Around 21 per cent of solicitors and 34 per cent of barristers attended fee-paying schools, compared to 7 per cent of the general population. More than half have parents with degree level qualifications, compared to 19 per cent in the general population.

When the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) route to qualification was announced, there were high hopes it would broaden diversity and help to open up a sector that remains dominated by those who are privately educated or went to ‘the right sort of university’. At CILEX, we were genuinely intrigued to think we may finally have direct competition for a truly accessible route to becoming a qualified lawyer.

The sad reality is that the SQE will do little to change the status quo. It requires students to have a higher education qualification or equivalent work experience that, practically speaking, all but rules out the majority of those who do not have a degree.  Add to that recent reports of expensive SQE preparation courses and the abuse of the apprenticeship levy to fund graduate training, and it is clear that significant barriers will remain for those from less privileged backgrounds who want to make their way into the profession.

Ignoring the potential of people without degrees means missing out on a wealth of talented and ambitious people who currently consider a legal career to be out of reach and the cost of completing both a degree and subsequent legal qualifications prohibitive. This impacts wider society. One of the reasons the public distrusts lawyers is that the profession does not reflect the society it serves and appears a closed shop, reserved for a certain type of person.

A report last November from the Legal Services Board said: “The pace of progress needs to rapidly accelerate to ensure that the legal profession at all levels reflects the diversity of the communities it serves”. There was, it found, “deep seated inertia” hindering change.

CILEX remains the primary route for non-graduates and those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds to access careers in the law. CILEX lawyers now work as partners in law firms, appear in court as advocates, operate as legal counsel in the private and public sector and sit as judges.

We are committed to further enhancing accessibility, and in February this year launched the CILEX Professional Qualification (CPQ), a substantially more affordable way to become a fully qualified lawyer. Open to school leavers, the CPQ will produce uniquely-qualified lawyers with the skills to meet the changing demands of the modern legal market.

With a simpler route to qualification that sees independent rights of practice become integral to the CILEX qualification, we expect to see long term growth in the numbers of CILEX lawyers working in the profession, improving diversity.

As well as ensuring the modern legal profession welcomes practitioners from a wide range of backgrounds, it’s also vital that those lawyers have the skills they need for the 2020s.

It is no longer good enough to simply have the necessary legal knowledge to do the job. Employers want work-ready legal staff with practical skills and commercial awareness – skills so often lacking in those who have taken the traditional route into law.

Academic knowledge needs to be blended with practice-based experience – an element that the majority of other professional qualifications leave until the end, rather than ensuring it is an integral part.

Alongside this approach, the CPQ also incorporates legal technology, business skills and emotional intelligence - the skills needed to adapt and innovate, ensuring legal services meet evolving consumer needs.

The legal profession can only be enriched by encompassing the perspectives of those from different backgrounds. As a profession, we should also accept that in the 21st century lawyers need skills far beyond the ability to recite a legal textbook. By opening up and by ensuring lawyers have a wider range of skills, we will provide a better service and benefit society as a whole.

We want to work with solicitors to ensure that lawyers from all backgrounds, and qualified through all routes, are confident in the mutual recognition of the equality of the qualification and the assurance of equality in terms of career progression and treatment. Today, that is not the case.  If we really want a profession that better reflects society, then every solicitor-owned and led firm needs to ensure it encourages diversity and inclusion and doesn’t treat some lawyers as more equal than others.

Professor Chris Bones, chair of CILEX (Chartered Institute of Legal Executives)

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