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Social mobility in the UK legal profession is still hindered by educational bias

Private and Oxbridge education is needed to accelerate career progression, two research studies show

24 November 2015

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By Manju Manglani, Editor (@ManjuManglani)

Progression to top positions in the UK legal profession is still largely dependent on educational background, new research has found.

This is particularly evident in the courts, where nearly three-quarters of top judges and QCs were privately educated - proportions that have decreased slightly since the 1980s.

That's according to the Sutton Trust and PRIME, which found that these two groups are over ten times more likely to have a private education than the general population, where seven per cent attend independent schools.

"The worrying fact that the high proportion of privately educated judges has barely changed since the 1980s warns us that there is still a big social mobility problem within the legal sector," commented Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation.

Recently-released research by the London School of Economics and Political Science has also found that private schooling and Oxbridge university education continue to be strong accelerators of career progression in the legal sector.

In the first academic study of the QC appointments system since the 2004 reforms, assistant professor of law Michael Blackwell conducted a statistical analysis of the careers of 11,453 barristers in 138 chambers between 1981 and 2011.

The statistics show that male Oxbridge-educated junior barristers from London-based chambers are still far more likely to become QCs.

Post-reform, women and non-Oxbridge educated barristers continue to be less likely than other barristers in the same chambers and of equivalent call to become QCs.

In addition, barristers who are Oxbridge graduates are more likely to become QCs than their equivalents who are not Oxbridge graduates. This disparity has become even more pronounced since the 2004 reforms.

A representative survey of 150 lawyers by the Sutton Trust and PRIME also found that 74 per cent of top judges had attended a private school and received an Oxbridge education.

Similarly, 71 per cent of top QCs had an independent education and 78 per cent had been at an Oxbridge university.

Lack of educational diversity in law firms

Social mobility is also an issue in law firms. The Sutton Trust and PRIME research found that one in two partners in the magic circle law firms were privately educated.

Around half of top solicitors had attended a private school (48 per cent) and received an Oxbridge education (55 per cent).

Commenting on the findings, David Morley, senior partner at Allen & Overy and chairman of PRIME, said "a large part of the responsibility for solving this issue lies with law firms".

Research by Proceed UK last year found that UK's magic circle are missing out on talent from non-Oxbridge universities because they are perceived to favour candidates from Oxford and Cambridge.

Some law firms, including the magic circle, are trying to improve diversity and inclusion through CV-blind interview tests, contextual recruitment technology, unconscious bias training and diversity targets.

"If I think about what I would like our business to look like in 10 years' time, I see a partnership and a business comprising a diverse range of people from varying backgrounds," Mark Rigotti, co-CEO of Herbert Smith Freehills, said in a Managing Partner case study 'Journey to diversity: How HSF will meet its global diversity targets'.

"Our leaders will harness the diversity of thought and perspective of people at all levels of the organisation, such that we are known for our culture of inclusion and respect."

Law firm leaders from less advantaged socioeconomic or educational backgrounds have also been encouraged to be 'out' about this to help increase diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.

"Leadership is a privilege, it has responsibilities with it and, if you are in that position, then part of that responsibility is to be honest with the people you are working with," Catherine Dixon, CEO of The Law Society of England & Wales, told Managing Partner.

Call to scrap the awarding of QC status

Blackwell's research suggests that there are serious issues as to whether the existence of QC status is in the public interest.

He has argued that the 2004 reforms to the QC appointment system, which were designed to make the process fairer and more transparent, have failed to improve diversity.

"The overwhelming majority of High Court judges are appointed from the pool of practising Queen's Counsel. Thus fewer women becoming QCs effectively impedes progress towards greater judicial diversity: and in doing so brings into question the legitimacy of the judiciary," he said.

"Because of the failure of the QC system to appoint the best advocates it does not operate as a perfect kite-mark of quality for consumers. Nor does it equally distribute the awards of QC status on any equitable basis."

He noted that it has not been possible to research the effects of the reforms on ethnic minorities due to a lack of data.

However, he has argued that his research findings should become the catalyst for serious policy debate about abolishing QC status because its existence does not appear to be in the interests of consumers or of justice.

"The award of QC status is effectively for life, which might be thought to make the claim that it is a kite-mark of quality dubious."

Blackwall's findings are provided in 'Taking Silk: An Empirical Study of the Award of Queen's Counsel Status 1981-2015' in The Modern Law Review.


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