Accessibility Links

Legal professions elitism gap widens

Posted by: Laurence Simons 08/11/11
  • 15% of lawyers are from the UK’s 250 public schools - compared to just 2% of the general population
  • Social exclusivity increasing in legal profession
  • Decline of grammar schools blamed

15% of lawyers now come from exclusive public schools that educate only 2% of the population according to new figures from legal recruiter Laurence Simons.

Laurence Simons analysed the profiles of 49,600 professionals working in London using the business-networking site LinkedIn. The analysis shows approximately 7,200 of those professionals have attended public schools. This makes those educated at one of the country’s 250 public schools seven times more likely to become legal professionals than those educated in the state sector.

Naveen Tuli, managing director of Laurence Simons said, “The figures paint a disturbingly regressive picture of the opportunities open to those wishing to get into law. Social exclusivity is rife in the industry. The fact that 15% of people in the sector attended one of just 250 of the nation’s most exclusive schools shows this is a real policy blind spot – a lot has been done to address the under-representation of women and ethnic minority groups and we’re at least on the way to tackling those issues. But the under-representation of those who can’t afford a silver-plated education is getting worse, not better.”

The law is becoming more elitist than ever

The situation is deteriorating as the legal profession becomes more elitist. While the UK’s blue-chip law firms opened up to a generation of partners educated in state secondary schools in the 1960s - predominantly in grammar schools - this has proved to be a transient change. For instance, between 1988 and 2004, the proportion of partners under 39 at the UK’s 5 Magic Circle firms who had been educated in private schools increased from 59% to 71%.

The increasing reliance on those educated outside the state sector has shifted the social composition of the legal profession. In 1958, just over 40% of lawyers grew up in families with an above average income. But 60% of British lawyers who were born in 1970 grew up in families with an above average income.

Reasons behind the growing elitism in the law

The relative over-performance of public schools in the law is down to a number of factors, one of which is the growing focus of recruiters on degrees. Today, only one in four of the Times Top 100 Employers are willing to consider candidates without degrees and none of these are in the legal sector. Legal employers no longer recruit non-graduates through the article route and this has limited opportunities for non-graduates to compete for these jobs.

The consolidation of legal jobs in the South East and London also plays a part – since poorer candidates are less able to afford to relocate themselves to the South-East and London, where average rental prices are 226% higher than the national average and thus out of reach for those on a graduate salary.

But Laurence Simons says the demise of grammar shools and the prolonged decline in academic standards in the state sector has created the most significant barrier to entry for those educated by the state. In the late 1980s – when the last generation educated at the height of the grammar school were entering work – 10% fewer barristers and 15% fewer solicitors were privately educated than in the early 2000s.

As grammar schools have declined, the academic standards achieved by those educated within the state sector have deteriorated. In 1997, 83% of those who achieved three A Levels came from state schools. But by 2007, only 70% came from state education, despite state-educated pupils representing 93% of the population.

Naveen Tuli said, “As far as a candidate’s prospects as a lawyer are concerned, the ability of a student’s school to propel him or her into the best universities will directly affect their employability later on. With 53% of Magic Circle solicitors and 82% of barristers having been educated at Oxbridge, there is a clear link between competitiveness when entering higher education and the ability to achieve a legal career after university. And you can’t get into Oxbridge if you can’t demonstrate the highest level of academic achievement at school.”

The privately educated are also encouraged to engage with a litany of extra-curricular activities which Russell Group universities consider a key part in their selection process, but which state education struggles to provide. Many students struggle to develop the ‘soft skills’ of teamwork and leadership that consistently impress providers of higher education. For instance, cadet forces are not available to middle and lower income families. Of the 250 forces in the UK, only 60 of these are open to students in state education.

The same opportunity gap applies to cultural and artistic activities. While these are provided by public schools, those educated by the state system are often forced to make do with the opportunities available in their local area. Only 16% of British parents think that the current provision of cultural activities is sufficient, while 71% think that there should be more access to these in their local area.

State provision of careers advice also leaves pupils at a disadvantage. According to The Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, in state schools, talented young people are forced to rely on advice given by teachers with limited knowledge of careers advice. Without a specialised careers team in every state school, as there are in public schools, pupils in the state sector find themselves unable to access clear information and guidance about the qualifications and experience required to succeed in the law. The Panel described provision of careers advice as ‘simply not good enough’ and recommended ‘a radical rethink’ of careers services in the state sector.

Naveen Tuli said, “This doesn’t appear to be a case of wanton snobbery on behalf of legal employers - in many ways, Britain’s blue-chip legal employers are simply reacting to the decline of state education. The overwhelming conclusion must be that if your children aspire to a successful legal career and you are choosing them a school, it pays to pay.”

Even having left school, students with less well-off parents continue to suffer. 46% of students from families who work in manual jobs state that without regular part-time work, they would be unable to cover their costs of living. And almost half of the students surveyed stated that they were engaged in part time work that distracted them from their studies. This lack of time for core academic work stands in stark contrast with more affluent students who have time to attend regular careers evenings at university and are able to travel around the country filling their CV with unpaid work experience that develops the contacts and expertise that ultimately provides a cutting edge at interview.

Naveen Tuli said, “ In 1776, Adam Smith wrote of an ‘invisible hand’ at work in society. With this metaphor, he described the almost mystical ability of the market to meet people’s needs. To match what is possible with what is required. Supply and demand. But the intellectual godfather of capitalism could not have imagined the complexity of today’s jobs market. He could not have anticipated the ferocious competition or the migration of talent across continents.

In face of this complexity, markets – the job market included - have developed their own responses. New organisations have emerged to connect supply with demand. Where expertise is required; distances are too great; or information incomplete, intermediaries like recruitment consultants play a role in solving those problems. This shift to multi-layered markets has two important implications: first recruitment consultants have become hugely important. They mediate professional relationships, providing us with new opportunities, guiding and shaping our choices. And they tell us whom to hire. Second, like all markets, the employment market in which recruitment consultants operate can be either efficient or inefficient. Fair or unfair. Able or unable to operate in the public interest. Where Adam Smith had faith the markets would inevitably serve in the public interest, today we are not so sure. Employers who take this issue seriously should seek advice from expert recruiters.”

There are approximately 250 public schools in the UK - independent secondary schools (funded by a combination of endowments, tuition fees and other non-governmental funding) which are members of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. They teach approximately 2% of the British population.

The public schools represent approximately a tenth of the total 2,600 private or independent schools in the UK, teaching 7% of the nation’s population.

Government-funded schools – referred to here as state schools provide education free of charge to pupils and educate approximately 93% of the population.