The City Solicitors’ Educational Trust (CSET) summer school scheme clearly appears to have struck a chord. In only its first year, almost 1,000 students from non-Russell Group universities applied for only 100 places – four times more than expected – and the number of law firms now involved has more than doubled to 21.
The summer school will consist of an intensive week-long skills programme at Imperial College London at the end of July. It will use commercial law as its context and aims to build up participating students’ knowledge, skills and confidence. The idea was launched late last year (TheLawyer.com, 27 November 2007) to encourage applications from students outside of the traditional club of top-50 Russell institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge, King’s College London, University College London and the London School of Economics.
Reader comments on the story quickly streamed in to TheLawyer.com, taking turns to acknowledge and deny the existence of a glass ceiling in law for those who studied at non-Russell universities.
“The majority of City firms don’t consider applications from non-redbrick and Oxbridge university candidates,” wrote one reader, adding that the CSET scheme was “condescending” because at the end of the day recruitment attitudes were still based on an “old boys” and “one-of-us” system.
But the summer school was not only launched because competition for Russell-universities’ top students is continuing to increase. It is clear that the firms involved would like to change those attitudes and are aiming for the summer school to be more than just a public relations exercise.
Ashurst partner Roger Finbow has been involved closely with the programme and agrees there is a problem.
“It comes down to this: when law firms are looking for people to recruit as trainees, clearly there’s a limit to the number of universities one can focus one’s efforts on,” he says. “Inevitably you focus your efforts on more traditional universities, which have been known to have been turning out good students for a number of years. This particularly puts more modern universities at a disadvantage.”
An additional problem, says Finbow, is that often students at non-traditional universities have done less well in their A-levels or have been under social or family pressures that have prevented them from taking a more traditional law course.
“There’s a bit of a vicious circle and the idea of the course is recognising that there are a lot of high-quality people who we don’t spend a lot of time visiting.”
The course and the candidate selection process is being run by educational publisher GTI. Each of the applicants to the scheme completed a 45-minute psychometric online test, which was then compared to a psychometric profile compiled from high-flying City lawyers. Ultimately, 250 students were invited for interview and 100 students from 46 universities were selected, with all of those 100 having been the first generation in their respective families to have received a university education.
It is easy to be cynical and dismiss those 100 students as just a drop in the non-Russell ocean. But Finbow says: “You have to start somewhere and you can’t beat yourself up and call yourself a failure, even if you’ve just scratched the surface. This initiative will raise the profile of the newer universities and maybe recruiters too will be encouraged to trawl more widely.”