Cash, Contact or Confidence

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Taryn Lee QC on a fresh approach to social mobility.

Social mobility sparks all sorts of debate across the Bar. Is it easier to join the Bar if you have a less or more traditional background today? Are parental or familial links still as important as they once were? Should we be encouraging young people to consider a career at the Bar when we know how hard it is to start out in the current climate?


We have crafted a new strategy based on three pillars: cash, contact and confidence. Our approach draws on evidence that suggests that it is these three areas that present the largest barriers to fair access and social mobility.

Cash

Perhaps the most obvious and most prevailing barrier to access is finance. The BPTC (Bar Professional Training Course) is very expensive. This imposes a huge financial burden on those who take it while discouraging others who may be equally talented (but less able to take a financial risk) from applying. Since students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are often more risk-averse, one can see that there is an unquantifiable and diverse pool of promising young people who do not even attempt to embark on a career at the Bar because the financial risk is too great. Also, in the context of a diminishing number of pupillages, it is increasingly important that any training course be of value to other potential employers and to the students in a broader sense. And since scoring highly in the assessments does not seem to correlate to chances of getting pupillage, one might rightly question what purpose the BPTC has?

That is why the Bar Council and the Inns of Court are exploring ways that the BPTC could be changed without compromising the quality of the qualification. The LETR (Legal Education and Training Review), whilst not telling us everything we wanted to hear, did at least acknowledge the case for a more flexible approach to pre-Call education. This is one we should welcome, but treat with caution; one outcome of a more liberalised market might be a preferred (expensive) path and then other more mass market ones that do not offer as much chance of entering into the profession. The key here is not how to make legal education and training more flexible, but how to create a parity of esteem amongst the different pathways. It’s something that the solicitors could potentially find challenging when the first few generations of higher apprentices come to the point of qualification; checks need to be put in place to ensure that their qualifications are given just as much credit as those more traditional routes.

Contact

For those of us who have been at the Bar for a long time, it is all too easy to forget about the mystique that surrounds the profession. From the way we are portrayed on Eastenders to the frankly cartoonish coverage of the campaign to save legal aid, it is little wonder that we appear to be such a strange and foreign profession to the outside eye. That is why bringing students from all backgrounds into contact with a wide range of current practitioners is so important. This has already been happening through the Bar Council’s “Speak Up For Others” initiative, which places volunteer barristers in around 500 state schools each year to give careers talks. Our Bar Placement Weeks and the Inner Temple Schools Project are just two more examples of how we show students firsthand that all they believed about the Bar may not have been true.

Given the mystique that surrounds the Bar, and the cost of qualification, access to high-quality work experience is even more vital for our profession. That’s why we’re delighted to have been able almost to double the reach of our Bar Placement Weeks over the course of the last year, with new schemes being established in Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester to replicate the ever-growing flagship week in London.

But the key here is really in sustained contact; a week is enough to get a better sense of the Bar, but when it comes to what happens next, those with regular contact with the profession through friends or family will always be better equipped to navigate the labyrinthine route through university to qualification. To this end, we will shortly be piloting e-mentoring for social mobility students, so that individuals have access to support around key milestones in their educational journey.

It is important to understand that the sole purpose of this work is not to put the Bar in the shop window for one and all, painting a misleading portrait of the profession as easily accessible for everyone. Rather, it is to provide young people with the advice, information and experience they need to make the all important informed decisions about their future.

Confidence

It is often forgotten that one’s ability to write, communicate and collaborate is not innate; we are a product of our education and, unfortunately, the quality of schooling varies between geographic area and fee-paying status. One of the key things to come out of a fee-paying education is perhaps very difficult to measure, but alumni will most likely have more confidence in their abilities, resilience to setbacks and verbal communication skills.

They might seem anecdotally important at best, but it is these “soft skills” that present such a barrier to access. Soft skills isn’t the most romancing of conversation topics, but the generation of soft skills is crucial for both success in higher education and entry into the professions. Indeed, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility recently identified that young people from less affluent backgrounds were typically less likely to develop skills such as self-control, self-motivation, empathy and resilience to setbacks than their more privileged peers.

It is not all about upbringing but it is a factor. If you have had enough confidence developed and enough contact with the  profession you should be able to deal with whatever challenges the pupillage application process throws up. That’s why we’re not only ensuring that fair recruitment and selection guidance encourages chambers to undertake competency-based recruitment, but will also shortly be working with student-led law societies on campuses to ensure their members have ample opportunity to develop the full range of skills necessary to succeed.

A 4th ‘C’?

The Bar has a vital role to play to ensure that background is no barrier to becoming a barrister, going to university or even doing something completely different.

We’re very excited to take this work forward, but are under no illusions; with the cuts to legal aid and the development of solicitor-advocates, the number of pupillages is not going to return to pre-recession levels. Moreover, it is one thing to support people to enter the profession, and quite another to create an environment in which all can thrive.

This of course covers the access question, but what of retention? There is another piece entirely to be written on those from different backgrounds’ experience of life at the Bar, how likely they are to progress and even stay. Indeed, if there were a 4th ‘C’, it would most likely be culture. This is a profession with a long history of professionalism, tradition and custom, so naturally a particular culture will have arisen. But are there ways to make the Bar’s collegiate atmosphere even more inclusive? If we can realise this, perhaps we can truly work towards a profession of all and for all.

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Taryn Lee QC

Taryn is Joint Head of Chambers at 37 Park Square in Leeds and Chair of the Bar Council’s Social Mobility Committee. Called to the Bar in 1992 and taking Silk in 2012, Taryn is a family law practitioner working across all areas of public and private child care law.