Professor Gus John, the chair of the diversity group advising the biggest review of training for lawyers in thirty years, has issued a call for “affirmative action” to compel the legal profession to recruit more students from lower socio-economic backgrounds into its ranks.
Speaking at Wednesday’s legal education and training review (LETR) symposium in Manchester, John lamented “systems at work in the legal profession that are impervious to diversity initiatives”.
The fellow of the London Centre for Leadership in Learning said that it had become established practice for City law firms and leading barristers‘ chambers to recruit from a “narrow pool” of candidates with top class degrees from Oxbridge or Russell Group universities.
This “inclusion of some” had led to “exclusion of others” – namely, bright students from ex-polytechnics – John added. He emphasised that he regarded this latter group as on a par ability-wise with many of their counterparts at big name universities.
John, who was previously external evaluator for the Law Society of its performance in promoting equality and human rights, was also keen to place the diversity debate in the legal profession into a broader context. “What is the law for? Well, I’m pretty sure it’s not for lawyers, but rather for the people who need laws in place to protect their rights,” he said.
“Viewed this way, the question of who is operating the law to deliver these rights becomes critical. Otherwise, you go back to medieval times, when only the privileged made laws and dispensed justice.”
To prevent this from happening, John believes the legal profession’s regulators must step in to “place an expectation” on firms and chambers to recruit more widely – and, if necessary, be prepared to dish out punitive sanctions to those which fall short of agreed policy. “Firms should be required to improve upon the representation of excluded groups within their organisations, and regulators need to at least be able to assess them on professional standards that relate to the process and outcome of recruitment and selection,” he said.Reaction to John’s comments was largely positive. Rosy Emodi of the Society of Black Lawyers strongly endorsed the taking of steps to prevent a generation of talented students who went to the wrong schools “getting subsumed into the paralegal underclass.” She added that “now is the time for large-scale change in the recruitment of lawyers, not in 50 years.”
Anthony Dursi, diversity and outreach manager at Inner Temple, one of the four inns of court that barristers must join, agrees that more needs to be done to help students from less privileged backgrounds enter the profession. However, he emphasised that “the bar is better at recruiting outside Oxbridge and the Russell Group than many people realise.” The most recent statistics from the Bar Council show that 27.4% of pupil barristers studied at universities outside this elite band.
But Ashley Chambers, a law student advisor to parliament who will begin his training contract at corporate law firm Wragge & Co this autumn, labelled John’s proposal as “positive discrimination”, which he described himself “very wary of”.
In response, John later retorted:
“This is not positive discrimination as there is no shortage of eligible candidates. For me, the suggestion that broadening access in this way could lead to reduced competitiveness or lowering standards is a false debate because it implies people from these excluded groups lack the necessary ability.”
Elsewhere at the conference, concern was voiced about the impact of the trebling of tuition fees on wannabe lawyers, who in addition to university costs also have to foot expensive law school fees. The solution? More flexible learning options allowing students to “work while they study”, according to BPP Law School chief executive Peter Crisp, who was critical of the legal regulators’ refusal to allow his organisation to deliver online only solicitor training.
However, the focus on reforming university and law school courses frustrated Diane Burleigh, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (Cilex), who reminded delegates through gritted teeth that a non-graduate “work while you study” route into law has been offered by her organisation for over 50 years.
Not that everyone wants to see legal education made more efficient. Barrister Nicola Jones said she was worried that shorter, more practical law degrees could “impact on the calibre of the judiciary of the future.”
One thing is for certain: amid all the legal profession’s different strands and often contradictory voices, the panel charged with completing its education and training review have a hell of a job on their hands.