The Problem of Social Immobility in Law: Can it Be Solved?

law weighing scales
Spencer Creamore

When the time came for me to write down the five universities that I most liked the look of onto the UCAS form, I already knew exactly where I wanted to study: the University of Nottingham. Not only had my brother studied there and had had an incredible time, but the sporting facilities had recently been renovated, the career prospects were promising, and the academic reputation was outstanding. I thought nothing could fault it.

However, upon further research, I noticed that I would have to sit yet another test to enrol onto the course. This is commonly known as the Law National Aptitude Test (LNAT). I found this to be a mild annoyance, but I knew if I wanted to pursue my dream career, it was a necessary obstacle. Then, I saw that it would cost £75 to complete, with no guarantee of successfully getting onto the course that I wanted to study. In addition to this, it seemed commonplace on The Student Room for students to subscribe to Arbitio, a website which has a database of practice questions, to aid revision. But the prices ranged from £45 to £245. At the time, this was completely unaffordable. This was mainly because the cost-of-living crisis was rife, thus my household had little disposable income to spend on the test and accompanying revision resources.

Fortunately, I found a job to fund it (something difficult with unemployment steadily rising). However, many across the country are unlikely to be as lucky, especially if they are burdened with A-Level preparation, keeping their homes in order whilst their parents work, or perhaps even caring responsibilities. This is just one example where an aspirational, talented student may be deterred from pursuing a legal career at the outset due to their socio-economic position – something entirely outside the remit of their control.

When I reached university, there were several further unforeseen costs that required many of my less fortunate peers and I to take up work alongside our studies. For example, the total cost of my first-year textbooks came to £135. Moreover, joining the Law Society and the Swimming Club amounted to £105 (just two of many societies I was interested in). This not only meant that I was less able to enjoy the university experience by forfeiting my Friday nights to be a tutor, but I also had less time to spend preparing for seminars and tutorials. Although this did not affect my academic performance per se, it certainly meant that I had to work harder within a more limited window of time in order to remain competitive.

Although only 7% of the UK have had the benefit of private education, they account for 65% of senior judges.

These are just some of the barriers that those from low socio-economic backgrounds face. Hence, it is no surprise that those who were educated at state-comprehensive schools are disproportionately underrepresented in the legal profession. Shockingly, although only 7% of the UK have had the benefit of private education, they account for 65% of senior judges.

In my view, it is important for society that the judiciary is not exclusively made up of one group of people. In one of the first lectures that I attended at the beginning of my degree, we were taught that judges do not have to blindly abide by statutes where the outcome of doing so would clearly be unjust. There are circumstances where judges can draw upon their powers of discretion when interpreting the law to ensure justice is served as far as possible. However, it is impossible for a white man with a privileged background to accurately and fairly sentence someone whose lifestyle is so far removed from his own that he cannot possibly understand their plight. For example, how can he possibly understand a single mother who has stolen a loaf of bread to feed her children when the cost-of-living crisis is something he himself does not have to worry about day-to-day? How can he understand the isolation young black men feel when trapped in gangs that threaten their family’s safety? The answer to both questions is that it is impossible. Thus, to combat the dwindling respect for the law, the system needs to be modernised. There is a need for more social and ethnic diversity and more gender inclusivity. This will ensure criminal and civil issues are heard with all the relevant social context that must be known to make an informed decision.

There are limited numbers of lawyers who seek to become judges, and limited funding to enable it.

However, this point may be counterargued on the basis that it is not practically possible to have a judiciary that comprises of judges who represent each and every lifestyle, socio-economic background, or traumatic experience. This is because there are limited numbers of lawyers who seek to become judges, and limited funding to enable it. Judges will inevitably oversee a broad range of cases throughout their career, many of which will be distinct from their own experiences, therefore they must be given adequate training to prevent social bias from affecting their judgements. This is the next best alternative. If judges could only adjudicate on cases that they socially and economically related to, not only would there be a myriad of cases without judges, but more fundamentally, the justice system would be damaged as the role of judges would be limited significantly.

Circling back to the average working-class or lower-middle class student, their struggle does not end at the cost of the LNAT or the textbooks. After they battle through university and attempt to pin down an increasingly elusive training contract at a law firm, they must fend off thousands of other students. This is a gruelling process by nature of the legal sector’s inherent oversaturation. In fact, those who do manage to land the jump from student to trainee solicitor are likely to have experienced countless rejections before finally finding success in the field.

However, for those at the bottom of the social ladder, it is significantly harder. Not only do they generally lack meaningful connections in the industry, they also generally lack the confidence required to advance in professional settings. Imposter syndrome often, wrongly, makes those who work their way up from state-schools feel as if they are not worthy or capable of handling positions in the city due to the way others may speak, dress or conduct themselves.

An entire demographic is essentially being isolated from the profession by this lack of representation.

It was put best by Sophie Pender, founder of The 93% Club, who shared on LinkedIn: ‘I remember sitting in the lobby waiting for the vacation scheme assessment centre to begin and being scared. It was one of several potential firsts in my family’s life – first to get a post-16 education, first to go to university and first to even try to become a lawyer’. Sophie’s experience reflects that of many students across the country who are intellectually gifted by virtue of them having achieved outstanding academic results but feel out of place in an environment where few understand them. This is often a major blow to the confidence of young students who feel they do not fit the mould and is catastrophic for wider society. This is because an entire demographic is essentially being isolated from the profession by this lack of representation and thus, social disparities are being perpetuated.

It is also worth noting that if one fails to have their post-degree legal studies paid for by a law firm, they are expected to pay for law school and the SQE examinations on their own. The combined total cost of sitting both required examinations (SQE1 and SQE2) is £4115 and assuming one chooses to study for these through the University of Law, where a large proportion do, the cost of completing this preparatory course is £16,950 in London.

Law firms have an active duty to invest more resources into diversity schemes to bridge the social gap.

Although certain bursaries exist to help students fund the course, one cannot deny that there is a certain level of irony here. The SQE initially replaced the LPC to aid social mobility by making it cheaper and thus more inclusive. However, this has not been the case at all. Criticising the change, the Junior Lawyers Division argue the opposite effect to that intended has occurred. They stated that the SQE programme will be ‘detrimental to diversity and social mobility’ given the lack of funding options available to students.

Overall, much needs to be done to challenge social immobility in the profession. Law firms have an active duty to invest more resources into diversity schemes to bridge the social gap, as well as introducing more mentoring schemes for working class students. This is because those from lower social positions generally do not have the benefit of connections, with them answer any questions that they may have, and who bring forth opportunities and in turn, a sense of direction. In addition, the development of greater financial support to students at every level of education is crucial to allow for new talent to break into law and offer a unique perspective on many issues that still require resolutions.

If these important issues are ignored, many of the capable and bright minds of the next generation will never emerge in the legal profession and we will continue to live in a world where society is moulded by judges who do not know what it is to struggle without money.

Spencer Creamore

Featured image courtesy of Tingey Industry Law Firm via Unplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

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