A report, chaired by social mobility czar Alan Milburn, has called on the legal industry to remove the barriers preventing those from poorer backgrounds joining the profession.
Whether it is private tuition ahead of key exams, advice on university choice or work placements with well-placed friends of the family, the advantages sometimes enjoyed by those from privileged backgrounds mean that when it comes to securing training contracts, entry into the profession is far from a level playing field.
As a result a raft of schemes aimed at increasing diversity in the sector have sprung up, and all say they are eager to encourage talent from non-traditional backgrounds.
One of the most ambitious plans to date aimed at widening participation is the Pathways to Law programme.
Run by the College of Law (CoL) and the Sutton Trust, the £1.5m programme aims to assist 750 non-privileged students a year by 2010.
The programme, which celebrated its first graduation ceremony earlier this month, is designed to attract students from state schools who would be the first in their family to attend university and whose parents are in non-professional occupations.
It starts by targeting eligible 15 to 16-year-old students who have expressed an interest in a career in law and aims to support them up until they attend university.
CoL director Richard De Friend said: “We target students at A-level so that they begin to aim for places at the sort of universities which top law firms recruit from. Because, at the end of the day, if they don’t get into the right university they’re significantly reducing their chances of getting a training contract.”
The scheme, which was first introduced in September 2007, offers selected students careers advice and guidance on university applications,
as well as offering highly sought-after work experience placements.
Magic circle firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is just one of the firms involved with the scheme.
Head of diversity and inclusion at Freshfields Deborah Dalgleish said: “The programme aims to arm them with the knowledge that they need to understand what’s involved in applying to university, what options they have and what skills they’ll need so that they can begin on an equal footing with other students.”
But she admitted that, while programmes such as this are great at raising the aspirations of students from poorer backgrounds, you have to be careful not to give the youngsters false hope.
“It’s also about managing expectations and being realistic with those students about what exactly they’ll have to demonstrate in order to succeed,” she explained.
But what happens to those students who have gone undetected by the legal industry’s talent radar and have ended up at nonRussell Group universities?
One programme aimed at capturing those university students is a series of summer schools organised by the City Solicitors Educational Trust (CSET).
The programme consists of two intensive residential week-long legal skills courses at Imperial College London, which uses workshops and presentations to build participating students’ knowledge of the legal sector.
Every student who attends the scheme has access to individual mentoring and careers advice throughout the remainder of their undergraduate career.
Former Slaughter and May partner and chairman of the trust Howard Jacobs said: “This is aimed at really bright students who aren’t at the fashionable universities and who have no immediate family history of university attendance by their parents or guardians.”
He denied that these students’ applications are already as good as in the bin for many law firms.
“This isn’t a recruitment programme but an opportunity to show students that getting into the legal profession isn’t going to be a free ride, but if they work hard and get stuck in they can succeed,” he explained.
Cynics would say that much of this activity is to make many law firms look good in their corporate social responsibility brochures and that students who take part in programmes such as these do not really stand a chance of being accepted for training contracts.
But Addleshaw Goddard’s Diversity Access Scheme (DAS) has proved otherwise.
The DAS offers graduates who do not meet the firm’s usual A-level criteria, but who have gone on to demonstrate their academic ability at university, a chance to secure work placements with the firm through a separate competency-based application form.
Since its introduction in 2007, Addleshaws has offered training contracts to five participants.
Graduate recruitment manager Brett Galloway said: “You can’t just run a programme to meet a quota, you have to have a tangible output but maintain quality. Our applicants from the DAS programme got their training contracts on merit and not because of any special treatment.”
And with many socioeconomic diversity schemes having been introduced over the past couple of years, it will be a while before the industry can begin to draw any reliable conclusions over whether these students really stand a chance.
Lawyer 2B careers day
As part of the Government’s ‘Gifted and Talented’ programme, which aims to encourage bright state school students to apply for university through workshops and mentoring schemes, The Lawyer’s sister publication Lawyer 2B organised its own careers day earlier this year.
More than 300 first-year A-level students descended on London’s Kaplan Law School back in March to take part in Lawyer 2B ‘s annual careers day, now in its second year.
Student Marjan Jafari from Harrow College said the day gave her a great insight into what being a lawyer involved and what steps she needed to take now to gain a training contract in the future.
“Students from wealthier backgrounds are more likely to succeed in their dreams of becoming a lawyer, but something like this gives us the information to compete,” said the 18-year-old.