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Intemperate market changes and elitist perception of the profession however will not be so easily resolved, say scholars and barristers.
The Bar Council launched its seventh Bar Placement Week in London in partnership with the Social Mobility Foundation.
Year 12 students from low-income backgrounds took part in the week, where they spent three-and-a-half days with a barrister, visited either the Royal Courts of Justice or the UK Supreme Court, and in a workshop led by the Advocacy Training Council, learnt how to argue like a barrister. The 17-year old students were quoted as being “high-achieving”.
The week is part of the Bar Council’s ongoing drive to improve social mobility within the profession. Seventy-five students are participating in the Bar’s annual event, which sees it move to Birmingham from 14 to 18 July. Two other regional Bar Placement Weeks were launched for the first time in Leeds and Manchester in February 2014, following earlier event successes in the capital and Birmingham.
Nicholas Lavender QC, chairman of the Bar, said the project “[demonstrates] that a career at the Bar is open to everyone of ability, irrespective of background.”
There are, however, concerns that legal aid cuts and tuition fees will hinder the Bar’s ongoing efforts. Jeremy Robson, senior lecturer in law and expert in teaching advocacy at Nottingham Trent University Law School is concerned about the number of career opportunities offered.
“However concerted the efforts of the profession have been, entry to the Bar will still be determined by market forces and the number of pupillages available will be decided by the ability of individual chambers to fund and offer work to prospective candidates,” says Robson.
“Cuts to legal aid have meant there has been a dramatic fall in the amount of publicly funded work available and this has impacted on the number of pupillages available,” he added. “The fall in the number of pupillages, coupled with the rising cost of legal education, mean that many able student are not prepared to take the risk of building up a substantial debt when the odds of obtaining a pupillage seem so heavily against them.”
Robson did say however that the initiative was “vital to ensuring that able students are given opportunities to enhance their confidence and familiarity with a profession which is often mistakenly regarded as being elitist.”
Madelaine Power, a barrister practising from 7 Bedford Row, has experienced first-hand the difficulties those from less privileged backgrounds face when pursuing a career at the Bar.
“I was actively advised against becoming a barrister when I was at school due to my social-economic background. I now know this advice was plainly wrong,” she said. “With no contacts and a comprehensive education I was given the impression I would find it harder than some.”
Power added: “The Bar Council’s initiatives over the last fifteen years have gone a long way towards educating young people, regardless of socio-economic background, and providing them with opportunities to make informed decisions about our profession.”
To some though, the pace of the Bar’s social mobility initiatives is simply not quick enough to negate the “elitist” perception of the profession which is the preserve of the affluent and socially superior.
“To the uninitiated and the unfamiliar, the Bar can seem an intimidating place,” says James Robottom, also a barrister practising from 7 Bedford Row. He believes the profession’s image – everything down to its tradition, dress, its language and robing are “redolent of a period drama than a modern, diverse society. The traditional image of the bar is clear: white, male, Oxbridge, privately educated”.
Robottom refers to a 2011 study which found that 43 per cent of the Bar went to a fee-paying secondary school, a third to Oxbridge, and only 14 per cent to a post-1992 university [former polytechnics]. “These figures show that the Bar still has a long way to go before it can even come close to being able to claim that it is reflects the diversity of the society it represents,” he says.
However, Robottom is optimistic about the success of the regulator’s initiatives: “Projects such as Bar Placement Week have a vital role to play in ensuring that one day the Bar achieves the diversity and inclusivity Lord Neubuerger so eloquently described when he said, ‘the Bar can only flourish and retain public confidence if it is a diverse and inclusive profession’.”
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