Most law firms say they want to attract more diverse bodies of trainees from outside the traditional talent pools, but the majority of diversity programmes still focus primarily on attracting university students.
The problem with this is that by the time firms come into contact with university students, a raft of potentially promising future lawyers will already have been cut out of the equation.
Which is where The Lawyer’s sister magazine Lawyer 2B comes in. For the second year running the publication organised a careers day for first-year A-level students taking part in the Government’s ‘Gifted and Talented’ programme, which encourages bright youngsters to apply for university through a series of workshops and mentoring schemes.
Top law firms, including Freshfields?Bruckhaus Deringer and Linklaters, were on hand to guide the students through a range of topics, including the structure of the legal profession and how to make successful applications.
Simmons & Simmons graduate recruitment adviser Sophie Binney, who gave a presentation at the event on how the City works, said it was important to arm promising students with the knowledge they needed to enter the profession before they apply for university.
“We’re very keen to make sure that we get the right graduates into the firm from a diverse background,” she said. “We want people from different socioeconomic backgrounds and it’s great to get involved with students this early on to make sure they start paying attention to their grades now.”
More than 300 students descended on Kaplan Law School over two days from 2 March to make sure that law was for them and to see if they too could follow in the footsteps of Barack Obama. (Sixty-eight per cent of the students said they aspired to be like the new US president, with only 6 per cent admitting they would most like to be Elle Woods from the film Legally Blonde.)
Student Marjan Jafari from Harrow College in Middlesex said the day gave her a great insight into what being a lawyer involved and what steps she needed to take 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 with them,” said the 18-year-old.
Leslie Wilson, an A-level law teacher at Harrow College who took some of his class to the event, confirmed that many A-level students were unaware that what they were doing now would impact on their futures.
“This event allows firms to say, ‘This is how you can get through to working for us’, and that gives hope to the students,” he said. “Out there the general impression is that it’s an impossible field to succeed in, but something like this gives them real hope.”
Out of the students who attended the event, only 43 per cent said their parents had gone to university, so for many the world of higher education is an unknown quantity.
Couple this with the fact that getting a training contract depends on good A-level grades, an excellent degree and a CV bulging with pro bono work and vacation scheme placements, and some students just do not stand a chance.
Many of the youngsters at the event were about to start applying to universities to study law, without realising they could convert a non-law degree with a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).
Seventeen-year-old Danielle Nash from St Charles Sixth Form College in West London said: “I was surprised to find out that you don’t need to study law to become a lawyer. It’s better because if you don’t actually want to study law you can study something that you enjoy and then get a really good grade.”
Of the students surveyed, 42 per cent said they were planning to apply to Oxbridge because they perceived it as a surefire way to secure a training contract.
Daniel Harris from Harrow College said: “I always thought that you had to go to Oxford or Cambridge to become a lawyer, but the law firms explained to us that you can go to a normal university and, as long as you do well, you can then go on to become a lawyer.”
Seventeen-year-old Alhasan Awad from St Charles College summed the event up perfectly.
“I was in the dark before because I didn’t know what route to take,” he said. “But now you realise how easy it could be if you just put in the effort.”
Why the Lawyer 2B careers day was needed
Husnara Begum, editor, Lawyer 2B
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 profession.
The problem with many of these schemes, however, is that they are aimed at students who are already at university. For some state school students, this could be a case of too little, too late.
That is why 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 Lawyer 2B launched an annual careers guide aimed at A-level students.
To supplement this, last year we also launched a careers day for around 200
Year-12 A-level students. Due to its success we decided to run another event this year,with Kaplan Law School hosting.
The careers day is designed to be both inspirational and aspirational. We want students who think a career in law is beyond their reach to walk away more determined. But we also want them to recognise the importance of securing stellar academic results and gaining work experience before starting university.
Although it should not be the case, which university a student attends continues to play a crucial role in determining whether they are able to enter the legal profession.
The careers day is 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 inviting only ethnic minority students, because in our view diversity also encompasses class.