Open up the club

Members of law firms and chambers should help students to forge links with the profession in a mentoring scheme, says Abdul Hoq Mohammed, pictured right, in the winning entry in The College of Law/ The Independent Essay Competition
The legal profession suffers from a want of egalitarianism. Certain conditions exist that indicate inequality within the system. There is a scarcity of funding, which weans out the talented but less affluent. There is a clandestine custom of patronage, which discards the talented but poorly connected. Finally, there is a hierarchy in educational institutions, which condescends upon the talented but unconventional. Barriers to entry into the legal profession are numerous. The key to the breaking down of these barriers is the establishment of a meritocracy within the process.

In the course of this essay, the struggle between two conflicting theories must be borne in mind. The conflict in question is that between a "professional" law degree and an "academic" law degree. Should university legal education be any more vocational and practical than it is at present or should students be allowed to learn at liberty as their peers in other degree courses are able to? It seems evident that in order to break down barriers, some compromise is required at this fundamental level. Complete liberty for universities to grant students the right to learn exactly what they want would possibly prove detrimental to the very students who are already disadvantaged.

Specialist colleges (such as my own) offer unconventional courses of immense attraction to their students, but of comparatively lightweight importance to the major firms. The compulsory study of six or seven core units produces some uniformity and enables such a student, having entered the office of the recruiting manager at a large firm, to elucidate upon the exquisite merits of a course on law and society in South Asia, comfortable in the knowledge that minimum academic requirements have been met.

Yet three factors stand out as barriers to entering the profession.

As the Government tightens the screws on discretionary funding, education becomes viable only for the privileged. In legal education, aspirants face the additional hurdle of attempting to procure funding for the professional training courses. The fees are nightmarish. To alleviate this nightmare, a scheme should be set up where students are selected, after A-levels, to be assisted throughout their course. The scheme could take the form of a partnership between the College of Law and several law firms and chambers.

At present, it may be difficult to identify potential lawyers at such a nascent stage. Perhaps the solution would be a remoulded law A-level that provides a proper foundation for an LLB degree. Attainment in such an A-level could be a strong indicator of a student's potential.

The second problem is that of patronage - "It is not what you know, but who you know." The legal profession is a club, further divided into exclusive cliques. The difficulties thus posed for the naive cannot be emphasised enough. It appears that patronage is a phenomenon which cannot be entirely eradicated within the present academic and professional infrastructure.

The solution is perhaps to develop a form of counter-patronage, whereby inadequately connected law students are put in contact with professionals on a systematic basis. The mechanism could take the form of a "mentor" scheme. This type of scheme has proved to be very constructive at GCSE and A-level standard, for disadvantaged students at less prestigious schools in search of positive role models. For our purposes, a system could be devised in which participating law firms and chambers agree to assist selected students at designated universities. A central body, such as the Law Society, could undertake to assign firms to universities on a rotating yearly basis. An initiative such as this would go a long way in bringing down the tradition of certain firms exclusively favouring certain colleges when recruiting trainees. Previously blinkered firms and chambers would have their eyes opened to the considerable talent scattered outside the most eminent institutions; and the students would be able to forge invaluable links with the profession.

The final scourge to access involves a conspiracy of disinformation and discouragement. At A-level stage, students are informed by careers advisers and others that entry into Oxbridge is an essential for a career in the law. It is an unfortunate reality that this assertion is true to an extent. Students should be able to explore the law, and discover its diversity and peculiarities without ruining their prospects of employment. It is abundantly clear that many discerning and meritorious students choose not to go to Oxbridge, as they intend to study courses available only at other institutions.

Recent press reports have highlighted a plan being developed by the vice- chancellors of several prestigious universities to form a "premier league" of institutions. That is an horrendous idea. The hierarchical nature of current legal recruitment could receive no greater boost. Other considerations aside, it is incorrect to suggest that the reputations of these universities inevitably entails brilliance in their law departments.

If it is found that the ideas outlined above are not sufficient to break down barriers, it may be necessary to take a more radicalapproach.

One could suggest the introduction of a central applications mechanism for professional recruitment (akin to the format applied for the LPC/CPE). An even more drastic step might be to restructure the whole process of legal education by creating an amalgamated course combining the present law degree and practice course/bar exam.

Thus, a law course would become similar to a medicine degree, combining theory and practice. This might require the formation of new specialised law schools. (It may also, although not necessarily, require the merger of the two branches of the profession.) Admittedly, such a system would probably restrict the opportunities for unconventional courses, increase competition, and isolate the law from the rest of education yet further. However, it is anticipated that, as the traditional hierarchy of institutions is eliminated, equality would finally reign supreme

Abdul Hoq Mohammed, 20, is the winner of the first Access to Legal Education award, sponsored by the College of Law and 'The Independent'. He has been awarded the prize of a year's fees at the College of Law's Legal Practice Course.

The judges in the competition included Colin Hughes, deputy editor of 'The Independent'; Cherie Booth QC, Professor Nigel Savage, chief executive of the College of Law, and Professor John Daniel, vice-chancellor of the Open University.