Why getting down with the kids could reap dividends on the diversity front

The eye-opener was dropped during the ‘steps to qualifying as a solicitor’ session. Two lawyers from Addleshaw Goddard stood before a room full of inner-city state school Year 12 students and asked them whether they were still undecided about whether to apply to university or not.

Of the dozen assembled A-level students, around half raised their hands – some more sheepishly than others.

The Lawyer 2B careers days for gifted and talented state school pupils on 17 and 18 March saw more than 200 students invade BPP Law School – and revealed a gaping hole in the diversity strategies of many of the country’s law firms.

Most firms say they want to attract a more diverse body of trainees from outside the traditional talent pools, but most of their diversity programmes focus primarily on attracting university students. But by the time firms get to university students, they will clearly have already missed out on a large number of potentially promising future lawyers. The top reasons given by students in the seminars for not going to university was a fear of the mountain of debt they would have to accumulate in pursuit of their education.

Kevin Shanahan, an A-level law teacher at Crossways College in Brockley, South London, who took some of his class to the event, confirmed that ever-increasing top-up fees and living costs were discouraging many of his students from progressing to higher education.

Many students do not realise they could receive support from the Government and low-interest student loans to pay for university due to their deprived economic circumstances, as the Addleshaws seminar made clear.

During the seminar most students were furiously scribbling down the information and websites for the Student Loans Company and local education authority grants.

With careers information often sorely lacking within schools, some students were hungry for information, and a few in grey suits were close to passing for magic circle lawyers already.

However, their reasons for interest in the law were often less clear, ranging from “I like to argue” to “My parents want me to study law”, while law firm brand recognition was also very low. Some students did remember a firm or two from a similar event in the past, and one even went so far as to describe Allen & Overy as “amazing”, but they were in the minority.

In addition to BPP, the Lawyer 2B careers day was supported by Addleshaws, Atkin Chambers, CMS Cameron McKenna, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters, Nabarro, Simmons & Simmons, Slaughter and May and Weil Gotshal & Manges, who hosted popular sessions on such topics as ‘What is the City?’ and ‘Justice in Action’.

BPP dean Peter Crisp said the school was delighted to support the event and that the students he had spoken to had found the day valuable, informative and “refreshingly unstuffy”.

He added: “We need to excite and engage young people with the legal profession while they’re still at school so that they’re able to make informed decisions about their future careers. There’s an enormous pool of talented young people who for a variety of reasons don’t consider a career in law, or are not given the opportunity to explore the possibility. In my view we have a responsibility to ensure that that talent is not wasted.”

While it may be a longer-term project to focus on high-school kids than focusing on university students, it will probably pay to get down with them.

Why we launched the Lawyer 2B careers day

There is no denying that law firm graduate recruitment teams are taking diversity more seriously than ever before. Indeed, there appears to be no shortage of initiatives designed to help students from so-called non-traditional backgrounds enter the legal profession.

The problem with many of these schemes, however, is that they are aimed at students who are already at university. But for some state school students, this is arguably a case of too little, too late.

In our view it is crucial for aspiring lawyers to have access to specialist careers advice before they apply to university. In recognition of this, in September 2005 The Lawyer and its sister title Lawyer 2B launched an annual careers guide aimed specifically at A-level students.

To supplement this, we decided to launch a careers day for around 200 Year 12 A-level students, which we ran jointly with BPP Law School over two days last week (17-18 March).

The careers day was designed to be both inspirational and aspirational. We wanted students who thought a career in law was beyond their reach to walk away more determined. But we also wanted them to recognise the importance of securing stellar academics and gaining work experience before starting university.

Although this should not be the case, the universities students gain their degrees from continues to play a crucial role in determining whether their quests to enter the legal profession will be a success.

The careers day was open to all ‘gifted and talented’ Year 12 A-level students attending state schools and sixth-form colleges in Central and Greater London.

After much internal debate we decided against only inviting ethnic minority students, because in our view diversity extends beyond someone’s race and encompasses class.

A young adult brought up in Lewisham or Tower Hamlets is arguably going to face similar obstacles when trying to enter university, regardless of their ethnicity.

By Husnara Begum, editor, Lawyer 2B