Lawyer 2B speaks to students and trainees from non-traditional backgrounds who are aiming to break the mould of the legal elite.
Law is a profession for white, middle class men – or it certainly used to be. So, are people who do not fit that description discouraged from joining the profession? What are the experiences of those who are not put off? And what motivates them to want to apply in the first place?
“I’m attracted to the law because I’ve always been interested in the welfare of other people,” says 17-year-old Afro-Caribbean Emmanuel Adanlawo, a law student at Richmond upon Thames College, just west of London. Adanlawo grew up in Peckham in South London.
“Recently my mum had an employment problem and was suspended from work, but she didn’t have any knowledge of employment law to deal with it. Before that she had problems trying to get my disabled sister into a reasonable school,” he says. “I’m interested in how the law affects people’s lives.”
Twenty-year-old Bobby Kensah, also Afro-Caribbean, was born on an aeroplane at Heathrow Airport and only began learning English at the age of 12 when he moved to London from Germany. Now in his second year studying law at King’s College London, he says he did not think about doing law until it came to his GCSEs.
“The careers adviser suggested the best career for me would be a doctor,” he says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to be at that time, but I did know what I didn’t want to be, and that was a doctor. So I did some research online and that’s where it all started.”
White Briton Jennifer Webber, 18, from Upminster in Essex, chose law after work experience at the Wiltshire Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) three years ago.
“We had to take two weeks compulsory work experience in Year 10, so I went to work with my aunt in the Wiltshire CPS, and that’s when I first got interested in becoming a solicitor,” she says. “Every case is different and you get to use a wide range of knowledge and arguments in each.”
Webber’s aunt was not a solicitor herself but worked in administration, and like most of the young people interviewed for this article, Webber had no friends or family already in the profession to guide her.
But studying law was an even bigger family first for 20-year-old Paul Hill, a white former semi-professional footballer from Yorkshire. Not only was Hill the first person in his family to go into law, he was the first in his family to go to university.
“I became interested in going into law through studying it at A-level,” says Hill, who is a second-year law student at Warwick. “I really enjoyed law and business studies at A-level, and I realised that being a commercial lawyer was a way of combining both.”
Like Adanlawo, Kensah and Webber, Hill was assisted in reaching his goal by Global Graduates, an organisation that helps young people from non-traditional backgrounds enter the legal profession.
Afro-Caribbean Nana Darko, 22, a student at the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice (Oxilp), has also met top firms through Global Graduates. She chose Linklaters as the place to carry out her training contract after a visit from the firm.
“Linklaters came to the Global Graduates open day and I met two partners – one in real estate and one in litigation,” she explains. “We got on really well, and I also met the diversity manager, who gave me good answers to the questions I asked and took the time to get back to me later about a question I asked.”
Some firms are clearly making an effort to increase applicants from non-traditional backgrounds. But is the profession as a whole doing enough?
“I get to speak to people in high places and they’re very open to the idea of recruiting from diverse backgrounds,” says Kensah. “It’s no longer just paying lip service – changes are being made.”
Hill agrees. “I don’t think there’s much more that firms can do other than take part in schemes like Global Graduates,” he says. “They have to employ the best people.”
But although your class might not be a factor when it comes to getting into the profession, Hill argues that your university background is.
“I think class is becoming less important, but there’s still a status if you come from Oxford or Cambridge,” says Hill. “At Warwick University we’ve had a few firms doing presentations, but a lot of firms only go to specific universities, and I think there’s a bias towards Cambridge, Oxford and LSE [the London School of Economics], because they have a certain status.
“UCL [University College London], Bristol and Warwick are just below the top three, but there’s still this pecking order. I heard about it when I was at college, and when I got into university I spoke to people who had been on vacation placements and they said favouritism was shown towards Oxbridge students.”
Darko agrees. “Everyone knows that magic circle firms are dominated by Oxbridge graduates,” she says. “Also, the front page of the application forms state that they’re only looking for applicants with two As and a B at A- level. That means that they’re turning away a lot of applicants who may not have done that well at A-level, but who have done really well at university and could make good lawyers.
“I think the situation is changing, but the problem is that firms aren’t doing that much marketing at non-Oxbridge universities,” she concludes.
Twenty-five-year-old Asian Rasila Patel, who is on a training contract at CMS Cameron McKenna, went to Copeland Community School in Wembley, North West London, where she got A grades in economics, sociology and politics. She believes her race and background have not been an obstacle to getting into law.
“I haven’t had any negative experiences at law firms,” she says. “I think law is one of those careers that’s quite open to people from all sorts of backgrounds. As long as you meet the criteria and get the grades, anyone can get in.”
But although Patel does not think her colour or class have been a hindrance, she is nevertheless a graduate of magic circle-friendly Trinity College Cambridge. She thinks that firms should do more to encourage school pupils before their decisions about university are made.
“Law firms do go into schools, but it depends on which school you go to,” she asserts. “Camerons has a programme to get people at schools to come in for open days, but most law firms are more targeted at universities.”
Her thoughts are shared by Norton Rose trainee Shatha Ali, who was born in Bahrain before moving to the UK aged three. Ali read law at King’s College, London. “My concern is that the perception that some firms only want people from certain educational and personal backgrounds can faze school and university students to the extent that they don’t consider law as a possible career, or don’t apply to certain firms, especially some big City firms,” says Ali. “This is a shame because it narrows their options and they’ll never know whether they could have got through.”
Scott Oakes, 32, is a white trainee at Linklaters. Like Hill, Oakes was the first person in his family to go to university. But unlike Hill, he did not do A-levels, instead choosing to leave school at 17 to join the merchant navy.
Following the navy, Oakes joined Northumbria Police in 1994 before beginning an LLP at the University of Northumbria in 2000.
“During my time in the police I was involved in a case at the Crown Court, and it was then that I decided to become a criminal barrister,” explains Oakes. “But during my studies I decided I found commercial law more interesting.”
However, getting a training contract was no easy feat.
“I applied to every relevant firm in the [legal directories],” says Oakes, “and in my third year made more than 100 applications.”
Oakes was finally accepted at Linklaters and is complimentary about the firm’s “progressive” recruitment policy. “They don’t just count Ucas points,” he says.
However, Oakes argues that it is not just applicants who have a hard time with the recruitment process. “The volume of applicants is so high, firms have to go for some easily assessable baseline, which is A-level base points,” he says. “But there does seem to be a kind of trainee they’re looking for,” he adds. “University leaver age, good A-levels and a red brick university graduate. I think often they don’t even look any further than the cover page of your application, and a lot of good people end up in the bin.”
However Adanlawo, who is still at college, is sanguine. Although he agrees that “it would be better if there were more enrichment programmes at schools”, he has offers to study law at the University of Kent, Queen Mary University of London and Brunel University, plus pending applications to read law at King’s College London and English at Royal Holloway University of London and Roehampton University, and says he is “obviously going to be a lawyer eventually”.
“It’s very true that Cambridge and Oxford look good on anybody’s CV,” he explains, “but I’ve picked my universities based on whether they’re good for the subject.”
And his ethnicity?
“I’m not worried that my colour will make it difficult to get a job,” he insists. “I’ve been in many situations where I’m a minority and it’s not a problem. As I work my way through the law I might come across more problems more often, although it depends on the organisation. But they say law’s a widening industry, and so they need people from all backgrounds.”
Kensah says that “it never even entered my head” that colour could make it difficult to get into the profession. “If you have the skills and you have the dream, then you can do it,” he says. “My colour hasn’t stopped me. I’m always trying to be the best. It’s about striving for perfection and if you dwell on your colour you won’t do anything. Law firms are more diverse now and more accepting of people.”
While equally unwilling to let her background hold her back, Darko’s outlook is less rosy than Adanlawo’s and Kensah’s.
“I’d say that there aren’t many faces like mine in commercial life generally,” she says. “Law firms are about making money, and because not that many people look like me, that could make it more difficult.”
She also thinks class remains relevant. “When it comes to promoting people to the partnership, partners ask themselves, ‘can you bring in the business?’, and if you don’t know how to deal with the right people, that will be harder. That’s why I think ‘thank God for Oxford’, because I got to meet the kind of people you’ll be meeting in commercial law,” she says.
So does Darko think that law firms are putting in enough effort to turn the situation around?
“I think that law firms are doing enough,” she says. “It’s not a case of positive discrimination – it’s a case of making people from ethnic minorities feel that law firms are places they can feel comfortable.”