The new government report on social mobility, which singles out the legal profession as being closed to those from poorer backgrounds, sparked a predictable backlash on TheLawyer.com.
For many lawyers it is clear that success (or not) in a legal career should have nothing to do with background. The only responsibility of law firms and chambers is to select the best candidates.
“There’s no excuse for those with sufficient ability to get any top job in law, regardless of ‘class’,” writes one poster.
But the debate also illustrated how complex social mobility is to tackle. One of the biggest problems facing the industry is collecting the right data on background. Much of the information in Alan Milburn’s paper relating to the law is collected from two major social studies carried out with thousands of UK citizens born in 1958 and 1970.
The research found that lawyers came from even wealthier backgrounds than other professionals and that the gap had widened between the two groups.
The families of lawyers born in 1970 had incomes more than 60 per cent higher than the average. Other statistics support the notion that law is closed to many – more than half of solicitors were educated privately and nearly 70 per cent of barristers. However, other statistics are sparse. It is virtually unheard of for firms and chambers to compile information on the social backgrounds of employees.
Law Society president Paul Marsh says this was down to the difficulties in measuring this type of information, adding: “Social mobility data isn’t widely collected because there’s no agreed standard of measurement.”
This could be about to change. The Law Society has been campaigning for a protocol on legal employees’ backgrounds so firms can add to existing information on ethnicity, religion and sexuality.
But collecting data is just the start. The biggest challenge is actually ensuring that those from poorer backgrounds are represented in the law.
TheLawyer.com readers suggest various ways to bridge the wealth gap.
An anonymous poster says the cost of taking the LPC was a major obstacle, adding: “They should scrap the LPC, which is an expensive waste of a year. Instead the training period ought to be extended to four years, which in my mind would produce much better lawyers.”
For others the problem came earlier in the education process. “The real responsibility lies with the secondary state education system and those responsible for university admissions,” argues one.
The Labour Party came in for strong criticism.
“It was Blair’s idea to charge tuition fees at universities, thus adding to the debt burden of law graduates. Working class people are far more wary of debt than the middle classes, and the pressure is on earning money as soon as possible in life,” writes a reader called John.
There are also those who argue that private schooling does not necessarily produce the most able lawyers, just better presented and more articulate ones.
One comprehensive school-educated lawyer says: “There is a large number of private school buffoons with limited ability who are encouraged to develop
a mixture of confidence/arrogance/ bullshitting that enable them to get somewhere in life, when their equals and betters at state schools get nowhere.”
Frustratingly for those who claim that law firms hire purely on merit, there is evidence to contradict that view.
According to the Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO), which contributed to Milburn’s report, while lawyers now come from more privileged backgrounds, they are actually less intelligent compared with the average person than they were a decade ago.
Using the 1958 and 1970 samples, researchers found that the earlier group scored 11 per cent better than the average, but the 1970 group was just 8 per cent more intelligent.
The nature of the debate raging on TheLawyer.com – with more than 50 comments so far – shows how divisive social mobility can be.
But one reader warns that the issue should be treated with more sensitivity.
“I think that some of the comments here highlight that class prejudice is not seen as being in the same light as prejudice based on gender, sexual orientation or race,” he writes. “I would not dream of saying: ‘Black lawyers should just stop moaning and get on with it – they have the same breaks as me’, as I’m simply not qualified to comment as I don’t know what prejudice a black lawyer may or may not have experienced.
“This situation just shows how deeply rooted class prejudice still is.”