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Careers focus: levelling the playing field

 

2019 marks 100 years since the law changed and women could practise as lawyers. The industry has come a long way in that time but we still have a long journey ahead of us before we achieve the equality and diversity which does the sector justice. At HRC Law, we are proud of our strong and diverse workforce. We’ve worked hard to develop an inclusive and vibrant culture to support all our staff in their careers – whether that’s through offering flexible working to support working parents or opening our doors to those who have qualified through non-traditional routes. For us, it’s about building a team with the level of expertise a client should expect – and personality to match.

In this series, we’re going to be looking at some of the most pressing issues facing the sector and why at HRC Law we’re committed to offering the best workplace for our people. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of articles looking at key topics, sharing advice and interviews with our team about the future of the legal profession.

So, without further ado, we’ll jump into our first blog and what better place to start than addressing issues around entry to the industry. Founding partner, Simon Whitehead explores…

Photo of Simon WhiteheadIt’s a middle-aged thing to say, but things were different when I was young – although those in their forties back then would probably have said the same thing. In terms of financial access to the professions, at present it’s unachievable for many.

I entered the profession when it was slightly more accessible; I was privileged to have been born in the 1970s and to have had the opportunities I’ve had. Our firm employs people across a broad age spectrum, but, for those like me, born in the 1970s, it was possible to be educated all the way through to the end of university without amassing loads of debt.  It meant that people like me, without a privileged background, could do a law degree (provided they had the grades), without worrying unduly about digging themselves into a financial black hole.

I’m not sure I’d have taken the risk if I’d been faced with the prospect of multiple student loans to get through university,and then funding issues to make it through the legal practice course at the end of it, followed then by the inevitable scrabble for a training contract.

When my generation entered the law, we shook things up. Things had started to change, but the law was still, for the most part, the preserve of middle-aged, middle-class, white men – often with correspondingly narrow world views.  People of a certain generation may still think of lawyers in these terms; arrogant beings who sit in their ivory towers and manipulate words to suit their own agenda.  We aren’t like that; I assure you.

Things changed (thankfully, in my view), but they’re changing again and not necessarily for the better.

Becoming a regulated solicitor or barrister is becoming prohibitively expensive for the less privileged; the drawbridge is going back up.  If only the rich (or those whose parents are willing to throw their life savings at their children’s education) will be able to study law, and to qualify as regulated professionals, such lawyers will come from rich and privileged backgrounds only.

That’s a sad thing not only for the profession, but for society at large.

I know people jest that the world doesn’t need more lawyers, but if knowledge is power, knowledge of the law is the power to change it; test it; question it.  And law is everywhere.

Our society is bound by the Rule of Law.  If we want to make a decision to put the Rulers of that Law into the hands of the few, we should at least do so with our eyes wide open.

You can’t fight things easily from the bottom of the hill that the tower sits on (ivory or otherwise). The Normans knew that much back in the 11th century.  You need to be in there; assessing and questioning. If the only people within the legal profession come from the same sort of background, their interests will be aligned on many fronts, and pitifully narrow. There’s a real risk they’ll make the moats bigger, keep their drawbridges up and make sure that their own interests are protected.

Financial hurdles aren’t the only barrier to those wishing to become our future solicitors.  Changes to the legal services market are already having an impact on those seeking to become qualified lawyers.  In some quarters young people (sometimes those who already have a law degree and/or have completed professional courses like a legal conversion course or legal practice course), are recruited as apprentices or paralegals.  Whilst they may aspire to move up the food chain, not all firms see such new recruits as potential solicitors, or even recognise their potential at all.  Years can be lost gaining “experience” as a paralegal or apprentice in the mistaken belief that something more will inevitably come of it.  Whilst such experience does have its place and benefits, there is little economic incentive for firms to convert an experienced (cheap) paralegal into a (more expensive) trainee.  Economics don’t dictate everything for everyone, but young recruits, keen to progress their careers, should be wary of getting stuck in an administrative support rut. With future changes to legal services on the horizon and the potential for a two-tier legal system (regulated and unregulated), things are unlikely to improve any time soon -especially on the economics front!

As we enter 2019, something I’m sure we can all agree on is that we want a society that presents equal opportunities for all. In no place is this more important than in education.

Education equips people with the tools to better themselves and it’s crucial that we continue to level the playing-field. When you look at the diversity and spectrum of the new world of work, there is such disparity. Yet there are usually just two key factors for candidates to consider when limiting their aspirational career paths – grades and finances. Unfortunately, while the latter prevails, the playing-field will never be level.

Creating a system where a legal career remains open to all who have the skills, will ensure the industry, and the law itself, is fair and representative of society. Nurturing young talent instead of blocking it at the first hurdle is one way to create a prosperous legal industry and one more step towards creating a fair and just society.