Weighting the justice scales

July 14, 2000

With elitism in top medical schools a hot political issue, Claire Sanders finds that the discrimination poor and ethnic- minority law applicants face is, if anything, getting worse

Twenty young people from state schools have this week enjoyed the hospitality of Cambridge University's law faculty.

It is one of the many Sutton Trust summer schools taking place in Cambridge this summer, designed to encourage applications from pupils who might otherwise not consider Oxbridge. The 20 have attended law lectures, visited the library and generally experienced student life.

Rosemary Butcher, schools liaison officer, says: "Should these young people apply, their applications will not be considered any more favourably than anyone else's. The idea is to encourage applications at this stage. The pupils have been selected from schools and families without long-standing traditions of (participation in) higher education."

Stuart Bridge, admissions tutor at Queen's College and a member of the law faculty, says: "All the pupils have good GCSEs and good A-level predictions. We ensure that if they do decide to apply, they stand a realistic chance."

It is a timely initiative. The Laura Spence furore focused attention on the elitism of medical schools, but education in law is equally marked by barriers to widening participation. There is a growing body of research that shows that those from ethnic minorities and deprived backgrounds are seriously disadvantaged - and that the situation is getting worse.

Research to be published later this year by the Association of Law Teachers will show employers to be heavily biased against candidates from new universities when allocating training places.

Vera Bermingham, senior lecturer at Kingston University law school and one of the authors of the research, says: "It is the new universities that have widened participation. Our research shows that candidates from certain backgrounds are not just held back, they do not even get into the race. Law is different from other professions. It is extremely serious when those at the top do not represent society as a whole."

The research looked at the trend among law firms of employing people without a law degree. There are a number of routes to becoming a solicitor. One is to take a law degree followed by a legal practice course (LPC) and then take a training place with a firm. Another is to take a degree in a different subject, then to do the common professional examination (or diploma in law). This is effectively a conversion course and students taking this route then have to do the LPC.

The research by Ms Bermingham and John Hodgson, principal lecturer in law at Nottingham Trent University, found that what employers want are "good students from good universities".

Ms Bermingham says: "Good students have an upper second in a coherent (single or joint honours) and respectable (with a bias to the humanities) subject. A good university is Oxbridge or a redbrick.

"A student with a 2:1 from a 'good university' will be chosen over students with a first in law from a new university."

The research results are largely drawn from responses to a questionnaire given by small and medium-sized firms.

"We sent the questionnaire out twice to the 'big eleven' City firms," said Ms Bermingham. "Very few returned it. The minute you mention equal opportunities their hackles rise."

The inclusion of the big firms in the research would, on the basis of past research, have skewed the results even more firmly against applicants from new universities.

The research confirms the picture emerging from a longitudinal study by the Law Society, following 4,000 law students. Results from the fifth year of the study showed that nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) of trainees who graduated in law from Oxbridge worked in the high-paying City firms. This compared with less than one-tenth (6 per cent) of those who graduated from a new university. The study also found striking differences in salary levels. Disabled trainees, those from ethnic minorities and, to a lesser extent, those who studied at a new university all faced a "financial penalty" even when type of firm and regional location were taken into account.

Figures from the College of Law have shown that only about 45 per cent of students from ethnic minorities who completed the LPC last year had a training contract, while the figure for white students was 75 per cent.

Richard de Friend, director of the London branch of the college, said: "The firms that provide the majority of training contracts tend to recruit from old universities. This is perfectly understandable, granted the number of academically well-qualified students going through these universities. However, though they are making efforts to attract more, many of these universities do not have a large proportion of students from ethnic minorities or socially disadvantaged backgrounds. The problem is complex and cumulative because students coming to us without sponsorship can get demotivated and this can hit their results."

The college is finalising plans to provide more focused career services and other support for students who do not have a training contract when they commence the LPC.

Nigel Savage, chief executive of the College of Law, says: "It is particularly worrying that this discrimination is getting worse when there is a relative shortage of students. I worry about how much worse it will be when the next recession hits."

Research from Cardiff University, out last month, showed that undergraduates, particularly mature students and those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, may be deterred from a legal career by undergraduate and postgraduate fees, the limited availability of post-qualification training and the level of salaries paid to trainees.

Phil Thomas, director of external affairs at the Cardiff Law School, said:

"Prospective solicitors and barristers have a financial as well as intellectual challenge. The introduction of tuition fees adds one more negative factor to what is already a complicated financial formula."

In a survey of 550 first-year law undergraduates at Cardiff University, the University of Wales, Swansea, the University of Aberystwyth, the University of Glamorgan and the Swansea Institute of Higher Education, more than a third said they were yet to make up their minds whether to go on to qualify as a solicitor or barrister.

The announcement earlier this year by eight big City firms that they plan to set up their own LPC, in conjunction with the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice (a joint venture between Oxford University and Oxford Brookes), the Nottingham Law School (part of Nottingham Trent University) and BPP Law School, has further fuelled anxieties about equal opportunities.

The course was described last month by the new Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf of Barnes, as elitist.

He said: "The same City firms already recruit from the most able graduates of the universities. Their recruits are an elite. For the elite to go to a small percentage of the provider colleges is bound to adversely influence the other providers."

At a conference on the LPC later in the month, Cyril Glasser, the Law Society council member for education and training, also weighed in, questioning the "portability" of the qualification.

"On the one hand it might be more difficult for non-City LPC graduates to find work in the City at a later stage in their careers. On the other hand it may be more difficult for City LPC graduates to transfer to other types of legal work," he said.

The proposed LPC is yet to come to the relevant board of the Law Society for approval. Mr Glasser sits on this board and has warned that when it does, "I think I would want to be satisfied that, in respect of the relationship between committed training places and particular firms, the providers had properly satisfied themselves that there had been no unlawful indirect sexual or racial discrimination in the selection of the students concerned."

As well as firing this warning shot, Mr Glasser welcomed moves to improve the situation. In particular, he welcomed the Law Society's decision to fund a study into recruitment practices in the profession and to strengthen monitoring of the society's anti-discrimination code. He also said that there needed to be more transparency in publishing figures about LPC results and information about providers. Finally, he said: "I would like to see firms, certainly the larger ones, publishing recruitment analyses. I see nothing wrong in law faculties and clients demanding evidence of proper recruitment practices before dealing with firms. I fear that we have a long way to go to achieve this."

Sumitra Vignaendra, research officer at the Law Society, says: "It is important to work with the City firms rather than against them. Many are trying to improve their equal opportunities policies and need guidance."

Ms Bermingham says: "We need to redefine what a good university is. And we have to fight this negative attitude to certain educational backgrounds.

"At the moment, mediocre people are getting to the top in law, while those with a lot to offer don't even get into the race."

WHAT DO LAW FIRMS LOOK FOR? Simon Davis, recruitment partner at Clifford Chance:

"We proceed on the basis of merit and look for someone who has a clear mind and can communicate well. We are looking for gems, for people with flair.

"We do take some people from new universities but not a significant number. It is important to appreciate, however, that the overwhelming majority of our applications come from traditional universities. Between 30 and 35 per cent of people we take do not have a law degree."

Clifford Chance receives 2,000 applicants a year for 120 or 130 training places and interviews between 500 and 600 people.

Caroline Rawes, head of recruitment at Linklaters:

"We are in favour of taking people with another degree and at least 45 per cent of our intake do not have a law degree. People should not feel they have to do a law degree if they want to become a lawyer. We find that those who decide on law later have often taken a more considered decision.

"We try to attract students with a business or commercial degree. We look at a number of qualities - leadership skills, interpersonal skills, confidence, commercial awareness and intelligence."

Linklaters receives about 2,300 applications a year for 135 places and interviews 450 people.

Stephen Lloyd, a partner at Bates, Wells and Braithwaites (a small City firm):

"We look for people on an intellectual rise. We do take people from new universities and will consider those with poor A-level grades.

"For example, we took someone from a school in a deprived area who had poor results but great reviews from her tutor. We are not interested in someone who has been spoon-fed all their lives, we want someone with drive."

Bates, Wells and Braithwaites receives 1,200 applications a year for three training places and interviews about 30 people.

WHAT STATE SCHOOLERS THOUGHT OF CAMBRIDGE

This week Cambridge University Law Faculty offered a summer school for state school pupils. Here is what some of them thought of the experience:

"My dad saw an advert for this summer school in The Sun. I was determined to come and I told my school about it." Nyssa Roberts, Colchester Sixth Form College

"I am definitely going to apply here now. It is much more friendly and informal than I expected." Lindsey Pope (pictured), Wootton Upper School, Bedford

"The tutors haven't patronised us at all. We've been really pushed, which I like." Rob Montanari, York Sixth Form College "It is so well resourced. If you don't understand something in a book, the chances are you can talk to the person who wrote it. It is also very beautiful." Christine Nelson, Archbishop Blanch C of E Secondary School, Liverpool

"The pupils have come from a wide range of comprehensives and have a range of GCSE results. A lot of thought went into choosing." Gemma Allison, Furze Platt Comprehensive School, Maidenhead "My school tries hard to get people into Oxbridge. I'm really keen to apply and won't feel out of place here." Siu Kee Tsang, Wath Comprehensive School, Rotherham

HOW TO BEAT DISCRIMINATION AGAINST ETHNIC MINORITIES

The Society of Black Lawyers has long sought to improve equal opportunities in legal education.

As well as conducting research and publishing its findings, it is working to develop programmes and services that help black lawyers.

Rosemary Emodi, head of the society's community advice project, says: "We are working to develop minority law firms so that they too can provide high-quality training for minority law students. We also run our own volunteer internship programme to give people experience."

The society hopes to set up a shopping mall for legal services in what was Old Street Magistrates Court in London. "We want to run a commercial law clinic to offer advice to small and medium-sized firms," Ms Emodi said.

The society is working with the College of Law to develop courses to help ethnic minorities, and has an initiative with NatWest Bank designed to set up a legal business development unit, with NatWest offering services at competitive rates.

Last month the society held a conference urging minority lawyers to exploit their own links with developing markets in Asia and Africa.

Raj Joshi, conference co-chair, says: "Last year, one of the top ten City law firms had 19 deals in Asia, worth an estimated $77 billion (Pounds 50.9 billion). Another firm was invited to tender to become the legal and regulatory consultant for the privatisation of Nigeria's telecommunications industry.

"Minority lawyers are best placed to use their personal links and knowledge to develop an international legal business portfolio. We believe this can be achieved irrespective of whether they are located in major law firms."

Dele Ogun, chair of the African, Caribbean and Asian Law Association, also believes in going it alone. "In the United Kingdom you have to wait for someone to open the door for you before you can get to the top of the legal profession. In the United States people straight out of university can set up their own practices. Such a move in the UKwould open up the profession, not just for minority lawyers but also for the many white lawyers from working-class backgrounds who also face discrimination."

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