Social mobility at the Bar

Social mobility at the Bar

Do posh people do better at the Bar? We look at the current state of the profession and speak to some leading voices on social mobility.


Of all the peculiarly British pastimes, obsessing about the class system must surely top the list for pervasiveness, over and above pursuits like Eddie Stobart lorry-spotting or being stern about queuing. In 1941, George Orwell wrote that Britain was 'the most class-ridden society under the sun.' In 2015, class is still a constant source of fascination and outrage. Look no further than the TV screen. While Downton Abbey is seared into the nation's collective consciousness, there's no shortage of programmes that peer into the lives of those on council estates and the dole. Meanwhile, Made In Chelsea and TOWIE allow us to gawp and guffaw at the antics of plummy poshos and the perma-tanned noveau-riche.

Among the 34 prosperous nations that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), only Mexico, Israel and the US have a more skewed distribution of wealth than the UK. Although this is a nation that supposedly holds 'fairness' close to its heart, class difference is more deeply entrenched than a pig in a truffle-laced mud bath. And it seems an immutable fact that, in Britain, the Establishment prevails.

In education – opportunity's sorting office – we see the postcode-grasping, league table-devouring British public laying the foundations for a society so divided even John Major's got concerns. The statistics are stark. While just 7% of the nation is privately educated, 44% of places at Oxford and 40% of places at Cambridge are taken by students from private schools. There are plenty more universities perpetuating a similar social model, but we single out Oxford and Cambridge because the Bar has a particular love affair with them. These two universities above all others are a passport into a narrow social elite where the privileged can flourish and continue to assume the mantle of power – not just in the highest echelons of government, but in business, the media, the arts and, of course, the law.

71% of the senior judiciary attended independent schools, with one in seven judges going to just five independent schools: Eton, Westminster, Radley, Charterhouse and St Paul's Boys.

At the Bar, social immobility is acute. For a start, there's a certain mystique conferred on those that join its bewigged, robed ranks. The profession's special status is undeniable. Its four professional associations, the Inns of Court, all look and function a bit like Oxbridge colleges, complete with chapels and formal dinners and jargon that makes little sense to outsiders. And, of course, it is intensely selective – which is fair enough, because it's a demanding job. But beyond the academic merit and personal qualities required, do socio-economic factors affect entry to this apparently rarefied profession? Are many kids from ordinary or non-privileged backgrounds, educated at comprehensive schools, even aware that the Bar exists or what it entails? By our experience, a lot of folk have a pretty hazy idea of what barristers actually do, hence Rob Rinder's (AKA daytime TV's Judge Rinder) recent Radio 5 programme, Raising The Bar, which aims to 'demystify' the life of a barrister.

A recent report into judicial diversity by Geoffrey Bindman QC and Karon Monaghan QC of Matrix Chambers found that 71% of the senior judiciary attended independent schools, with one in seven judges going to just five independent schools: Eton, Westminster, Radley, Charterhouse and St Paul's Boys. Of the 12 Supreme Court judges, ten are privately educated. Eleven are white men. In an interview with The Guardian, Jonathan Sumption, one of these judges, was asked about the apparent prevalence of an old boys' club at this level of the profession. “Bristling” at such a suggestion, Sumption declared that “any group of the most talented people of their generation is going to be unrepresentative.” In the same interview, Sumption (who was educated at Eton and Oxford) mentions that his father, also a barrister, “pulled strings” to help him secure a pupillage.

“A diversity deficit weakens the quality of justice.”

But the debate should rise above class sqabbles. As Bindman and Monaghan put it, such a glaring “diversity deficit weakens the quality of justice.” And that, of course, affects everyone. As Court of Appeal judge Lord Justice Vos pointed out when we interviewed him, “the public have to have confidence in judges and lawyers, because they're only there to serve the public and the state. And people won't have confidence in a group that's drawn from a monolithic background.” There is no logic in declaring (as Sumption seems to suggest) that merit is found more frequently in white men from privileged backgrounds and this is somehow the natural order of things.

The Bar's entry requirements inevitably influence intake. Law firms are more forthcoming than sets at assisting with funding the cost of training, which at the Bar is roughly £18,000. There are scholarships available from Inns and pupillage award draw-downs from sets to help the lucky few. But most will have to cough up the cash – a big risk when approximately 3,000 applicants apply annually for fewer than 400 pupillage places. The fees and these dire odds are an obstacle and a filter: those who pay either have the means to gamble or have assessed the risk but still had confidence in their abilities; those left behind are either poorer, more cautious or less confident in their potential.

Since sets are groups of self-employed practitioners operating out of one building, rather than incorporated firms, their HR resources are modest and diversity spends are low down the list. So, whether through practical constraints or just laziness, talent searches for pupils target the most obvious sources – Oxbridge colleges – and little beyond that. As we have noted, Oxford and Cambridge are not simply institutions that take on the brightest students. In 2013, Surrey sent nearly as many students to Oxbridge as the Northeast and Wales combined. The institutions themselves struggle with diversity, so chambers that recruit almost exclusively from them will also fall short.

This hiring pattern is especially striking at the commercial and Chancery Barthe highest payers, incidentally. At one prominent commercial set, 32 juniors out of a total of 36 were from Oxbridge. At another renowned chambers, the grand total was 28 out of 32. Of some of the most recent tenants, three came from the same Cambridge college. Meanwhile, at the criminal Bar, practitioners tend to come from a wider range of universities.

I've never felt I didn't belong at the Bar because of my background or gender.

Though the publicly funded Bar is traditionally more diverse, it’s in danger of becoming a career option that’s only feasible for those who can afford to earn a pittance. Cuts to legal aid mean that a junior's earning capacity is precarious. At City University's 'Widening Participation In The Legal Professions' conference in July 2015, Young Barristers' Committee chairman Daniel Sternberg mentioned that some pupils were earning just £2.40 an hour for legal aid work. In a speech at the 'One Bar One Voice' event in 2014, 23 Essex Street third sixer (now tenant) Hannah Evans noted that a typical day's fee for a trial in the Magistrates' Court is around £80, out of which must come travel costs and tax. “Sometimes, many junior barristers find that they are paying to work.” As such, she told us, “it's genuinely difficult for people without independent means to come to and stay at the publicly-funded Bar. The current situation is forcing people out.”

It’s worth noting that Evans came from a comprehensive school in Wales and went on to study at Oxford. But, she says,the Bar has made very significant strides in terms of diversity. I would not want to suggest that the Bar is perfect in this respect  it's not and there are real problems, particularly when it comes to retention  but I can honestly say that I've never felt I didn't belong at the Bar because of my background or gender.” Another barrister whose CV doesn’t scream ‘old boy’ is Tunde Okewale, who grew up on a council estate in Hackney. Now a junior at Doughty Street Chambers, Okewale got a 2:2 degree because his academic studies had to be combined with a job that could supplement his family’s income. In 2009, Okewale set up Urban Lawyers, an organisation that aims, in his words, to “provide inspiration to people who want to join the profession and education to people who want to know their legal rights.”

“There are lots of people that don't pursue a career at the Bar because they don't believe they'll ever make it. So I think one of the biggest problems is self-elimination.”

Urban Lawyers runs workshops for improving soft skills, interview technique, CVs and pupillage applications, along with networking events in which “people who don't have access to professionals get to meet them. A problem that a lot of people experience is that they don't know anyone in the profession to seek guidance or advice from,” Okewale explains. The main barrier to the profession, believes Okewale, is “the soft bigotry of low expectations. The culture of the profession is very 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 and don't think that they are good enough. There are lots of people that don't pursue a career at the Bar because they don't believe they'll ever make it. So I think one of the biggest problems is self-elimination”

Despite this, Okewale is “optimistic” about the Bar's future.I do what I can. I know there are a lot of individuals in the profession that are doing the same. The Inns of Court are proactive. If those pioneers and champions keep insisting and creating a dialogue, such as this one, then change will happen. That being said, candidates need to actually engage in the first instance.” Inner Temple's Pegasus Access and Support Scheme is certainly worth looking into.

“It's about the three minute interview. That's a fundamental problem the Bar needs to admit: how to seek out potential.”

Admirable as they are, can such schemes really hold sway against the very palpable advantages of a private education? Stephen Vullo QC of 2 Bedford Row, who heads up the pupillage selection panel, gave us his view: “Generally those from state schools have less confidence. Within private education, children are trained to do public speaking from a young age. My children are at private school and my nine year old has already delivered talks on complicated topics. In comprehensives I doubt they do it to that level.” He concludes: “It's obviously a natural advantage. You're not doing it for the first time in a pupillage interview. Poise and confidence is borne out of that. Those students understand the territory. I went to my local comprehensive school in London. I can say that ultimately it has not stopped me progressing in this profession but has my education been a disadvantage to me? The honest answer is yes.”

But does polish really make for a better barrister? “That’s the difficulty we have at the interview stage,” says Vullo. “We have to be fair. We can't wait. We have to pick the four best candidates. As soon as we start to look at potential, it becomes enormously subjective and potentially unfair. We can't say, 'this person is nowhere near as good as that person, but potentially they could do really well.' It's about the three-minute interview. That's a fundamental problem the Bar needs to admit: how to seek out potential.”

In September 2015, Lord Justice Vos openly criticised the way that those in the legal profession tend to hire privileged people who remind them of themselves. Speaking at the Big Voice event in Lincoln’s Inn, the former chairman of the Social Mobility Foundation declared: “The main barriers are financial ones, lack of proper advice and guidance in schools about how to get into the law, lack of available work experience or internships for the less privileged, so that their aspirations can be kindled and their drive harnessed, and the discriminatory selection procedures that still exist for some training contracts, pupillages and tenancies.”

“The best people are not necessarily those who are spoonfed with the necessary equipment for ten or 15 years.”

We asked Vos to give us his insights into the problem of social immobility. “What makes the Bar a difficult nut to crack is that advocacy is something it takes a long time to learn and privileged students learn it from the day they walk into their first prep school,” he says. “One thing you realise is that there are people of the right calibre in every walk of society, and if they are of the right calibre they will very quickly learn.” When working with the Social Mobility Foundation, Vos recalls that “it was most inspiring to see people from very unprivileged backgrounds deciding at the age of 16 and 17 that they want to go into the law and making a massive amount of effort to do it, acquiring the skills in no time flat. It can be done, because the best people are not necessarily those who are spoonfed with the necessary equipment for ten or 15 years.”

So here at the Student Guide we'd prefer to offer some inspiration in spite of the obvious problem. Lord Vos' rallying message echoes our own interviews with several pupillage heads, whose quests for a diverse pupillage round is met with a phalanx of braying debate-clubbers “who are more confident at bullshitting” (the words of top Chancery set Wilberforce Chambers).


Read our step-by-step guide and enter the process informed and self-assured, because, says Okewale, “people are receptive and it isn't uncommon to have someone from a non-traditional background. In fact chambers look for that, because they want dynamic individuals.”


This feature was first published in December 2015.