Big changes are afoot in the legal profession

The promise of a hefty salary, deals that make the front pages and the cut and thrust of legal life all make a City law career an enticing prospect. It's also one that's well within your reach, if you are up to the challenge.

While the unfortunate stereotype - Oxbridge-educated, white and male - still persists, it lags years behind the reality. Many law firms have worked hard to open up their admissions procedures and The Law Society, the body that oversees the legal profession, requests that firms publish data about the make-up of their trainee intakes.

Around 15 per cent of law trainees are drawn from ethnic minority backgrounds - almost twice the UK demographic figure for the employment of ethnic minorities of 8 per cent - and more than half of trainees are now female.

"We need to ensure that we can get our hands on the best, most talented people," says Clare Harris, associate director of legal resourcing at Lovells, spelling out the simple formula firms are ruled by. Yet she admits that "there are people for whom the City is not a familiar place," and many students who would make great lawyers are put off by the Square Mile's stuffy image.

Universities are taking the lead in breaking down some of these barriers. Pathways to Law for example, run by the Sutton Trust, relies on universities with highly regarded law departments working with local schools each year to identify and recruit 250 school pupils from diverse backgrounds for a two-year programme that introduces them to the legal profession (read more about it on page 18).

There is a raft of similar schemes, including CRAC Legal Eagles, Pure Potential and GTI Legal Chances, all of which aim to get students interested in a legal career through open days and visitors. Ask your Aim Higher or Connexions coordinators for more details.

Trevor James, now head of European tax at American firm Morrison & Foerster, qualified as a lawyer 20 years ago. He was told by one firm back then that he was the first black person ever interviewed for a position there. "It's changed tremendously in the last 10 years," he says. "We work in a diverse global environment - we need to have a diverse workgroup. If you're just taking folks from one pool you are limiting yourself."

Law firms are starting to think more broadly about what constitutes suitability. Hugh Crisp, a partner at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer who sits on the company's community and pro bono committee, singles out a trainee whose prior work experience consisted of working in a sandwich shop every holiday. At first glance it looked irrelevant, until "you realise that's the job he needed to get in order to survive," says Crisp. "And he turned it into the best sandwich bar in Southeast London."

Linked to diversity, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is becoming an important part of the legal profession, and a way of redefining corporate culture to make it more outward looking. The legal profession has the potential not simply to contribute substantial amounts of money to good causes, but to make its skills, expertise, time and know-how available, including the provision of free legal advice to the homeless, fighting for better human rights abroad, offsetting carbon emissions and participating in mentoring schemes.

A firm's position on these and other issues can help distinguish it. A recent global survey at Allen & Overy revealed that 92 per cent of respondents agreed that working for a "responsible" firm is important, with 87 per cent putting a premium on the firm being environmentally friendly. Simmons & Simmons was the world's first international firm to go carbon neutral at the end of 2006, and others are looking at following suit soon.

"There's a happy coincidence between stuff that's good to do and which helps our competitiveness," says Crisp. "People like to be proud of what they do and that makes them more likely to recommend the firm."

If you are considering a career in the law, you need to start planning early: look into the possibility of summer schemes while you are still at school. Once you are at university, most firms would expect some sort of summer internship in the second year, which means applying at Christmas-time and, importantly, being judged on first-year academic results.

"It's tough out there. It's a very difficult market, no matter what colour you are, but the competition shouldn't put anyone off," says Trevor James. So, the hard slog will prove worthwhile. "Law is one of the transforming careers," says Crisp. "If you are the first generation into this profession, it can totally change your life."

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