Myths and Money: Social Mobility and our Profession

By Sir Paul Jenkins KCB QC

Reprinted with the kind permission of The Middle Templar (Michaelmas 2017 edition)


The first question the school careers adviser asked me when I said I wanted to be a barrister was, ‘Is your father a lawyer?’ ‘Do you have family connections in the law?’ came next. The answer to both being ‘no’, the third and final question – a bit out of left field, I felt – was, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming a librarian?’ Despite this I’ve always loved libraries and librarians and very much look forward to supporting our excellent Librarian, Renae Satterley, and her team during my year as Treasurer. But the conversation did give me a sense of what I might be up against pursuing my teenage dream of becoming a barrister. It was a myth, but the careers adviser knew no better: no connections, no chance.

I went to Manchester University at a time when the Law Faculty was full of amazing talent. I was taught family law by a bright young tutor called Brenda Hoggett (Hale, as she became) and my lifelong passion for the, then rather niche, discipline of public law was sparked by the inspirational Professor Harry Street. Nobody tried to persuade me to become a librarian but, the Bar? ‘Is your father a lawyer?’, ‘Do you have family connections in the law?’ The same questions, even if the advice was different: ‘Become a solicitor.’ Even they subscribed to the myth: no connections, no chance.

It worked out quite well in the end, thanks in no small part to the Middle Temple who busted the ‘no connections’ myth and gave me much financial and other support. But I wonder what would happen if I was starting now. Do the myths still prevail? Could we do more to tackle them? What fresh obstacles might get in the way now? I went to a State school, was the first member of my family to go to university and (as we have just seen) had no connections with or in the law at all. Given all this, my parents were a bit bemused by my aspiration to become a barrister. Bemusement turned to worry when I told them that not only did I have to do a three year degree course but I also had another two years unpaid training after that. Worry turned to concern when I told them all the wise people at Manchester said become a solicitor. Concern turned to mild hysteria when I said the chances of ending up in practice at the end of all this were quite small.

But, like many devoted parents before and since, they saw my determination to try and backed me through the bemusement, worry and worse. I was very aware of the burdens it put on them and the sacrifices they made to let me follow my dream. They both saw me Called to the Bar and my mother lived long enough to see me reach the top of the profession.

But I’m afraid it might all have been rather different now. There has been progress, of course. Pupillage is now paid for example and, in some cases, exceptionally well. But when I started off, it was in the days when students in need were given grants, not loans, and when all tuition fees both at university and Bar school were paid for by the State. I asked my parents to take a big gamble for their child but at the end of my pupillage I still had very little debt. If I’d had to say to them that not only are the odds on succeeding quite small but, by the way, I will have racked up £50,000 debt on this perilous journey – well, I couldn’t possibly have asked them to go along with my dream.

The Middle Temple has always done a magnificent job supporting our students and never more so than now. Every year we give over £1 million in scholarships to BPTC students. We award 20 plus Access to the Bar awards. We bust the myths at our annual Open Day for Schools and Universities, with sixth form visits to the Inn and with the work we do with charities and outreach organisations to connect with those from non-traditional backgrounds.

But who knows how many excellent students, particularly from non-traditional backgrounds, turn away from the Bar – as I would have done – because the risks are now combined with the intolerable levels of debt? Despite all the work we do in the Inn, we face the real risk that our profession, far from embracing social mobility, will buck the trend in every other profession and slide backwards.

In recent years we have increased our scholarship funds and we have invested more in outreach. But we need to do more and in a more systematic way if we are not, as a profession, to slide backwards in terms of diversity and social mobility. In 2018, during my Treasurership, we will begin to tackle this in a programme agreed with the Deputy Treasurer-Elect, Richard Wilmot Smith QC, and hopefully with whoever is elected later this year to be Treasurer in 2020. In that way we can have a sustained programme of fundraising, support and outreach with the potential to grow and endure long into the future. We can ensure that the brightest and the best are given the opportunity to join our profession no matter what their background, no matter what their school or university, no matter what their personal circumstances.

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