Racial and sexual discrimination are legislated against, with varying degrees of success, but the subtle influences of class and background are more difficult to outlaw.
Patronage in the legal profession has a long-established history. At one time, only the well-heeled and well-connected could afford to become lawyers. In theory, all that has changed, but echoes of the past remain.
The disparity between the numbers taking the vocational courses and the numbers of available pupillages and training places, coupled with the difficulties faced by students in funding their training, mean that the profession can pick and choose its recruits.
In general, these tend to be the people with the best academic qualifications. But it can also mean "jobs for the boys and girls" (recent allegations in the legal press refer to instances - albeit rare - of pupillages being offered to women for sex).
Barristers are permitted to take friends or relatives as private pupils. A fuss was made recently when Cherie Booth QC took on as a pupil Buster Cox, the son of Barry Cox who fundraised for the election of her husband Tony Blair to the leadership of the Labour Party. Ms Booth was criticised for apparently side-stepping her chambers' selection procedures, but the Bar's professional conduct committee found no evidence of misconduct.
The Bar is, however, in the midst of reviewing selection procedures within the barristers' profession, aiming to introduce a fairer system that emphasises merit rather than old school tie. It is reviewing the future of private pupillages in conjunction with proposals for a clearing house scheme for pupillage applications (Pach), along the lines of Ucas, the university application system.
"Private pupillages are not consistent with an open clearing house scheme," says a spokesman for the Bar. "In any event, there is not much evidence of private pupillages - they are relatively rare."
The real problem, he says, is not alleged patronage, but the chaos of the current application system.
Following wide consultations on the new scheme, the proposals are likely to get the go-ahead when they are put to the Bar Council, probably next month.
Pach will not be compulsory, the spokesman says, but adds: "The Bar Council will give a very strong steer. Those chambers that want the best and most progressive young barristers will be well advised to participate, because that is the system the most forward-thinking young barristers will favour."
Oxbridge has benefited from taking students from a wider range of social backgrounds, and so should the Bar.
The current regime at the Bar, under the chairmanship of Peter Goldsmith QC, is concerned to dispel its old closed-club image. It says the clearing house scheme will be designed to ensure truly open competition, as well as good equal opportunities practice.
"The move is very definitely away from what many consider to be the unacceptable practices of the past towards a more pragmatic and rational system, in which the best qualified are taken on by the best chambers for them," says the Bar's spokesman.
Any patronage that exists among solicitors is more to do with background than old boy clubs, and the relationship between who you are and your success in finding a niche in the profession is less clear-cut. The vocational training for solicitors, the legal practice course, is expensive and local authority giants are rarely forthcoming. Students must therefore either take on loans - and begin their careers saddled with huge debts - or rely on being funded by firms that will take them on as trainees. By and large, only the bigger firms can afford to do this, and these firms are choosy. Of the 30 largest firms, only four consider candidates with lower than a 2.1 degree, according to a survey in Lawyer magazine. In addition, the large firms take most, if not all, of their trainees from Oxbridge and the red-brick universities and this, many claim, discriminates against ethnic minorities and the non-middle class applicants.
The position in other countries is not dissimilar. In the United States, says one American lawyer, where "things are meant to be much more of a meritocracy" and there are anti-nepotism rules in most big firms, it matters who you know. In the US equivalent of a City firm, an introduction from an important client is a "virtual guarantee of a job".
In government jobs - the government is the largest employer of lawyers in the US - there is political patronage. "If the attorney-general is a Democrat, Republican candidates need not apply," the lawyer says, although among members of the same party, meritocracy otherwise reigns. In smaller and provincial US firms, "fathers employ their sons, and mothers their daughters", and lawyers working for companies tend to come from firms who are outside suppliers of legal services.
In Germany, what count are grades, says a spokesman from the German Bar. "Ten years ago, prospects for lawyers were bad," she says. "Then, after reunification, there was a very great need for lawyers - there were only 600 lawyers in the DDR - and it was easy to find jobs. Now, it's changed again and we don't want people to take up law unless they have a real vocation."
Unemployment among lawyers in Germany is impossible to quantify as any qualified person may register as a lawyer, set up office at home and look for clients. But there is no patronage, says the spokeswoman. "It is more and more important to specialise and to learn to speak a couple of languages fluently. But it is academic grades that count."
In France, there is a strong tradition of children following their parents into the law. But, says a French lawyer, "everyone has his chance here. The most important thing is to be a good lawyer." Connections are irrelevant, he says, except possibly in helping students to find their first stage or traineeship, and this is ultimately no benefit as there is an over- supply of stagiares.
Spain also has a tradition of family connections but, says a spokeswoman for the Spanish Bar, competition in the legal profession is tough. "It is necessary to be a really good professional to find good work," she says. There is quite high unemployment among lawyers, who are claimed to number 100,000.
What it takes to become a lawyer
One of the few countries (besides the US) that allows lawyers entry to the profession with degrees other than law. Solicitor and barrister non- law graduates first take a common professional exam (CPE). All potential solicitors then go on to the one-year legal practice course and a two- year traineeship. Barristers undergo a one-year vocational training, then a two-year pupillage.
No law courses exist at undergraduate university, so after a non-law degree, students attend post-graduate law school for three years, emerging with a juris doctor (formerly LLB). Then follows a six-month cram course for Bar exams and (virtually routine) vetting by the committee on character and fitness. No period of traineeship.
Very long training - seven to nine years. An average of four or five years studying law at university (a free-ranging course of study based on humanistic ideals). A system of credits creates "a very free system" for students. The first state exam is followed by the equivalent of articles, but the student is attached to a court and paid a salary of DM1,700-1,800 and other Civil Service benefits. The student takes different stages with a judge, prosecutor, administrator, defence lawyer, etc. After at least two years, another exam and then qualification.
Four-year law degree becoming maitrise de droit. Then a professional exam from one of 180 regional bars, after a year of practical and theoretical work. This provides the caps or certificate of aptitude and entitlement to call yourself avocat. There is a state of usually two years, roughly equivalent to articles, after which the lawyer is registered in the grand tableau.
Currently, only lawyers who want to work in legal aid have to undergo a three-year training and attend a professional training school. Otherwise, anyone with a law degree may practise as a lawyer, although proposals to unify qualifications throughout the profession are likely to be approved by the Spanish Bar in the summer.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies