Amid all the celebrations at The Lawyer Awards last week, one of the most warmly received was the Editor’s Award, reserved for individuals in the profession who have made a difference.
This year it was given to Sir Geoffrey Vos, former chairman of the bar and now a High Court judge.
Vos is no stranger to picking up trophies, having won Barrister of the Year at The Lawyer Awards in 2003. But his work as a champion of social mobility – particularly at the bar, but also more generally among the legal profession – could arguably make more difference to the lives of ordinary people than his years of success as a silk.
“I got interested in the issue a long time ago,” Vos says. “It always struck me that the bar was half-hearted about diversity and that if one believed that access to the profession should be improved, then one should do something about it. This is not a criticism of the bar, but it’s a particularly difficult profession for people from underprivileged backgrounds to enter. It requires skills of presentation and a gloss and polish that’s difficult to acquire at a young age.”
When he was chair of the bar in 2007, Vos – then head of chambers at 3 Stone Buildings – instigated the Neuberger Report on access to the bar. He was also closely involved on the Milburn Report into social mobility within the professions, and actively defended the thinking behind the report last year, pointing out in a letter to The Sunday Times in August 2009: “Privileged parents and students have nothing to fear from fair competition with their less privileged peers.” But in more recent times he has been most active as chair of mentoring charity the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF). When Vos became a judge in the Chancery division he had to think long and hard – and consult with his peers on the bench – about whether these commitments would be seen as political.
“It’s important for the judiciary to be working within the community in a way that facilititates and encourages people from all backgrounds to join the profession, and it’s important for the public to have confidence in the judiciary,” says Vos. “There isn’t a political divide on this: SMF is a delivery organisation not a political organisation.”
SMF now mentors 61 sixth-formers interested in the law as part of its Aspiring Professionals Programme, which also covers accountancy, architecture, banking, management consultancy and journalism. The scheme involves help with university application forms and personal statements, and students are assigned a mentor from the profession and placements with law firms and chambers. Around 30 firms are already signed up, and Vos says with some pride that a number of SMF’s students have won vacation placements at Addleshaw Goddard, Baker & McKenzie and Hogan Lovells among others. Indeed, one of the students from SMF’s first cohort has just completed a law degree at Cambridge and won a training contract with Allen & Overy. Vos himself negotiated the way to allow up to 30 judges to offer SMF interns for a couple of days’ experience each – allowing students incomparable access and insight into the workings of the justice system.
Lawyers who work with Vos praise his commitment to the issue and his work with SMF in particular. “He really put the idea of more social diversity on the agenda,” says Baker & McKenzie partner and SMF trustee Tom Cassels. “He really pushed it in a way that it hadn’t been pushed before at the bar. It’s not just his name, or his energy or his enthusiasm – he brings his considerable intellect to the issue.
“He devotes far more time and energy than is reasonable to expect from him to improving the prospects of people not born into advantage. There’s no personal agenda he has for doing it – he thinks it’s right.”