The image of slick US lawyers in television dramas is discouraging school-leavers from considering studying law at university, research commissioned by the Scottish Executive has found.
Scottish justice minister Jim Wallace said: "The research suggests that some young people may rule themselves out of a career in law because they overestimate the entrance requirements and the intellectual ability required. This particularly seems to be the case with pupils from less affluent backgrounds. We must strive to change this."
The research, carried out by NFO System 3 in collaboration with Paul Maharg of Strathclyde University, found that students from poorer backgrounds were underrepresented in Scottish legal education. It also found that the number of law students from ethnic minorities was "significantly worse" than in medicine, dentistry and computing.
When law students begin their degree course, many know little about the work lawyers do or the career options open to graduates, the study found.
School-leavers' images of lawyers are largely court-based and often drawn from US television programmes.
"There is a perception that lawyers need to be very 'brainy', articulate, confident, good at arguing and able to think on their feet, a rather daunting set of criteria, especially among pupils from less affluent backgrounds," the study says.
It calls for information campaigns to tackle these misconceptions and encourage young people from a range of backgrounds to believe that law can be a subject for them. It also suggests that information should be targeted at parents, who are a stronger influence than teachers on choice of university subject.
A spokesperson for the Law Society of Scotland said it believed that anyone with sufficient interest and ability to become a solicitor should gain access to its accredited courses at Scottish universities.
"(The Law Society) is concerned that there is seen to be equal access to legal education and training," she said.