School and social status have no place in the legal profession

School and social status have no place in the legal profession

22 October 2020

by Chris Bones

The culture must change and diversify to truly serve modern society

Charles Dickens would recognise the modern legal profession — regardless of its modern accoutrements,

Recent research revealing that 53 per cent of partners at leading law firms in England and Wales attended independent schools further demonstrates that it remains a dickens of a job to achieve movement in social mobility.

The truth is that the legal teams in Jarndyce v Jarndyce would be little different today than they were in 1852.

Despite all the fine words, the legal profession remains hidebound, hierarchical, remote and, in its upper echelons at least, unrepresentative of wider society.

There is no place in the modern world for a legal system that continues to favour those from fee-paying schools and a narrow selection of universities, with many bright, skilled candidates from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds locked out.

There have been many years of soul searching and shiny new rhetorical initiatives — but the figures remind us just how much we are still stuck in the past.

Lawyers qualifying through the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives are different: less than 7 per cent attended private schools and 30 per cent are the first in their family to go to university.

For CILEx lawyers advancement is entirely merit based — qualification is achieved by attainment of recognised legal expertise demonstrated by competence in the workplace.

Decisions taken by previous governments to confer equal standing to all three types of lawyer — barrister, solicitor and legal executive — should be transforming the make-up of law firms and the judiciary.

But 15 years on from the initial reforms to promote equality of standing across the profession, legal, structural and cultural barriers continue to hold talented CILEx lawyers back.

The profession’s culture must change and diversify if it is to serve modern society more effectively. It is unacceptable not to promote someone just because they did not go to the right university. Nor should it be acceptable to treat lawyers of equal standing as second-class citizens and require them to do extra to gain recognition.

Cultural change will only come with a demonstrable commitment to advancement within law firms achieved by merit, regardless of route of qualification or place of study. To open career paths to every type of lawyer regardless of social background or connection, remuneration for all lawyers should be grounded in the value that their competence and professionalism delivers, rather than the advantages they bring from school, university or social background.

Our experience of parity in recognition, respect and reward for CILEx lawyers demonstrably promotes diversity in practice, whilst reinforcing competence and commitment to the highest standards of professional practice throughout the legal profession. It is time for bold, positive action, not more words.

Chris Bones is the chairman of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives in England and Wales 

Article originally posted on The Times Website: