Most social mobility programs are targeted too late to be effective. There, I have said it. It’s a sweeping statement, and no doubt some of you have already started typing eloquent re-buffs, but please hear me out.

If we look at most of the great schemes aiming to open the legal profession to lower socio-economic groups, we see a common theme. They are aimed at those in the later stages of their postgraduate legal training or, often, university level. Is this the right stage to be targeting? I am going to argue that it is too late. Too late to make any significant difference.

The table below, taken from Diversity at the Bar 2020 (Bar Standards Board, January 2021), demonstrates what I mean. Of those who responded to the question on type of school attended, 18.1% said they came from independent schools and 30.8% from a state school. This compares with 7% of children having attended an independent school in England (6.5% in the UK) (Independent Schools Council, 2021).

What is also interesting is the low rate of response: 44.4%. Even if all those who chose not to respond to this question happened to be state-school educated, the proportion of barristers who went to independent schools would still be disproportionately higher than in the wider population.

If we look to alternative sources, the Sutton Trust published its first report on the educational backgrounds of the UK’s professional elite over a decade ago. This researched the schools and universities attended by barristers, judges, solicitors and other sectors. Since then, it has published over ten updates, the latest of which (in 2016) noted the ‘staying-power of the privately-educated at the top’ and that even when those with such backgrounds retire from the top of their field, ‘they are frequently replaced by those with a similar educational past’ (Leading People, Sutton Trust/Philip Kirby).

The Sutton Trust/Kirby study showed that 71% of barristers, and 74% of judges, attended independent schools – compared with 7% of the UK population; 78% of barristers, and 74% of judges, attended Oxbridge – compared with under 1% of the UK population. Whichever way we look at it, this is a highly significant deviation from the wider population. Furthermore, the Bar and judiciary (along with the military at 71%) top the list of sectors dominated by independent-school education; medicine follows at 61%; journalism is 51%; solicitors 51%; politics (Cabinet) 50%; Civil Service 48%; and business 34%.

Then think about this, how many of those who attend state school actually come from higher socio-economic groups? According to a 2019 article in the Guardian, 40% of children from families with income in excess of £300,000 p/a go to state schools (Britain’s private school problem: it’s time to talk, Francis Green and David Kynaston, The Guardian 13 January 2019). Currently, this is something as a profession we are less focused on, but is this masking yet further issues with our recruitment?

To assess progress in social mobility more accurately, the Sutton Trust’s Social Mobility Toolkit 2021 recommends looking at four areas in this order:

  1. parental occupation;
  2. school type attended;
  3. free school meal eligibility; and
  4. parental education.

Interestingly, though, we concentrate our social mobility efforts, in the main, well after this stage. If I had not come from a working-class background, I might be using stable door and horse analogies here!

It is not radical to suggest we need to engage with potential entrants before they start studying for their legal qualifications; before they go to university; and before they sit their A-Levels.

An effective social mobility policy needs to start in secondary schools. Children can only opt to study for a career as a barrister if they know about it. They need to be shown what a great career option it can be, and that it is open to people like them. They need to know what A-Level options to choose. They need to know about funding sources that will enable them to shoulder the massive financial training burden. Only by engaging with children earlier will we ever start to succeed in our ambitions for social mobility. All other attempts will be akin to sticking a sandbag in the door as the dam breaks. 

What initiatives are currently aimed at promoting the Bar to non-fee paying schools, and how can barristers get involved?
The Bar Council runs a number of initiatives. Its Bar Placement Scheme allows school students to spend three days shadowing a barrister in chambers, court or virtual placement. The Bar Council’s E-Mentoring Scheme is for Year 12, 13 and first-year undergraduate students from state schools and underrepresented backgrounds. It runs a database of barrister volunteers who will give a talk to schools, colleges or universities. The Bar Council’s social mobility campaign #IAmTheBar is now in its fourth year. All the Social Mobility Advocates have had non-traditional paths to the Bar; came from working class/low-income households, attended state schools and non-Oxbridge universities, worked to fund their training and education. None had prior links to the Bar. And many have faced other challenges in their journeys to becoming barristers.
The Circuits run their own social mobility initiatives; some of which are targeted at school students aged 14-18 and underrepresented groups in particular. BarNone on the Western Circuit is one example. There are lots of ways for Circuiteers to get involved, so see what is happening on your Circuit and how you can get involved.
The Inns of Court also run social mobility schemes and educational outreach some of which are aimed at state school students and underrepresented groups, such as Gray’s Inn’s Griffin LAW day and Inner Temple’s Discovery Days.
Some chambers run their own social mobility schemes eg Garden Court Chambers’ long-term scheme, Access to the Bar for All, which offers 16-year-old students from BAME and disadvantaged groups mentoring and paid internships for three weeks per year over five years, and the opportunity to be awarded a £7,000 scholarship if they go on to study a law degree.
Outside the Bar, schemes include the Young Citizens’ Bar Mock Trial initiative which has, since 1991, enabled thousands of young people from state schools across the country to compete in mock criminal trials in real courts. The Big Voice London project helps students from non-fee paying schools in and around London to explore the UK legal system. Speakers for Schools connects schools with inspiring and influential people such as barristers for impactful school talks, helping young people to think big and aim high. The English-Speaking Union is a charity working to give young people speaking and listening skills and is looking for lawyers to participate in its debates.
However you get involved, it can be tremendously rewarding to help inspire a new and diverse generation of lawyers.