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Does demography equal destiny? And do we really care?
Michael Todd QC, Head of Erskine Chambers and Chair of the Counsel Editorial Board

In 2008, the Chancery Bar Association reviewed its publications. Its purpose was to encourage people from different and diverse backgrounds to consider a career at the Chancery Bar. Pictures and short biographies of practitioners demonstrated the diversity of those at the Chancery Bar. It had a strapline; not original in concept, but aspirational as to content: ‘Where you come from doesn’t matter, where you’re going to does.’

‘The biggest diversity deficit and the most difficult inclusivity problem for the legal profession, as for the judiciary, relates to those with a less privileged economic, social and educational background.’

Unfairness, loss of quality and alienation were, according to Lord Neuberger, the reasons we needed diversity in the legal profession. To paraphrase his conclusions:

Inequity is particularly inappropriate in the world of law which is devoted to fairness. The reduction in excellence resulting from a lack of diversity is particularly unfortunate in a profession so important for the rule of law and for UK plc. The absence of diversity in the law is peculiarly likely to lead to alienation among those who are under-represented in the legal world.

In November 2017, the Social Mobility Commission wrote in the introduction to its report, State of the Nation 2017: Social Mobility in Great Britain:

‘Social mobility is about ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to build a good life for themselves regardless of their family background. In a socially mobile society, every individual has a fair chance of reaching their potential. But in today’s Britain, where you start from has a big influence on where you end up. Indeed, for young people it seems that the link between demography and destiny is becoming stronger rather than weaker.’

The Commission focused entirely on upward social mobility of disadvantaged young people, defining as disadvantaged those from low-income backgrounds or, more broadly, those from working-class backgrounds.

The publication of that report was followed at the beginning of December 2017 by the ‘walk out’ of the Commission’s Chair, Alan Milburn, and the entirety of his team. The reason given was said to be the current government’s lack of commitment to social mobility.

Much has been done, and is being done. Many admirable initiatives have been developed, some of which are discussed in these pages. But the issue for the legal profession as a whole is whether we could do more. Or are we just going to pay lip service to the notion of social mobility? Or, worse, have we given up on even doing that?

Chambers mentoring urgently needed
Leslie Thomas QC, Garden Court Chambers

Is social mobility in good health? There are encouraging signs. Could chambers be doing a lot more? I believe they could.

Young would-be lawyers of all genders and races approach me for advice on what chances they face in an increasingly competitive profession. Many sets of chambers will say that they operate fair and non-discriminatory equal opportunities policies, and that they implement fair recruitment procedures. But the hard facts, as outlined by the Bar Standards Board (BSB), speak for themselves.

According to the BSB Report on Diversity at the Bar 2017, published in January 2018, nearly two-thirds of practising barristers are men and many of them went to private schools. Of the barristers in the sample who responded as to where they were schooled in the UK, 40% went to fee-paying institutions – compared with 7% of the total population. The report noted that some 10,000 barristers failed to answer the question, suggesting the disparity may be higher still.

In 2017 women accounted for 36.5% of barristers (up by 0.6 per cent from the previous year) and only accounted for 13.7% of Silks (up 0.7%). At these rates of change it would take over 50 years for women to comprise half of all QCs.

The report noted that only 12.2% of barristers are black and minority ethnic and the percentage of BAME QCs was 6.4% (up 0.1%). The report noted that on current trends it will take a century for the percentage of BAME Silks to mirror the general population.

Chambers cannot afford to be complacent. Garden Court Chambers (GCC), for example, was founded on a commitment to promote social justice and equality which is reflected through our diversity initiatives and embodied in our motto, ‘Do right, fear no-one.’ At GCC we constantly review our practices and internal structures. We’ve set up a Women’s Task Force and recently created a Women’s Csar position on our management board to address any gender-related concerns. 

We also seek more positive action through the advancement of young people as potential entrants to the profession. Mia Hakl-Law, GCC Director of Operations and HR, together with myself and other members of chambers, launched a pioneering initiative in 2017. ‘The Long Term Mentoring Scheme, Access to the Bar for All’ encourages students from minority and disadvantaged groups to consider a career as a barrister. Six 16-year-old (Year 12) students from BAME and disadvantaged groups, selected from three inner London schools (two students from each school), are given paid internships for three weeks per year over five years. A dedicated mentor is allocated to each student throughout, in order to assist them and help them achieve their ambitions.

The criteria for selection is that at least one of the two students from each school has to be female and one has to be from a BAME group. Other criteria used for selection include: receipt of free school meals; being first in their family to go to university; and living in an area which is in the top 10% index of multiple deprivation.

While loans are available for tuition fees, many students from minority and disadvantaged groups face difficulties in meeting their living expenses whilst at university, which can impact on students and ultimately their overall achievements. So at the conclusion of their A Levels, two out of our six students will be selected to receive a scholarship throughout their time at university, with GCC paying living expenses of up to £7,000 per year, if they study law. This is funded by a small percentage of each individual barrister’s contribution to chambers via their rent payments.

Although the scheme is in its infancy, feedback has already been positive. The schools identified are excited to be involved and able to offer this opportunity to their students. The students, as the direct beneficiaries of the scheme, are really motivated by the prospect of long-term sponsorship.

It is hoped that other chambers will seek to replicate this model, which benefits the Bar and wider society by introducing talented individuals to the legal profession. Its wider impact therefore goes some way to realising our vision of a diverse Bar that is accessible to all, regardless of background.

#MyPathToLaw: How to tackle the issue head on
Alice de Coverley, 3 Paper Buildings and a member of the Counsel Editorial Board

‘Is social mobility a problem at the Bar?’ To this question, posted on Twitter, I received a largely uniform response; yes, of course it is. ‘Just look at the number of pupils who are still Oxbridge graduates!’ and ‘It costs too much for anyone to become a barrister’ were two predictable responses.

The available data supports this conclusion. The 2016 Sutton Trust report, The educational backgrounds of the UK professional elite, found that nearly three-quarters (74%) of the judiciary were educated at independent schools and the same proportion (74%) went to Oxbridge. Barristers and solicitors disproportionately herald from the same schools and universities. In January 2018, the Bar Standards Board published further data on barristers’ schooling, and commented: ‘The latest diversity data that we have published last week shows a steady improvement in diversity at the bar, but we are conscious that there is more that needs to be done.’

So far, so predictable. Closing the conversation, however, with the mere fact that yes, we have an abundance of Oxbridge graduates in our profession, is insufficient. By and large, chambers are looking for the most academic candidates. Oxbridge are looking for the most academic students, and seek higher UCAS tariff scores of entrants. The Bar attracts the most academic people. It is tardy, in my view, to attempt to deal with social mobility simply at the pupil recruitment stage.

Former Bar Chair, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, highlighted in 2016 that the cost of qualifying as a barrister, too, creates a huge social mobility barrier. It was estimated that qualifying ‘may cost new students up to £127,000’. This high level of debt coupled with low entry salaries can make working at the Bar, particularly in legal aid-funded areas, unsustainable for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

We will often, nonetheless, hear heart-warming stories of those who made it to the Bar, despite adversity, or simply by going to a less traditional university. The recent hashtag trend, #MyPathToLaw, revealed an eclectic assortment of people’s journeys to the Bar. The tales were enlightening and, often, rather humbling.

Kirsty Brimelow QC wrote: ‘Watched my mum working for pennies piece sewing & Dad get his education at night school. Grants from Lancashire to Birmingham Uni, grants & awards for Bar school and pupillage. Jobs in pubs, cleaning, waitressing, telemarketing, door to door selling.’

Amean Elgadhy posted: ‘Parents from Yemen, born in Liverpool, youngest of 10, got stopped by Police (from age 11), first to Uni, year out to save £, didn’t think LPC was for me. Did Bar. Didn’t get pupillage for 3 years, worked at Release Drugs, Love my job fighting for the vulnerable at One Pump Court.’

Ashley, soon to be a pupil, tweeted: ‘#mypathtolaw Single mum raised, @UofT for history of religion. Graduated in Great Recession & felt restless with no direction. Moved to UK for LLB @DerbyUni, scholarship from @middletemple. Diagnosed w/ cancer during BPTC, then obtained pupillage @3PBChambers which starts in Oct.’

Others posted more bluntly and, to be honest, reflected the conventional path. Matthew Scott, Barristerblogger, simply wrote: ‘Posh school. Fairly posh uni. Bar. #MyPathToLaw’

Is it sufficient, though, to say, this is just the way it is, but here are some examples of people who made it, regardless? It is more than just these stories that we need. It is our responsibility, as barristers, to cure this unfairness, this lack of social mobility, in our system. Inn scholarships and grants aside, there is more that can be done to reduce the barriers to entry to the Bar.

Work experience, paid or unpaid, is a pre-requisite to entry to this profession and will set applications apart from those without. Unpaid work experience is a barrier to entry (as the Young Legal Aid Lawyers’ 2013 report, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, on social mobility and diversity in the legal aid sector, found).

Whilst several chambers or law firms do offer to reimburse reasonable travel expenses for mini pupils, many do not. You might want to check your own recruitment policy. This is particularly important when mini pupils are expected to shadow members at various courts across the country. If this comes too far out of tenants’ back pockets, then we as a profession need to press for optional levy to support it, akin to the Bar Council’s Bar Representation Fee.

Chambers should also be encouraged to sign up to the Inner Temple’s Pegasus Access and Support Scheme (PASS) (see below). As observed by Dr Elaine Freer, the mini pupillages hub launched by the Bar Council in 2015 had 19 chambers listed by February 2017. A year on, there are now 33. For this to continue be a useful resource, more chambers need to participate, and not just those in London. All but one of those currently advertised are London-based chambers. Whilst the Bar may still be somewhat London-centric, hopeful applicants living outside of the capital may not have any friends or family to stay with whilst carrying out a mini-pupillage.

But more than this, the public’s general knowledge of the legal profession and substandard school careers advice remain significant barriers to entry. Most people will never meet a barrister. Of the young people I have worked with, most did not know what one was, let alone what a mini-pupillage entails.

Of those who do know what a barrister is, they may be more likely to see our profession as attainable because their parents are barristers, or because their teachers have time to run debating clubs, or because they are told, from the very first day of prep-school, that if they dream it, they can be it.

What the #MyPathToLaw stories help to cure, therefore, is self-elimination. If more young people can see people like them exist successfully and contentedly at the Bar, then they are more likely to think, I can do that too. I want all talented young people to think they could be both capable and deserving of becoming a barrister.

The Bar should welcome dynamic, unconventional and attention-grabbing individuals through its doors. It will not have the privilege of doing this, however, unless we do something to amplify the dialogue between those who have made it and those who could. Without addressing this issue head on – and years before the pupillage application stage – we will do little to address the Bar’s social immobility properly.

Mini-pupillages: more access & support
Daisy Mortimer, Outreach Coordinator, The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple

Is social mobility at risk at the Bar? Yes. What can chambers do about it? Join the PASS scheme at Inner Temple which is working hard to improve access to mini pupillages.

Students interested in pursuing a career at the Bar are regularly advised that completing at least one mini-pupillage, but probably more, is essential if they hope to be successful when they apply for pupillage. There is no doubt that a mini-pupillage can provide an excellent insight into life at the Bar, and can help students to demonstrate motivation and determination to follow the career path at both scholarship and pupillage interviews.

Obtaining a mini-pupillage is notoriously competitive, however. Many students feel that they are not able to secure one without an existing connection to the Bar. In an article for Counsel’s March 2017 issue, Dr Elaine Freer argued that the provision of mini-pupillages is fundamentally unequal because they are not easy for individuals from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds to obtain. Dr Freer notes that whilst the new Bar Council guidelines go some way towards mitigating for that, they are not mandated and have not had a substantial impact so far.

Students are often unable to undertake a week of unpaid work experience, particularly when travel and accommodation expenses will typically not be covered. Research undertaken as part of Dr Freer’s PhD showed that 50% of the students Inner Temple surveyed were forced to cut short the length of their mini-pupillages due to concerns about costs. This puts students who come from the aforementioned backgrounds at a substantial disadvantage and perpetuates lack of social mobility within the profession. Many capable students are missing out on opportunities to gain the experience looked for at pupillage interviews, which limits the subsequent talent pool.

We should increasingly look to the skills and strengths that students have as evidence of their aptitude for the Bar, but whilst the emphasis on mini-pupillages persists, our focus has been on ensuring that those opportunities are more accessible.

In 2012 the Inner Temple launched the Pegasus Access and Support Scheme (PASS) in order to help students who come from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds to access a mini-pupillage. So far we have had nearly 300 participants. We have worked with our social mobility partners to develop contextual criteria to ensure that the scheme helps those UK state school students who need it most – those whose parents were in receipt of income support for example, and students in receipt of free school meals. Our criteria has now shifted from being based on previous experiences to being based on the strengths that the applicants can show.

Originally PASS asked participating chambers to cover the travel and accommodation costs of the individuals accessing a mini-pupillage through the scheme. Now, however, the Inner Temple covers those costs for the students, and we have 70 partner chambers offering at least one mini-pupillage to a student through the scheme. PASS also now includes a skills development course so that in addition to the work experience they obtain, participants develop stronger resilience and networking skills as well as having taken part in advocacy exercises, CV writing workshops and a mock pupillage interview.

The feedback from the most recent cohort of participants has been extremely encouraging. 100% of them said the scheme was either ‘very helpful’ or ‘helpful’, and 68% said that the Inn covering their costs was essential to their ability to take part, which emphasises how impactful that financial barrier can be to the students who come from underprivileged backgrounds.

The scheme is also helping to change their perceptions of the Bar as an elitist and inaccessible profession. One student told us: ‘[PASS has] put to rest some of the stereotypes that are common about the barrister profession such as ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’. She is now assured that the Bar is ‘not out of anyone’s reach’.

Participants had felt daunted before they undertook their mini-pupillages. One said the mini-pupillage obtained via the scheme ‘has shown me that it doesn’t matter who you are or what background you come from, which I felt was an issue before I participated in PASS, as long as you are academically and professionally capable – then you do have a chance of creating a career at the Bar.’

Our ambition for PASS is that it enables students from these demographics to access the same opportunities as their more advantaged peers, which in turn should lead to a fairer and more representative pupillage selection process. This year we had a record number of PASS applications and we have been able to offer an additional 12 students places as a result of the increased number of chambers who have partnered with us. We are launching a series of workshops for chambers to support them in considering contextual recruitment, and we are working together with our partners to change current practice and ensure that the best talent is found – no matter where it comes from. Email for more details.

Countering the problem of self-elimination
Dr Tunde Okewale MBE, Urban Lawyers

Is social mobility dead? No. There are many organisations, chambers and individuals in the profession that are seeking to make the Bar more diverse and inclusive.

Angela Rafferty QC, HHJ Perrins, Courtenay Griffiths QC, Leslie Thomas QC, Hahsi Mohamed, Danielle Manson, Doughty Street Chambers, The Inns of Court and the Criminal Bar Association are just a few examples of individuals and organisations that have supported and facilitated efforts in this area.

One of the ways in which Urban Lawyers is attracting people from non-traditional backgrounds to the Bar, and contributing to its diversity, is by making it more accessible. We arrange educational and networking events to inspire, support and advise students and provide direct access to well-established legal professionals. Through these initiatives we have been able to contribute in a small way to the success of hundreds of applicants. Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of how we do this:

  • Offer tips, information and advice to those from non-traditional backgrounds who want to enter into the legal profession.
  • Partner with law firms and chambers to run events for potential entrants about how to access the legal profession, meet the necessary criteria.
  • Run sessions on scholarship applications, career confidence and perseverance.
  • Provide soft skills training.
  • Facilitate awards and scholarships to students who demonstrate a commitment to social justice and/or who have had insufficient funds to pursue a higher education legal course. (This has been done in conjunction with higher education institutions by way of a bursary or fee reduction.)
  • Host Immersion Days – bringing students to organisations in order to meet with inspirational legal professionals – and other regular informal mentoring and networking events for students.

I believe the main barrier to the profession, however, is the soft bigotry of low expectations. The culture of the profession is still elitist and inadvertently creates a pathology of privilege – there’s an automatic assumption that people who don’t come from a particular background aren’t going to be as good. And there are people who come from non-traditional backgrounds who believe that – they internalise it; don’t think that they are good enough; and don’t believe they’ll ever make it.

So I think one of the biggest problems is self-elimination. My organisation attempts to eradicate this by building self-confidence in students, by developing their soft skills and by with providing them with access.

How to keep social mobility alive? We need to focus more on widening participation at the publicly funded bar. The gap between wealthy and less privileged students, combined with legal aid cuts it has made it very difficult for recently qualified barristers to progress in their careers. Hourly rates of £2.40 have been reported and a young Bar survey evidenced problems with being paid at all (see ‘Payment: time for change’, Counsel, October 2017). This means that even if progress is made in relation to recruitment, that retention and progression will still reflect a disparity in terms of diversity and social mobility.

Value of the paralegal pathway at GLD
Sharon Laurence, Solicitor in Immigration B8 Litigation and Employment Group at the Government Legal Department

Is social mobility in good health? I would say ‘yes it is’ at the Government Legal Department (GLD), which offers a paralegal pathway for those not taking the pupillage route.

My own story begins in Nigeria where my father inspired me to study law. The first time I heard the word ‘lawyer’ was when I was little; he said I was so good at arguing I should become one. Justice was an important concept for me growing up in Nigeria. My family were not in a position to support my studies but they always follow what I am doing.

I came to Britain in 2005 as an overseas student and studied law full-time, working part-time in order to finance my degree. It was exhausting; a new country, unfamiliar and quite lonely. But the thought of having a degree and possibly becoming a lawyer and setting a good example for my brothers and sisters kept me going. My goal was to become a solicitor, but I was unable to acquire a training contract after the completion of my studies.

I joined the Civil Service in 2010 as a court usher with the Ministry of Justice and pursued my Legal Practice Course (LPC) on a part-time basis. When I first arrived in the UK, I heard about departments such as the Ministry of Justice and the Treasury Solicitor’s Department. I thought they would be forbidding but when I started to work at the Ministry I felt welcomed and found the culture was one of encouraging people to develop. I completed my LPC and joined TSol, now GLD, in 2012. I joined the Business Support Group and moved on to the Practice Management Unit (PMU) where I worked as an administrator, providing support to the Panel Counsel Secretary. I enjoyed my time with the PMU very much and in retrospect this was an important period of development in my career in the Civil Service. Towards the end of 2014, I was promoted to executive officer (EO) and joined the immigration team in early 2015 with the intention of pursuing CILEx as an alternative route to qualification.

As an EO and a paralegal caseworker I managed the immigration judicial reviews caseload. I found the work in the immigration team defending Home Office decisions fascinating. It reignited my passion for law and was a vital element in the pursuit of my CILEx qualification, which ultimately opened the door for me to apply for the Grade 7 position, which is the rough equivalent of an associate.

During my time as an EO, I acquired considerable experience in immigration law and completed the Positive Action Pathway. This is a Civil Service development programme for applicants from ethnic minority backgrounds, under-represented groups such as LGBT and social mobility groups. It gives people the chance to learn leadership and management skills. It also challenges participants to stretch themselves in their work and really helped me to develop professionally. This all demonstrates the good work GLD has done in terms of diversity and inclusion. By recognising CILEx as an alternative route to qualification it creates real opportunities for staff to pursue their career.

Knocking down barriers & breaking ceilings
James Keeley, 36 Bedford Row

How can we improve social mobility at the Bar? Through seeking out the support on offer we can prevent our profession becoming the preserve of the rich and well connected.

My parents were from Dublin. They left school early and came to this country in search of a better life. As a result of some bad luck I was brought up in abject poverty. At the age of 11, for a period we had to effectively squat in the council flat we used to occupy. Furniture was provided by the church and our gas and electricity via slot meters. In the two days before my father received his state pension there was no money to pay for electricity and heating.

At one stage I became anorexic, feeling my life was out of control. However, I managed to obtain a place at Kingston Polytechnic to study law. Unfortunately my father, whose health deteriorated considerably whilst I was doing my A levels, died during my first year. Being an only child I had to support my mother. We survived and I graduated.

Getting into the Inns of Court School of Law was not easy with a 2:2 but I managed to get in on appeal. I was Called to the Bar in 1993. There then followed the long hard road to obtaining pupillage and tenancy. Whilst I was doing this I completed two stints as a judicial assistant, one to Lord Phillips on the Maxwell case and the other with HHJ Rivlin QC on Brent Walker.

I then obtained a pupillage in London, and am grateful to Middle Temple for awarding me a scholarship which eased my financial situation. I got a tenancy in Leeds and practised on the North Eastern Circuit for 17 years. In 2013 my family relocated back to London, meaning I had to start my practice again. I am fortunate to have found a home at 36 Bedford Row. Over the last two years we have had two female criminal Silks appointed and I am privileged to work with other inspiring women who will surely be future Silks.

To any young woman or man thinking of a career at the Bar, or at its early stages, I offer the following advice; seek out the Inns, the Circuits and the specialist Bar associations for they offer a lot of financial and practical help and support. Be realistic in your ambitions but try not to allow the prohibitive cost of qualifying at the Bar to put you off.

We cannot and must not let our profession become the preserve of the rich and well connected. Nothing is impossible. Believe in yourself. Knock down the barriers. A life at the publicly funded Bar is not easy and fees for juniors are woefully low. However, after nearly 25 years, I wake up virtually every morning with hope in my heart wanting to do the very best for my client. To me, it still is the best job in the world.

What’s on offer: Social mobility schemes

  • The Social Mobility Foundation, of which some chambers are official supporters, aims to make a practical improvement in social mobility for young people from low-income backgrounds. The students it supports are selected on the basis of high academic achievement, as well as background. Sessions are run with members of chambers and the Foundation on public speaking, mooting and other legal exercises, as well as assistance on personal statements for university applications and mock law admissions interviews.
  • The Pathways to Law programme is a similar programme run by the Sutton Trust, which supports Year 12 and 13 students who are interested in pursuing higher education and a legal career:
  • Inspiring the Future enables barristers to go into primary and secondary schools and speak with young people about their career path. The scheme asserts that ‘having the opportunity at school to meet a wide range of people doing different jobs is really important – particularly for those children from disadvantaged backgrounds who have few successful role models, either at home or in their local communities.’
  • A Government Legal Service summer placement scheme aims to open the door for law students from backgrounds that are currently under-represented across the legal profession with valuable experience of legal work. The students are selected by organisations which focus on promoting diversity – these include Aspiring Solicitors, BLD Foundation, Law Society (Diversity Access Scheme) and the Social Mobility Foundation.
  • Barrister Tunde Okewale’s Urban Lawyers provides ‘inspiration to people who want to join the profession and education to people who want to know their legal rights.’ The charity runs workshops for improving soft skills, interview technique, CVs and pupillage applications, networking events etc.

GLD legal apprenticeships & summer scheme

In September last year the Government Legal Department (GLD) launched a Legal Apprenticeship Scheme with an initial intake of 20 apprentices.

The scheme, which currently has 19 apprentices, broadens opportunities within GLD beyond the conventional legal training routes and there are plans to run the Scheme later in the year.

It offers internal employees two apprenticeship: a level 3 Paralegal Apprenticeship (requiring no previous legal experience or qualifications) leading to a CILEx Certificate or Diploma, in Law and Practice; and a level 6 CILEx Apprenticeship leading to qualification as a CILEx Fellow (Chartered Legal Executive Lawyer) and eligibility for GLD lawyer posts.

GLD also runs a diversity summer scheme. This is the official summer vacation placement scheme for students who are interested in working as a government lawyer.