"I know from personal experience," Cherie Booth QC (Tony Blair's wife) said recently, "how difficult it is to enter the [law] profession from a non-privileged background. The problem was not just lack of money although this was a big obstacle, but also the lack of contacts - family or friends who could help to find you work experience and mini-pupillages." She did made it in the end, but how many excellent would-be barristers have fallen by the wayside? Can the Bar Council, Barristers' Chambers and Inns of Courts do much more than they already do to help?
Rothna Shah, a student from Leith, is in her third year of a law degree at the University of Edinburgh. The secondary school she attended is in a poor district of the city and she thinks that it did well to have 30 students in its sixth form, of whom perhaps 10 went to university. She says, "Although I have always wanted to be a lawyer, and my parents have always been ambitious for me, I doubt if I would have made it to this university without the Pathways to the Profession scheme run by the university and sponsored by the Sutton Trust."
The Pathways scheme, so far unique to Scotland, has been running for a few years and targets students from non-professional families when they enter their sixth forms, and encourages them to consider a legal or medical career. If they are interested they are given mentors - in the form of other further advanced law students - careers advice and introductions to law firms and Chambers. Over the last two years, 176 Pathway students have entered the university and of these 103, including Rothna, are studying law. They still have formidable obstacles to overcome, not least how they are to support themselves while they do their training.
Last year, the Sutton Trust published research on the educational backgrounds of the UK's top judges, barristers and solicitors. It found that three out of four top judges, more than two-thirds of top barristers and more than half the partners at leading law firms had attended private schools, which educate just 7 per cent of the population.
So, there is always more that can be done. In 2001, one of the first summer and winter schools to introduce students from inner-London boroughs to a possible career in the law was conceived, via a winter school at the London School of Economics followed by a summer course at the College of Law. Then, last year, the College of Law decided to invest £1.25m over five years: this will enable the Pathways Scheme to target schools around each of our five centres, in London, Birmingham, Guildford, Chester and York.
The scheme is aimed at future solicitors, will be managed by the Sutton Trust - which is putting a further £250,000 into the project - and is being run with the intention of admitting 750 Pathways students each year by 2010.
Leading law firms will be asked to help in terms of meeting these students, providing mentors, offering them work experience and considering them for training contracts. For those students wanting to become corporate or commercial lawyers, the financial obstacles are not so formidable. A number of top firms are already being worked with on firm-specific legal practice courses (LPCs), and these partnerships mean that all these students' postgraduate course fees are paid for.
The Pathways scheme will cover Bar students, but they could be lost to the Bar if the profession does not respond to them in the same way that solicitor firms are likely to do. Help will be required from barristers' chambers; perhaps the Inns could look favourably on students for scholarships and find sponsors of the kind they offer their own student members. Ideally, a respected university is required that would take would-be Bar students who are from non-privileged backgrounds under its wing.
Both parts of the legal profession have welcomed the project. Stephen Hockman QC has said: "The Bar Council wants to ensure that entry to the Bar is from all sections of society. We welcome this initiative, which will support our own efforts to ensure that membership of the Bar is inclusive and open to all." Fiona Woolf, president of the Law Society has said there is much more to do if the legal profession is to become "truly reflective of society".
Professor Nigel Savage is chief executive of The College of Law, LondonReuse content