Sutton Trust alum Natasha Holcroft-Emmess discusses why social mobility has stalled at the pinnacle of the legal profession.

Elitist Britain 2019, a report by the Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission, reveals the educational backgrounds of Britain’s elite professions. The report tracks the pathways of politicians, entrepreneurs, journalists – even pop stars, and shines a light on industries whose upper echelons are dominated by a small, exclusive group.

Statistics for top jobs in the legal profession are particularly striking. Senior judges sitting in the High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court are the most socially exclusive group of all. 65% went to an independent school – compared with 7% of the UK population. 71% are Oxbridge-educated – compared with 1% of the population. Over half went to both private school and Oxford or Cambridge. Statistics for the Bar aren’t much different.

The numbers are hard to argue with. While some progress has been made, the pinnacle of the legal profession remains largely the preserve of privately educated Oxbridge graduates.

Checking my own privilege

I have a confession to make. I’m one of the 1% with an Oxbridge education. I also trained as a barrister which, statistically-speaking, is the most common first step to becoming a judge. But ‘elite’ isn’t a word I associate with myself.

My dad’s a butcher and my mum was a call centre manager at BT, who started on the phones and worked her way up. I grew up in an ex-Council house in the North West of England. I went to a state school and I’m in the first generation of my family to go to university. I’m pleased to say that I’ve kept my Northern accent. I’m proud of my roots. Perhaps that’s why ‘elite’ feels alien to me.

About 10 years ago, I applied to study law at the University of Oxford, where I had attended a Sutton Trust UK Summer School. Studying at Oxford would be a challenge, but I liked that. I felt it was worth giving it a go..

And it was. I loved being at Oxford. I had very supportive tutors and a great group of friends to keep me grounded. I volunteered to show kids from visiting state schools around, because I’d met people like me during the summer school, and it made a huge difference. For those reasons, I often feel a little torn when I read social mobility statistics concerning my alma mater.

Facing the facts

On the one hand, I know that people who’ve attended Oxford or Cambridge are over-represented in high-profile positions. On the other hand, I’ve seen for myself how much effort is made to encourage people like me to aim high, educationally and professionally. As a result, I sometimes find social mobility reports uncomfortable reading. Perhaps others who benefitted from access schemes can relate.

But one of the things I learned at university is that it’s good to be self-reflective. We should face up to the statistics. Fortunately, there are things that universities can do – and some are already doing – to address the fact that the playing field isn’t level. Contextualising admissions is one thing. Offering access schemes is another.

Still, when you look at the legal sector, social mobility lags very far behind. It remains notoriously difficult to break into today, and that’s compounded for people with lower socio-economic backgrounds who face significant financial barriers to enter, and stay in, the profession.

Vocational courses – required, if you want to practise law – cost tens of thousands of pounds. The supply of scholarships doesn’t meet demand, and this makes training contracts (for trainee solicitors) and pupillages (for trainee barristers) highly competitive. Even if you get a foot in the door, those who become self-employed face significant financial pressures, especially early on. It’s little wonder social mobility is at a snail’s pace.

Time to break down some barriers

Judges and lawyers are used to having difficult conversations – with each other, with clients, with opposing sides. But I think it’s time for the profession to take a long look in the mirror and do some tough talking to itself. The hard truth is that there are barriers to accessing the legal profession, and to reaching the pinnacle of it. If we don’t want this area of public life to be dominated by a small, exclusive group, we need to recognise how the odds are stacked and take steps to knock down at least a few of those barriers.

Natasha Holcroft-Emmess attended a Sutton Trust UK Summer School and went on to study law at the University of Oxford. She holds a first-class law degree and a masters. She trained first as a solicitor and then transferred to the Bar. She is now a member of the Sutton Trust’s Alumni Leadership Board.


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