A short report on Milburn’s State of the Nation

The latest Alan Milburn report on social mobility (here) has produced a little backslapping in legal circles primarily because of this judgment, “Professions are undertaking more activity in order to improve but results are mixed: law leads medicine, media, politics and finance.” That judgment is based on the following:

12. The regulators of the legal sector – the Bar Standards Board (BSB), the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) – have continued to be key advocates in driving progress by supporting and encouraging chambers and law firms to implement change quickly. The Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) – a joint project of the regulators – has now reported, providing a review of education and training requirements of legal services in England and Wales and making a series of recommendations in areas relevant to social mobility, such as entry routes to law.

 13. On school activity, lawyers continue to seek to raise the profile of the profession through a wide range of activities with children who may not otherwise have access to the profession. Run by the Citizenship Foundation, Lawyers in Schools places legal professionals in the classroom to help young people to understand the law and to break down preconceptions. The Bar National Mock Trial Competition continues to involve over 2,000 students, 300 barristers and advocates, and 90 judges from across the United Kingdom. The Bar Council also runs several activities, including annual career days that are held around the country in Leeds, Cardiff, Birmingham and Liverpool, in addition to London.

 14. On work experience, PRIME has continued to expand, with 80 law firms now signed up to the commitment, and the Commission notes that most firms taking part have being offering high-quality placements, including post-placement contact and support. PRIME has also acted as a useful model of collaboration for other sectors, such as medicine and accountancy, with both of these considering a similar scheme for young people interested in their respective professions. The Bar is continuing to offer work experience to disadvantaged students of both school and university age. The Pegasus Access Scheme offers mini-pupillages at the Bar to high-achieving undergraduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple runs a scheme for undergraduates from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, placing them in chambers for one week, and shadowing a judge for another week.

 15. On selection procedures, the Bar Council has produced a Fair Recruitment Guide as a resource for chambers. The BSB’s new Code of Conduct rules require interview panel members to have bias training to support fair recruitment, and include a monitoring toolkit for chambers to use. The Law Society intends to identify good practice in recruitment, which excludes, for example, practices such as using UCAS points to screen out candidates.

 16. On flexible entry routes, CILEx continues to provide an important pathway to qualification as a lawyer for those who have not been to university. New developments include the Level 4 Apprenticeship in Legal Services, which has been available since May 2013, and the announcement by BPP Law School that from 2014 it intends to run a degree-level apprenticeship for solicitors, combining work and study. The legal sector is also collecting socioeconomic data on its workforce, although this has not yet been widely published.

The vast majority of these schemes are to be lauded, but we also saw at the same time as the Milburn report was published that the professions’ regulators attempts to encourage diversity monitoring have been less than stellar in their success (some of the figures here are beyond ridicule); something which Milburn seems unaware of (probably because of timing of publication). At a number of points Milburn’s report makes plain, even whilst praising the legal profession relative to other professions for its activity, there is a long way to go:

“one study found that those entering leading professions like law and banking born in 1970 were, on average from significantly more advantaged backgrounds than those entering these professions who were born in 1958.”

The 50 somethings are more diverse than the 30 and 40 somethings (a mind boggling prospect for trickle up into the judiciary). The problems are not all located in the legal profession, but are endemic in professional job markets:

“educational attainment has become increasingly important to future employment prospects, and informal barriers to opportunity have expanded. Key forces here include the shift to a knowledge-based economy where success in life depends upon formal qualifications, social networks and so-called ‘character’ skills like grit and persistence.”

I’d add an idiotic, ahem, I mean unwise, belief in looking for commitment in students to that list but that’s a debate for another day.

The idea that law is more active now is perhaps borne out of the need for it to be better, considerably so:

“Nearly one-quarter of university vice-chancellors, one-third of MPs, more than half of senior medical consultants, FTSE chief executives and top journalists, and over two-thirds of High Court judges went to independent schools, though only seven per cent of the total population do so.

 …These problems at the top are reflected at the bottom of the professional career ladder, with new research funded by the Commission finding that those from a high socioeconomic background are more likely to be in a top job 3 years after graduation. Recruitment and selection practices – such as word of mouth recruitment and unpaid internships – appear to advantage those from better-off backgrounds and disadvantage those from worse-off backgrounds.

 …Work experience and internships: Employers increasingly place a premium on previous experience when deciding who to recruit. Internships in particular have become a new rung on the professional career ladder. But all too often it is informal connections that dictate who gets those job opportunities, and the fact that many internships are unpaid disadvantages those unable to afford to work for free.

…Recruitment and selection processes: Top employers often recruit from a small pool of talent, focusing on average on 20 out of more than 115 universities. These universities tend to have the lowest proportion of disadvantaged students, with the most advantaged 20 per cent of young people being seven times more likely to attend the most selective higher education institutions than the most disadvantaged 40 per cent.

University recruitment, on Milburn’s assessment, and rightly in my view, is part of the problem.

Praise for initiatives is well and good but what we need to see is better outcomes:

“Latest available figures show that almost one-third (31 per cent) of solicitors in England and Wales attended independent schools. The recent Bar Barometer shows that the alma maters of barristers have become more exclusive, with 23 per cent from Oxbridge in the 2009/10 pupillage cohort increasing to 35 per cent for the 2010/11 cohort, and 46 per cent from Russell Group universities increasing to 64 per cent. While too much weight should not be placed on a single year’s data, the most recent figures also show that 81 per cent (358) of pupils came from professional backgrounds compared with 55 per cent in the previous year, with almost 40 per cent of pupils having attended fee-paying schools. We are concerned that this trend could become a trajectory if urgent action is not taken.”

Finally there is an interesting acuity in his pushback to the (not unreasonable) professional complaint that legal aid cuts make diversity less likely.

“The Commission has heard from some within the legal sector that its shifting profile may reflect a contraction of the publicly funded end of the Bar, which usually recruits a more diverse intake, and that the situation may further worsen with legal aid cuts. The Commission acknowledges that fewer opportunities in the publicly-funded Bar could inhibit progress towards a more diverse intake, but is equally concerned that the commercial end of the Bar remains so unrelentingly socially exclusive. The Bar should consider the reasons that certain demographic groups disproportionately work in particular areas of the law, and drive greater openness across all areas of practice.”

 Go figure.

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About Richard Moorhead

Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law and Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at the Faculty of Laws, University College London with an interest in teaching and research on the legal ethics, the professions, legal aid, access to justice and the courts.
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One Response to A short report on Milburn’s State of the Nation

  1. You are right Richard. Until the profession makes a proper commitment to monitoring its intake we will never know if efforts to diversify are successful or not. Read today in Guardian Society that the Civil Service asks (doesn’t force) applicants to fill in details of whether their parents went to university, whether they were on free school meals etc. That’s the only way. Also worry that Golden Circle (any maybe others) are selecting prospective applicants too early…what about mature students, career changers? think this is another route to more diverse candidates.

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