track record.

3.      Helping out with costs

As anyone who has looked into the legal profession or is actually in it will tell you – the process of becoming a lawyer is very costly. This is the case if you want to be a solicitor, and to an even greater degree if you want to be a barrister. The amount of debt incurred is staggering and it is no surprise that many students baulk at pursuing something that is so competitive and expensive. The cost of a Legal Practice Course is around £11,000 whereas a Bar Professional Training Course costs around £16, 000 in the capital. There are funding opportunities as law firms sponsor people to take these courses but these are limited and tend to go to people from universities like Oxford and Cambridge. Law firms could widen their net by approaching students from outside Oxford and Cambridge. Also the government could extend student loan availability to those pursuing legal training and especially for those wishing to pursue careers in legal aid.





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