Can we get an EastEnder to do Rumpole's job?

March 22, 2002

The Bar knows it has an image problem. Sean Coughlan looks at how the Bar Council and new universities are working to overcome it.

If you close your eyes and imagine a barrister, what do you see? Unless you are casting against type, it is probably a rather large white male. But is this a time-warped stereotype? Have I been watching too much daytime TV? Has Rumpole been replaced by a witty young Asian woman from a comprehensive school?

Not entirely. According to Bar Council figures, a survey of students in their work-experience "pupillage" year found that the largest intakes were from Oxford and Cambridge universities, followed by other old universities such as Bristol, University College London and Birmingham. And this Oxbridge contingent was only slightly smaller than all the students from new universities put together.

Looking at gender and race, however, the picture is more inclusive. Slightly more women than men took the Bar vocational course last year. And about a third of candidates were non-white, which would suggest that black and Asian students were not underrepresented.

But there is no escaping the Bar's image problem. Most people still view caricatured barristers as belonging to a socially exclusive club, a destination on the mainline from public school and Oxbridge, featuring cut-glass accents and ruthless networking.

If this is not the case, why does there seem to be such difficulty in recruiting from among the more socially diverse group of students at the new universities?

There is a practical question of cost, says Anna Edwards, an education officer at the Bar Council. Part of this problem is being addressed by the Lord Chancellor's recent approval of proposals to pay all students at least £10,000 for their pupillage year. But that may not be enough to make up for the years of debt accumulated at undergraduate level and the Bar vocational course, which can cost up to £9,000. With students from poor backgrounds being far more risk averse, it is the less well-off students who are more likely to be affected by such considerations.

There are other cultural questions to be considered, says Edward Philips, senior law lecturer at the University of Greenwich. Although crude discrimination by class or race is unlikely, he says, social exclusion can be more subtle.

Among his law students are many talented young Muslim women. The Bar culture attaches importance to socialising, often in places such as pubs and wine bars. Young Muslim women are unlikely to feel relaxed and to make a good impression in such boozy, male hang-outs, Philips points out.

Others might be put off by the dining rituals in the Inns of Court. These will be familiar to anyone who has come through Oxbridge but will be unknown territory for the student who has come through state schools and a new university.

Philips believes chambers tend to favour people who are like themselves, which keeps the Oxbridge bias alive. And he is rather cynical about claims of about the recruitment of black and Asian barristers, saying that they are often from wealthy overseas families.

The narrowness of Bar membership is a serious problem for the legal system - what kind of understanding is there likely to be between a young black defendant from the inner city and a white barrister from a public school? Philips asks. The fair application of justice depends on the defendant being able to trust and communicate with his or her advocate.

This gentleman's club image can be enough to turn talented lawyers away from the Bar. One solicitor, who had been to a state school and then to Oxford, said she rejected a career at the Bar because she had "had enough of vaulted ceilings and middle-class men". Another had observed working-class students moving their accents upmarket as they became barristers, as though it was an expected "part of the image".

Westminster is the most successful new university at getting students into pupillage - it ranks 15th among all institutions. The head of its law department, Andy Boon, says that although there is a collective agreement that the Bar would benefit from a more diverse intake, individual law firms are businesses in competition with each other, and they all seek the best candidates. "A fundamental question is about the assumption that people at Oxbridge are the best," he says. Disproving this assumption is one of the main challenges facing new universities.

But Boon also notes that many law students do not want to be barristers. Socially aware, campaigning lawyers often feel they can achieve more as solicitors. Moreover, the confrontational role of the barrister does not appeal to everyone, he says.

The Bar Council is sensitive to claims about a lack of social diversity. It runs a number of educational schemes to encourage applications from a wider spectrum of students. This includes a mock trial competition that is open only to state schools. It also has a draft discussion paper that will urge chambers to review how they recruit students. It suggests, for example, that if they visit an old university, they should also invite students from any neighbouring new universities.

There are other measures that could encourage more barristers to be drawn from new universities. At the University of the West of England, the law department is seeking to validate an open-learning version of the Bar vocational course.

This would include a large amount of distance learning, which would cut the cost of the course considerably and would attract a more diverse group of students, says the department's Adrian Chandler, particularly as students could continue to work as they trained.

So maybe we should close our eyes again - and the next time EastEnders has a courtroom scene, imagine that the barrister sounds like Dot Cotton.

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