Tackling the social mobility crisis in the legal industry
By Jo-Anne Pugh
Jo-Anne Pugh discusses the role of the UK’s legal industry in tackling the country’s growing social mobility crisis and what we can do to create positive change
This September, the UK's Social Mobility Commission released its annual State of the Nation 2023 report, providing a comprehensive overview of social mobility across the life course of people around the UK.
The report’s findings offer a stark warning that the UK’s younger generation is now in danger of being worse off than its predecessors and urges that more must be done in order to improve mobility prospects for the next generation.
The legal sector
When it comes to the legal sector, professionals often hold powerful positions of leadership and influence in wider society, for example judges, lawmakers and advisors to businesses, making it hugely important that our sector reflects the communities in which we serve.
According to a report by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), however, as little as 18 per cent of the legal workforce are from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, while only 5 per cent are disabled, compared to 14 per cent of the overall UK workforce. Furthermore, 22 per cent of all lawyers attended a fee-paying school, while 58 per cent came from a professional socio-economic background, much higher than the respective national figures, at 7.5 per cent and 37 per cent.
Improving upward mobility is a challenge every sector should strive to overcome if we’re serious about tackling the findings of the Social Mobility Commission’s report head on. But it’s clearly an even bigger challenge for the legal sector when we take the SRA figures into account.
It’s therefore important that the sector sends a clear message that success in the legal industry is attainable for everyone, regardless of their socio-economic background. This can change the trajectory for future generations, creating a better reflection of society within the industry, in turn producing a fairer and more representative legal system.
So, what can the legal industry do to play its part in tackling the social mobility crisis?
Improving accessibility through apprenticeships
One of the most significant ways we can improve diversity in the legal sector is by removing the stereotypes tied to it. One way to do this is by increasing representation, but in order to do so, we must first provide accessible pathways to qualification for people from all backgrounds.
In the State of the Nation 2023 report, the Commission highlights that the traditional approach to upward social mobility focuses too much on the university route and that employers need to consider alternative pathways into employment. A great way to do this is through legal apprenticeships, which has proven itself to be a strong tool for diversifying the workforce.
One of the biggest myths about apprenticeships is that they are only available to young people leaving school, meaning many businesses overlook their full potential. However, the latest government statistics show that 47 per cent of people starting an apprenticeship were over 25.
Changes to regulation
Regulation plays an important part in urging the industry as a whole to do more to address accessibility and social mobility issues. Although the SRA is keen to support apprenticeships, for those who do obtain a degree, there are still many financial barriers.
Currently, those with a degree opting for a traditional SQE course not via an apprenticeship, must pay £4,564 to sit the SQE. This cost excludes any additional outlays, such as resits or preparation courses. This is an unnecessary barrier to entry for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, forcing many to work alongside their studies to support their qualification, or opt for a different career entirely.
There is scope here for our industry and the SRA to reassess our education system and what we can offer aspiring solicitors, whether that’s industry-wide financial aid or alternative training routes, to support them on their journey to qualifying.
Looking to the future
As a sector which prides itself on creating positive change to the communities we serve, it’s crucial that we work together to play our role in supporting upward mobility. Not only does it improve the lives of those wanting to pursue a career in law, but the wider community too, as we look to create a fairer and more diverse legal system which reflects society.
As we look to the future, I’m hopeful that if we continue to call out these issues and work together, we can find ways to ensure that our industry is accessible to all.
Jo-Anne Pugh is the dean of BPP Law School