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Opening doors to the law

19 January 10 12:15 GMT

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education and family

A law firm and Oxford academics are setting up a scheme to encourage a wider range of young people to enter the legal profession.

Social mobility is becoming an election battleground - with the government promising measures to break the "glass ceiling" that limits access to the most sought-after careers.

This follows a strongly-worded report from former minister Alan Milburn, which warned that in many professions social mobility was at risk of going into reverse.

There were fears that professions such as the law and medicine were becoming dominated by youngsters from the most affluent backgrounds.

"The typical doctor or lawyer of the future will today be growing up in a family that is better off than five in six of all families in the UK," the report warns.

It describes law as "one of the most socially exclusive professions" in which "50% of solicitors and barristers attended independent schools, compared to just 7% of the population".

Opening doors

So what can be done to open doors into the law?

The government is proposing mentoring schemes, outreach projects, work experience and a Social Mobility Commission.

But lawyers are also doing it for themselves.

International law firm Lovells is running a scheme called Ladder to Law, which is trying to get a wider range of youngsters to consider careers in the legal profession.

Run in partnership with the law faculty of the University of Oxford, the scheme is intended to reach out to pupils who might have never considered going to university otherwise, let alone seen themselves as potential lawyers.

With links with four secondary schools in London - and plans to involve four more - the company wants to provide sustained, long-term support for pupils who are interested in careers in law.

Clare Harris, head of recruiting in the firm's London office, says "it's about breaking down perceived barriers".

Pupils might be living physically close to the big London law firms, she says, but "they may as well be living in another world".

The idea of the Ladder to Law project is to send staff into schools to talk to pupils about the ways into careers in law and to invite interested youngsters into the law firm's offices for work shadowing.

There will be chances to visit university law departments and advice about choosing A-levels and the applications process.

"It's replicating the advantages that already exist for middle class families," she says.

Early intervention

The intention is to intervene early enough to help give children the chance to raise their horizons - and for the support to be sustained. "It can't be a flash in the pan," she says.

Such contacts with law firms need to be made at school level, rather than waiting until the recruitment rounds at university, she believes.

Ms Harris says "social exclusion" can come in many different forms - but the end result is too often families in which youngsters have no expectations of going to university or entering a career such as law.

For them the idea of the legal profession never gets further than someone in a wig in a television drama, she says.

While seeking to encourage a wider range of applicants, Ms Harris is against using positive discrimination in the recruitment process for jobs.

Rather than any interventionist approach, she wants law firms and their associates to find their own ways to create opportunities.

Lovells has worked on the schools project with the Brokerage Citylink, an organisation which connects employers in the City of London with young people living in inner-London boroughs, who might otherwise never consider the careers available on their own doorstep.

Frank Funnell, business development manager for this not-for-profit organisation, says he wants Ladder to Law to "inspire many young people from disadvantaged areas to see law as a career they can aspire to".

The dean of law faculty at Oxford, Timothy Endicott, said: "It is important for schools, universities and employers to work collaboratively to encourage bright and able candidates, who may feel socially excluded, to understand more about what university can offer and how a career in law can be achieved."

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