2024ii4, Sunday: The next generation.

2024ii4, Sunday: The next generation.
The Middle Temple Library (courtesy of the Middle Temple): my Inn of Court, and a haven while I was studying. (As it still is now...)

The Bar still has an access problem.

Lots of barristers, and the Inns of Court, are collectively and (hey, this is the Bar after all) individually trying to do various things about it.

But the fact remains. This is a weird job, which costs a lot to get into and requires you - in a somewhat Catch-22 manner - to show your commitment by engaging with it well before you ever apply to join it. And if you've got (a) money and/or (b) access to people who already do it (or preferably both), you've got a fairly serious head start.

Plus: our recruitment system as it has evolved, fragmented across hundreds of chambers, is a stone-cold nightmare. With, to my mind, some elements which (and I'm speaking cautiously here) at the very least border on indirect discrimination.

I know that loads of barristers feel a serious obligation to try to do something about this. Sometimes they address it through their chambers, or their Inn. I applaud every one.

But we're self-employed professionals. If we want to do something ourselves, no-one's there to stop us.

So I thought a quick description of an idea I had, and how it's working out, might be of interest.

Back to school

My kid is at a state school. Yes, a grammar; but still in the state sector. Now, she spent some time in a prep school (private pre-secondary, for the non-Brits), and I was partly private educated. So I'm reasonably confident in saying that the odds of having a relative or close friend of your family, or of a classmate, who's established in the legal profession and available either to let you tag along sometimes or simply to give you a really good, practical idea of what the job's about and how to get one are far, far higher in the private sector than for state school kids.

Even setting aside the possibility of what amounts to informal minis, that's a huge inbuilt advantage. An unfair one. And by the time kids get to university, it's baked in. And I can't help thinking this can go double for people who don't look like me: just on the numbers, a far smaller proportion of Black, Asian and other non-white kids are in fee-paying schools compared with the equivalent proportion of people who look like me. And since the high-paying bits of the Bar are I think more likely to prize the kind of advantages that inure almost automatically from fee-paying schooling, that makes the hill to be climbed still steeper.

(I'm reminded here of John Scalzi's magisterial analogy with computer games and difficulty settings, which still hangs together a decade or more later. It's not, and I want to be crystal on this, that anyone achieves a pupillage or a tenancy without working their arses off, being bright, and benefiting from a sizable dose of luck. Absolutely not. It's just that the difficulty setting - the multiplier applied to all that hard work, smarts and luck - isn't the same for everyone. And I'm not ignoring socio-economic differences either, so please don't shout at me as if I am.)

I can't do much about that on my own, of course. But I can do a little something.

So I go into my daughter's school each half-term, to spend a lunchbreak with each of Years 10 and 12. Sometimes we discuss careers: how do you actually go about becoming a barrister, solicitor or legal executive? (I have friends come in from the latter two sometimes, to help me out with the bits I really don't know much about.) Sometimes we talk about how the law works, and how to think like a lawyer - because anyone going to study law will know how weird that can feel initially. Sometimes we learn about advocacy: how to construct arguments, how to ask questions, how to think critically about not only what others say but about what you yourself think.

If we can make it happen, we might even pay a visit or two to court.

The aim is that after a year or two of this, a kid thinking of studying law will have a far greater understanding of what they're getting themselves into than they might otherwise be able to achieve without friends, family or other legal connections. And they'll be able to say on application forms that they started working on this early: giving up precious time to start the learning process while they were still at school. Any of us who mark pupillage applications know we're always on the lookout for indicators that the motivation started early; this could help make that clear.

I think it's worthwhile. Apparently the number of kids (successfully) applying to study law from my daughter's school almost doubled last year. I'm not saying that's down to what I'm doing; not at all. But I hope I may have helped.

And given the structural barriers facing students who don't benefit from the right class, connections or wealth - and given the way those inequities work, probably also affecting those with protected characteristics as well - I can't think of a good reason not to keep ploughing on. Trying to refine what I'm doing. Trying to drop at least something on the good side of the scales. Because every morsel counts.

What's next?

I've been doing this for a couple of years. I'm starting to build up a set of papers: materials that I can re-use year on year, refining and learning as I go along. And I'd be happy to make them available to anyone else, such as they are; and to talk to anyone who might want to do something similar. Or even something different!

Because as I said: we're all self-employed professionals. Nothing stops any barrister who wants to try it from seeing if their local state school could do with a bit of assistance. There are smart young people out there who think this mad, wonderful job might be for them, and who don't have an easy route to finding out. They deserve our help and our support. If you think you might want to give it, then by all means let me know. I'd be happy to talk it through.