I posted a blog last year raising concerns about the shrinking access to careers in the law.
I questioned whether the law was becoming a career for the rich –
This followed a decision by the Solicitors Regulation Authority to abolish the minimum salary for Trainee Solicitors. These concerns have been echoed this week by Baroness Hale who is the Deputy President of the Supreme Court and the most senior woman judge that we have ever had. She was speaking at the launch of report by the Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) which calls for return of the minimum salary.
Lady Hale expressed gave concern about the disparity between the number of students being trained in the law and the number of jobs available. She actually said that many aspire to a legal career that they can never have –
She went on to say that it was a major worry that we could be returning the days when “social advantage, independent schooling and Oxbridge”, determined access to a legal career.
It is certainly true that there are far too many students being trained than there are training contracts available. Those institutions who a charging huge fees need to ask themselves some difficult questions. Baroness Hale agrees that we cannot block access to that opportunity. But there are many disincentives. Why would the brightest students want to run up thousands of pounds in loans with little prospect of a career at the end?
The abolition of the minimum salary is just one such obstacle but it is significant. Why struggle through years of academic training to end up being paid buttons. In their report, published this week, YLAL acknowledge that most who work in the legal aid sector do not expect huge salaries but –
“The combination of prohibitively expensive professional courses, high levels of debt and low salaries makes it extremely difficult for those from a lower socio-economic background to enter the legal aid profession and then to sustain a career in the sector”.
They also express concern about the impact on social mobility caused by the requirement for most students to carry out unpaid work experience.
This should be a real concern for us all. We need a diverse legal profession. Legal problems affect the whole population and those who represent them should not come from a small social group who can afford to pay the fees, do the unpaid work and earn low salaries whilst training. In the current climate, it is highly unlikely that I would ever have been able to qualify.
We should be doing all we can to encourage entry for all based on ability and not on wealth. A starting point will be return to a realistic salary for trainees. It would be a great step forward if the government provided funding for work experience in the legal aid sector although this is highly unlikely with the present government.