Focus: Diversity, Power to the pupils
22 March 2010 | By Corinne McPartland
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Law firms are missing a trick by focusing their diversity schemes mainly on university students rather than A-level pupils. Lawyer 2B’s careers day helps out
It is not every day that you hear students ask for extra work. It is probably even rarer to hear them request to retake an exam that they have already passed, just so they can aim for a higher grade.
This, however, is exactly what happened to Susan Bannochie, head of law and legal studies at Eastbrook Comprehensive School, when her class returned from a careers day organised by The Lawyer’s sister publication Lawyer 2B.
“My pupils aren’t stupid. They’re street-wise, some come from very hard backgrounds and they aren’t misled by well-spoken people in suits,” she explains.
Bannochie insists that the group of 10 students she took along to careers day really appreciated the many partners, students and trainees who took the time to speak to them honestly about what it takes to achieve a career in law.
“They were told about the high academics that were needed and the tough competition they would face,” she says. “I was so surprised when they came back to school and asked to retake the exams they’d just taken so they could aim for higher grades.”
Most law firms say they want to attract more diverse bodies of trainees from outside the traditional talent pools, but the majority of diversity programmes still focus primarily on attracting university students. The problem with this is that by the time firms come into contact with university students, a raft of potentially promising future lawyers will already have been cut out of the equation. This is where Lawyer 2B comes in.
For the third year running, The Lawyer’s sister publication put on a careers day for first-year A-level students taking part in the Government’s Gifted & Talented and Aim Higher programmes, which aim to encourage bright students to apply for university through workshops and mentoring schemes.
“Law is a very interesting profession, but it’s not very real for kids,” argues Bannochie. “At the careers day they got to meet BPP students as well as trainees and partners, who really made an impact on the way they view the profession.”
But she admits that actually securing a job in the legal sector will be a tough challenge because not only do students have to overcome barriers of cost, lack of careers advice and support, they also have to contend with feelings of insecurity.
“There’s a supreme lack of confidence among students because they don’t believe they can achieve,” she says. “At school they don’t have proper internet facilities, they have to use tatty and sometimes out-of-date books. So students really see law as a profession for the upper classes.”
But Bannochie insists that events such as the Lawyer 2B careers day help to give the students their confidence back.
“One guy we had come along hadn’t done very well in his AS-levels and didn’t like to get involved with group work,” she recalls. “But after the event I’ve seen a marked improvement in his confidence and subsequently his grades.”
Knowledge is power
More than 250 students descended on BPP’s new Business School, located in the City adjacent to Norman Foster’s iconic ’Gherkin’ building, over two days from 9 March.
Top law firms, including Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters and Slaughter and May, were on hand to guide the students through a range of topics, including the structure of the legal profession and how to make successful applications.
Deborah Dalgleish, who is head of diversity and inclusion at Freshfields, gave a presentation at the event and says it is important to arm promising students with the knowledge they need to enter the profession before they apply for university.
“It can be the case that students from non-traditional backgrounds don’t have the contacts and insights at home or at school that smooth the path to finding work experience placements or choosing university courses,” she contends. “For those students, assistance from events such as the Year 12 careers day can be crucial in indicating useful sources of information and in clarifying the key issues that need to be thought about before decisions are made.”
For many of the students at the careers day, the world of higher education is an unknown quantity because lots of them are the first person in their family to go to university. Couple this with the fact that getting a training contract depends on good A-level grades, an excellent degree and a CV bulging with pro bono work and vacation scheme placements, some students just do not stand a chance.
Worryingly, a large portion of the youngsters at the event were about to start applying to universities to study law, without realising they could convert a non-law degree with a Graduate Diploma in Law.
“Days such as this give pupils a chance to ask questions in a safe environment and offer firms the opportunity to start breaking down some of the misconceptions that can exist about law and lawyers,” explains Dalgleish. “A Year 12 student on a work placement last year said that he’d not realised ’you would be allowed to laugh in a law firm’. We’re glad that one misunderstanding at least had been cleared up.”
Elizabeth Ibitoye, 17, Townley Grammar School for Girls, Bexleyheath
Up until early last year, Elizabeth Ibitoye had always thought the legal profession was for mainly white, privately educated, middle-class, middle-aged men. She thought that being a black, state-educated female would go against her and that she would never realise her dreams of becoming a lawyer.
That was until she was confronted by Baroness Amos, who had taken time from her hectic schedule to revisit Townley Grammar, her old senior school, to show students like Elizabeth that a career in law was possible.
“When Baroness Amos came to do a talk, I was shocked and really happy to see that not only was someone who used to be a student at our school so successful but that she had managed to achieve such great things being a strong, black woman,” enthuses Elizabeth.
Studying English literature, religious studies, government and politics, maths and critical thinking at AS-level, Elizabeth says she wants to achieve the best grades possible
to enable her to get into a good university.
“We don’t get much careers advice at school and I think it’s down to the individual to investigate and research how to succeed in law,” she says. “The Lawyer 2B careers day is a fantastic way to get information about applications, what types of universities you should be aiming for and the kinds of things we should be thinking about, such as cost and the high competition for training contracts.”
Elizabeth says that she didn’t know what the magic circle was until she found out through her own research on the internet and then the concept was explained further at the careers day.
“I’d love to work for the magic circle but I have to realistic so I’ll probably apply to the silver circle. It’d be a dream come true if I can make it,” she says.
So where does Elizabeth see herself in 10 years time?
“I’d love to be working in the City as a high-flying lawyer and going back to my school to show students that it can be done if you work hard enough,” she smiles.
Iram Razzaq, 17, Leyton Sixth Form College, East London
”One of the best things about the careers day has been travelling into the City at rush hour and seeing all the powerful business people in their suits travelling to work, as well as seeing all the massive, expensive-looking buildings,” admits Iram.
She has lived in East London for most of her life but has never been into the heart of the City.
The 17-year-old has always pondered a career in law but, until the Lawyer 2B careers day, had thought it would be too tough a profession to break into.
“It all looks very closed and secretive,” she says. “I’d be very interested in being a lawyer but I don’t think many people make it after spending years of studying and a lot go into accounting.”
By studying a mixture of law, economics and maths at AS-level, Iram is hoping that she is heading in the right direction for a legal career but admits her subject choices have been made to cushion the blow if she decides against it.
“My dad was the first person to go to university and he studied accounting, so I may study something maths-based because I enjoy it,” she explains. “But I think what’s most important is to go to a good university and then I can decide whether law is for me when I graduate.”
University College London or Queen Mary University are the institutions she has set her heart on applying to.
“I want to go to one of these universities because I know people who studied there and my dad says they have a good reputation,” she says.
But will cost play a determining factor in where Iram studies?
“It’s very expensive to study at university and then if you want to do another course afterwards to get into law it’s even more money. It makes me scared to think about all the debt that you’ll have when you graduate, but I think it’s the price you pay for aiming for a good job,” she claims.
Martin Nonyelu, 18, Crossways Sixth Form, Lewisham
”My greatest inspiration is Barack Obama. I followed the election campaign all the way through by reading the newspapers and it was such a good feeling when he became president of the US,” remembers Martin. “It was an historic moment because so many people said he would fail, but seeing him succeed has spurred me on to achieve my dreams.”
But Martin admits there is not much advice out there for state-educated students who want to carve out a career in law.
“You have to find it out on the internet and put yourself forward for things on your own, rather than your school coaching you or telling you to do things,” he says.
Martin believes that this ability to research and map out a career single-handedly actually gives students from less privileged backgrounds a competitive advantage.
“I think law firms should look at those who have pushed themselves as the real people who really want a career in law over and above those who have been spoon-fed,” he argues.
Studying law, psychology, sociology and biology at AS-level, Martin is aiming for Westminster, Middlesex or De Montfort Universities.
“My uncle and auntie are working in the legal profession so I’ve seen first-hand that it can be done, but I also know you have to have the drive and determination to succeed,” he explains.
Money will also play an important factor in his further education and Martin says he will probably have to work to help fund his studies.
“I think working at the same time as you’re studying also shows that you’re a person who can juggle study with work, and employers should favour that,” he adds. “The careers day has shown me that anybody who is determined enough can succeed in the legal profession if they work hard and have the talent. I’m going to work even harder at college now and also start looking for work experience to improve my CV.”
Adetokunbo Hussain, 17, Crossways Sixth Form, Lewisham
Adetokunbo is a man with a plan.
He wants to study and qualify as a lawyer to carve out a successful political career.
“Everyone who has been successful in politics has been a lawyer,” he claims. “Not only is it a practical thing to study because you need to know the law to be in politics, it also trains you to be more articulate and provides you with the tools to argue a point.”
He lists Barack Obama, Tony Blair and his father as his inspirations.
“It’s great to see people such as Barack Obama achieving great things and one day I hope that it’s me who is the person making the speeches in parliament,” he says. “But seeing my dad work and study for a degree in political science has made me very proud because he has shown me first-hand that it can be done.”
And the 17-year-old is aiming high. He wants to go to Oxbridge and then on to do his Bar Professional Training Course in London.
“I think sometimes people exaggerate the barriers that are there for people from less privileged backgrounds,” he believes. “Most of the time if you think there are barriers in the way, then you’re almost creating them for yourself.”
Adetokunbo believes that lack of knowledge is the biggest barrier for students.
“You don’t have the careers advice available and you’re left to find things out for yourself,” he says. “Some students don’t even know the difference between a solicitor and a barrister - that’s the basic foundation of knowledge that we need to make informed decisions about our future careers.”