Greater access to the legal profession is called for by Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust, after the publication of a disturbing report which reveals the narrow educational backgrounds of the country’s top lawyers.
Top judges, top barristers and top solicitors are still overwhelmingly privately educated and have attended the leading dozen universities, particularly Oxbridge. The position has not changed significantly in the last 15 years, according to the analysis undertaken by the Sutton Trust.
The survey found that in 2004 three out of four judges, more than two-thirds of barristers at top chambers and more than half the partners at leading law firms, had been educated in the private sector, which accounts for 7% of the school population and 17% of university entrants. Half the current judges went to boarding schools which educate less than 1% of children.
While there has been little change in the backgrounds of barristers and judges since the late 1980s, the survey found that the law firms did open up to a generation of partners educated in state secondary schools in the Sixties. However, this is not likely to be a lasting change as 71% of younger partners in 2004 were privately educated.
Although the profession is marginally less dominated by Oxford and Cambridge graduates than in the past – in 1989 88% of judges had been to Oxbridge, compared to 81% in 2004 – the search for talent still occurs within narrow confines.
Sir Peter said: “Research we funded by the London School of Economics published last month showed that social mobility has declined in Britain over the last 30 years and Britain together with the US has the lowest mobility of the eight industrial countries surveyed. The educational background of leading judges, barristers and solicitors is a manifestation of this lack of mobility at the top end.
Significant progress clearly needs to be made on a number of fronts: providing open access to independent day schools along the lines of the successful scheme at the Belvedere School in Liverpool; encouraging more able students from state schools to study law at the leading universities; and widening access to barristers’ chambers and top firms of solicitors. This will not only ensure the very best succeed as lawyers, but the judiciary will become more representative of the people it serves.”
“The Sutton Trust supports several programmes designed to tackle these anomalies, such as ‘Young Graduates for Lawyers’ run by Global Graduates, Legal Summer Schools run by The College of Law in London, and ‘Pathways to the Professions’ run by Edinburgh University, but it is clear that more widespread action is needed to have a major impact,” Sir Peter added.