Three-quarters of top judges and 71% of top QCs were privately educated – proportions that have decreased slightly since the 1980s – according to new analysis of the education backgrounds of leading lawyers published by the Sutton Trust and PRIME today.[1]

These two groups are over ten times more likely to have a private education than the general population, where 7% attend independent schools. The proportion is smaller for partners in the Magic Circle: one in two was privately educated.

Of the legal sector as a whole, solicitors are most likely to have had a state education with less than a third (32%) of those at partner level attending private school, a proportion which increases to 41% in London firms. The Solicitors Regulation Authority now routinely surveys all solicitors on their educational background.

Initiatives like PRIME, a commitment to provide fair work experience in the legal sector, and the Sutton Trust’s Pathways to Law and Pathways Plus programmes, have helped over 6,000 young people from less advantaged homes gain insight into the legal sector. However today’s findings show how much more needs to be done to improve access.

The research is published ahead of a key industry conference on 25 November aimed at confronting what remains a stubbornly ingrained issue within the legal profession. Speakers at the event include former Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy and BBC journalist Mishal Husain.

Research into the attitudes of law firms towards social mobility in their sector reveals the benefits of addressing the problem are widely accepted. Law firms also acknowledge they hold the key to solving this issue, but there is a lack of consistency in approach.

A majority (52%) of senior figures in the legal industry polled by YouGov said that improving social mobility in the legal profession would be beneficial to their firm, while 71% acknowledged the benefit to society as a whole. When asked to identify where responsibility for solving the problem lies, law firms came out top with almost a third (30%) of respondents’ votes.[2]

However, the lack of a consistent approach is evident in attitudes towards candidates’ backgrounds, as just over a third of respondents (36%) rate the diversity of a candidate’s background as an important factor in the recruitment process while a larger number (39%) think it is neither important nor unimportant.

When it came to explaining why there was a social mobility problem in the legal profession, respondents who think something is preventing candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds from getting law training contracts revealed that a large barrier is their presentation at interview – respondents allocated almost a quarter (23%) of their votes to this.[3] This was followed by a lack of pre-university educational attainment (18%), and lack of understanding of the profession and business (16%).

In light of today’s research, the Sutton Trust would like to see more firms join PRIME, an initiative that aims to provide fair access to work experience in the legal sector for school-age students from less privileged backgrounds. Since its establishment in September 2011 PRIME has provided high quality work experience to almost 4,000 young people, significantly exceeding the target of 2,500 by 2015.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said today:

“Today’s findings, in particular the worrying fact that the high proportion of privately educated judges has barely changed since the 1980s, warns us that there is still a big social mobility problem within the legal sector. There have been improvements however, not least in the monitoring of solicitors and in the willingness of big legal firms to work through programmes like PRIME and our Pathways to Law programme.

“We need to see those efforts redoubled, and to persuade the sceptics that it is vital to get the best talent into law. Irrespective of background, bright young people need to be able to achieve his or her potential and access jobs in law if that is their chosen profession. Enabling greater access to a wider pool of diverse talent will deliver real benefits for employers and employees alike.”

David Morley, chairman of PRIME and senior partner at Allen & Overy, added:

“The work carried out under programmes like PRIME and Pathways to Law has started a process of change in the legal sector’s approach to opening up access to the profession, but it is clear we are only at the beginning of the journey.

“The research shows that a large part of the responsibility for solving this issue lies with law firms, so we need to ensure they attack the problem with the energy and enthusiasm it deserves. The PRIME conference on 25 November is designed to provoke honest debate that results in meaningful initiatives and affects real change. I look forward to hearing suggestions from across the profession.”


  1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 160 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.
  2. PRIME is an alliance of 89 law firms and legal departments across the UK who have made a commitment to broaden access to the legal professions. PRIME firms offer work experience to young people from less privileged backgrounds that might otherwise not have the opportunity to access careers in the legal world. Since its establishment in September 2011 PRIME has provided high quality work experience to almost 4,000 young people, significantly exceeding the target of 2,500 by 2015.
  3. Pathways to Law is a programme set up in 2006 by the Sutton Trust, with support from major law firms, to inspire and support academically-able 16 and 17 year olds from low and middle income backgrounds interested in a career in law. 2,000 students have already benefitted from the programme and another 1,200 will take part in Pathways over the next four years.
  4. Pathways Plus supports non-privileged law students during their degree through e-monitoring, residential courses and help securing work experience.
  5. Figures for solicitors have been derived from data published by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, whose work is kindly acknowledged. The original data is available here: All figures presented are for those educated in the UK only.

ABOUT THE POLLING SAMPLE: All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 150 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken from 9th – 18th November 2015.  The survey was carried out online.

METHODOLOGICAL NOTE: Top judges have been defined as those that sit on the High Court and Court of Appeals and top QCs as those ranked in the top 100 by Chambers UK, the UK’s leading legal directory. Samples for top solicitors are different between school and university background. The SRA publish a detailed breakdown of whether their members were educated at independent or state schools, but not, as yet, the university that they attended. Because of this, another sample looks at university attendance, which includes all those lawyers rated as Band 1 (the top band) by Chambers UK. Both samples are representative, but do not refer to exactly the same lawyers.

TOP JUDGES (n=147) 74% 26%
TOP QCs (n=100) 71% 29%
*this has been calculated using diversity data for law firms of 50+ partners
TOP JUDGES (n=147) 74% 26%
TOP QCs (n=100) 78% 22%
TOP SOLICITORS (n=128) 55% 45%


[1] These figures are taken from the Sutton Trust’s analysis of the educational backgrounds of leading lawyers. Please see methodological note for further details.
[2] Respondents were asked to allocate 0 to 100 percentage points to certain groups, based on how much responsibility they thought each group had.
[3] Respondents were asked to allocate 0 to 100 percentage points to certain factors, based on how much they thought each factor was preventing candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds from getting law training contracts. They could also choose a ‘Not applicable’ option.

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