‘Access to the legal profession and reforming legal education and training’ was the theme of the Westminster Legal Policy Forum on 22nd May. Those involved in the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) and those who are working towards social mobility and diversity in the legal workplace and in the judiciary were there to report and to answer questions.
Professor Julian Webb, research lead for the LETR, emphasised the independence of the project, which has made no assumptions about any need for fundamental change. The review should be seen as an opportunity to ‘get a system that really works’. In due course the recommendations will be passed on to the regulators who can implement (after consultation) or not as they wish.
At this point in the process, he reported, the responses tend to reflect ‘established sectoral interests’; there is limited consensus on most issues and very little in terms of ‘alternative visions’. He could see a future with greater opportunity for new ‘para-professional plus’ workers, that is, those with specialist qualifications doing certain tasks. Other speakers made similar predictions, noting the increase in ‘highly trained paralegals’ whose cost base was much less than that of lawyers, whose overheads are pushed up in order to recoup the costs of their training and of regulation.
The second part of the session dealt with social mobility and diversity. It was chaired by Baroness Deech, Chair of the Bar Standards Board, who noted that there really was social mobility in her day, when there was comprehensively free education. ‘Those doors have been closed’ but still she had no time for those who sought to deal with the matter by attacking good universities. There were differences in viewpoint between Lord Justice Goldring, who said that it was a mistake to concentrate on the makeup of the senior judiciary (looking at the totality of 3500 judges, for example, 22% are women) and Lord McNally who did so concentrate, agreeing that there had been progress on the lower levels but that the higher judiciary was lacking in women and BME’s.
No one however was complacent: Fiona Jackson, Vice President of the Association of Women Barristers noted the Bar’s outreach to schools and universities while noting the difficulty of retaining women at the Bar. On the other hand, Laura King, Global People Partner, Clifford Chance, saw visible minority improvement but less social mobility. Lawyers, she explained, are paid according to the experience they have gained and since there is no proxy for that, it is necessary ‘to outsource some things in your life’.