Senedd counsel’s war on class ceiling

If it’s a poster boy for social mobility you are after, then John Griffiths is your man.

After leaving school without any qualifications Griffiths has gone from the dole queue to chief legal adviser to the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) in his role as counsel ­general.

While he is a fine example of the potential for social mobility in modern Britain, Griffiths is dismayed at the lack of diversity within the legal profession. He believes that, while progress has been made in terms of gender and ethnicity, class remains a taboo subject.

“Students are often worried about getting into debt and those financial issues remain a massive barrier in accessing the profession,” he explains.

To try to tackle this Griffiths wants to see the introduction of “positive action” at universities and law firms.

What he really means is positive discrimination – an unpopular concept in the legal profession.

As well as working with Cardiff University to collect data on the social backgrounds of students, he is encouraging law lecturers to visit schools in underprivileged areas.

One problem, he argues, is that students in these areas simply do not consider entering the law.

Ideally, he would also like to see law schools offer places to students from underprivileged backgrounds who have not achieved the ­necessary grades.

It is not only law schools that Griffiths is targeting. He wants law firms to offer guaranteed ­interviews for “non-traditional” students and increase the number of bursaries, internships and work placements on offer.

Griffiths admits that some of these ideas have not gone down too well with firms.

“The profession’s realised there are real issues,” he says. “I’ve told them they need to look very ­closely at the way they conduct themselves, and so far there’s been a general acceptance of many of the issues.

“What I think is seen as very controversial is reducing the accepted standards in terms of grades, which they think will lower the quality of the profession.

“Personally, I think they need to look at things more imaginatively and accept that the reason some students might not have the grades is because they’ve come from ­difficult backgrounds. That doesn’t mean they’re not as able – there’s an awful lot of potential out there that Wales is losing out on.”

Griffiths’ own background is probably his best weapon in his fight to convince the profession to give underprivileged students a chance. He grew up in Pillgwenlly, ­Newport, an area that remains
one of the most economically depressed areas in Wales. After leaving school without sitting any exams he went into a succession of low-paid jobs, including spells as a bricklayer and lifeguard.

By his mid-20s he found himself unemployed and looking after a young family. He decided to get back into education and completed his O-levels and A-Levels at a local college in Newport, before entering Cardiff University’s law school aged 28.

He later qualified as a solicitor and worked at a firm in the South Wales Valleys, where he specialised in criminal and civil law and ­personal injury litigation. At the same time he was making a name for himself in local politics after joining the Labour Party while at university.

Griffiths first came to prominence campaigning for the ’Yes’ vote in the run-up to the referendum on the Welsh Assembly, and became Assembly Member (AM) for Newport East in 1999. In his
11-year career as an AM he has had spells as deputy minister for education and deputy minister for health.

He was appointed counsel ­general in December 2009, a job previously held by first minister Carwyn Jones.

“It was a difficult journey for me to get to where I am now,” he admits. “But it means I can say to people, ’I know it’s difficult, but if you really want a career in law you can do it if you apply yourself – it’s not as difficult as you think.’”

Griffiths concedes that trying to change the culture of the legal ­profession is not easy, but his ­optimism cannot be faulted.

“I think we can build on the progress that’s already been made,” he insists. “It’s entirely possible, but it’s something that needs commitment, energy and imagination.

“One thing I can hopefully give is a bit of a lead.”