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Slowly but surely, signs that the law is opening up

IQUALIFIED &ndash; against all odds &ndash; to become a lawyer,&rdquo; recalled Constance Briscoe, barrister, part-time judge and author of the bestselling misery memoir Ugly. She was talking on Radio 4&rsquo;s PM programme last week following the report by an all-party panel chaired by former cabinet minister Alan Milburn on social mobility and the professions. &ldquo;I&rsquo;ve been bumping my head against the glass ceiling for very many years, not being able to break it,&rdquo; complained Briscoe. <br /><br />Despite only 7 per cent of the population attending independent schools, the Milburn report found over half of professionals had such privileged starts. The legal profession was particularly susceptible to the charge of elitism: 55 per cent of solicitors are privately-educated, as are 68 per cent of top barristers and 75 per cent of all judges. <br /><br />Yet Kim Hollis QC, who has a Sikh father and an English mother , takes exception to the recent resurrection of &ldquo;that old Rumpolean image of the law&rdquo; (ie fusty, white, male and over-privileged). &ldquo;It doesn&rsquo;t tally with my experience,&rdquo; she says. The silk points out that when she was called to the Bar back in 1979 (four years prior Briscoe), far from being made to feel awkward about her heritage, she wore her sari with pride. &ldquo;If I had felt uncomfortable I wouldn&rsquo;t have done that,&rdquo; she adds.<br /><br />But Hollis continues: &ldquo;There were problems then &ndash; fewer women and fewer ethnic minorities. Life wasn&rsquo;t easy.&rdquo; The silk, who chaired this year&rsquo;s minority lawyers&rsquo; conference, reckons that over the last 30 years &ldquo;great strides&rdquo; have been taken by the profession. &ldquo;We recognise that we&rsquo;re increasingly living in a culturally diverse society and not only does the Bar need to reflect that but the judiciary does too,&rdquo; she says. &ldquo;You&rsquo;re not going to get a diverse judiciary unless you have a diverse legal profession.&rdquo; <br /><br /><br /><strong>FRUSTRATING </strong><br />Whilst lawyers might insist that the profession has become more representative of wider society, ministerial views have been pointing in the opposite direction. According to last week&rsquo;s social mobility report, the trend was for professionals to be increasingly from &ldquo;wealthier than average&rdquo; families and today&rsquo;s lawyers (born in 1970) typically grew up in a family with an income 64 per cent above that of the average family. This compares to a figure of 17 per cent for professionals born in 1958.<br /><br />And last week, Jack Straw, the justice secretary, described the lack of progress appointing black and Asian people to the bench as &ldquo;frustrating and paradoxical&rdquo;. One of 12 Law Lords is a woman, three out of 33 appeal judges and 11 out of 120 High Court judges are women. There are no Law Lords or Appeal judges from the ethnic minorities, and only three High Court judges.<br /><br />Ed Nally, a former Law Society president and a judicial appointments commissioner, agrees that prospective lawyers from poorer backgrounds are worse off now than they were in the 1970s. &ldquo;My father was a bus driver and my mother was a cleaner with no background of university or higher education,&rdquo; says Nally. &ldquo;The factors that prevailed in my time enabling me to get into the profession are denied the current crop of people coming into the profession.&rdquo; The solicitor passed the 11- plus, went to grammar school and his university career was backed by a grant. &ldquo;There was nothing special about the working classes getting on in the larger professions,&rdquo; he says. By contrast, many potential new recruits that Nally sees are &ldquo;saddled with debt&rdquo; and can only progress through the bank of Mum and Dad. <br /><br />&ldquo;Almost 25 per cent of people coming through law schools are from a minority background,&rdquo; says Michael Webster, managing partner of City firm Webster Dixon and former chair of the Black Solicitors Network. &ldquo;The question is, how do they get into the firms?&rdquo; Many aspiring black and minority ethnic (BME) lawyers are &ldquo;bypassed&rdquo; because they are deemed not to have made the grade because City firms don&rsquo;t look at students with less than 2 As and a B at A level. &ldquo;Most people going to the new universities do not have 2 As and a B so they fall at first hurdle,&rdquo; Webster adds.<br /><br /><strong>TOP GRADES</strong><br />So, is the profession becoming more of a closed shop? Regarding women and minorities, perhaps not. Figures show that more and more of both are entering the profession, but the Bar has some way to go: seven out of 10 self-employed barristers are male (70 per cent) and just over one in 10 (11 per cent) are BME. <br /><br />Hollis points out that the publicly-funded Bar shows a more varied picture: almost half (44.7 per cent) of criminal barristers are ethnic minorities and over almost four in 10 (39.6 per cent) are female. And some firms are making tracks: City firm Allen &amp; Overy&rsquo;s Smart Start Experience scheme was flagged up in the Milburn report as good practice. More than a hundred Year 12 students are recruited from 21 schools across the most deprived London boroughs for a week-long program to give them a taste of City law. <br /><br />Surely its Smart Start scheme could be an exercise in frustration if, as the Milburn report suggests, most recruits will come from public schools? &ldquo;You&rsquo;ve got to start somewhere,&rdquo; says David Morley. &ldquo;We aren&rsquo;t suggesting that this is going to change the world but if every major firm did something like this you could get a lot of kids getting relevant work experience.&rdquo; The reality is that competition for jobs at the top firms is ferocious. Even A&amp;O&rsquo;s holiday placement scheme is ridiculously oversubscribed &ndash; some 2,000 students apply for 60 places.<br /><br />Morley reports that A&amp;O has increased the number of universities it recruits from in the UK from 40 to 50, to &ldquo;cast our net more widely&rdquo;. However, it only recruits students with top grades. &ldquo;Somebody who doesn&rsquo;t have the appropriate academic qualifications is unlikely to survive in this environment,&rdquo; says Morley.<br /><br />Yet Morley &ndash; who went to a state school &ndash; insists that it is &ldquo;quite wrong&rdquo; to picture the law as an elitist profession. &ldquo;Part of the problem is that kids don&rsquo;t have the aspirations from an early age. They don&rsquo;t think of applying to firms. It&rsquo;s not that people from poor or difficult backgrounds are applying and then getting rejected. It&rsquo;s much deeper than that.&rdquo;