In our latest blog, Jasmine Stuart, associate solicitor and assistant COLP at CEL Solicitors, explores access to the profession and shares her experience of starting her career the legal sector.

When entering the legal profession, something I would always hear was how the legal industry was dominated by the ‘middle-aged, middle-class and middle minded’.

Growing up, I lived in a very economically deprived area and was raised by a single mother who was a full-time carer to my brother. We lived in social housing, sometimes with not enough money for food, however, despite the hardships we faced, I was always pushed to focus on my education while most of the people I grew up around sadly didn’t even go to school.

I don’t recall a particular moment when I decided that I would aim for a career in law, however when I began to study it at A-Level, I decided that it could be something that I would be interested in and potentially good at.

I therefore went on to study law at university and my thoughts eventually moved towards completing the LPC following my degree. At the time however, it was not possible to obtain student finance for post graduate studies and so my only options were to either pay the £10,000.00 myself or apply for a bank loan.

As such, in order to continue with my studies, I applied for a job at a city center law firm during the final year of my degree to help me fund the LPC, however I was still enrolled full time on my degree whilst also working full time which meant that I couldn’t go to any lectures in my final year. I was conscious that my grades would be affected but I needed money to continue with the LPC and so my only option was to stop going attending university and start going to work.

Thankfully, I managed to pass my degree with a 2:1 and I had saved enough to pay the first installment of my LPC, however I still faced difficulties. As I was still living at home with my mum and we were living in social housing, when I began to work full time, as the only earner in the household, I automatically became responsible for paying the full rent for the property, despite only earning minimum wage and being in full time education. As such, it became financially impossible for me to remain at home and I therefore had to move in with some friends and live in less than ideal conditions.

When I started in my first legal job, I felt quite comfortable as I initially worked in the admin department opening post and most other people in that department were from similar backgrounds to me. When I was promoted into a fee-earning role and moved to a team of solicitors/fee earners, however, I began to feel self-conscious as many of people I was working with had been privately educated or had come from more middle-class backgrounds.

I found that small things such as my accent and colloquial way of speaking made me stand out and my colleagues would often correct things that I would say, sometimes making me feel uncomfortable.

This discomfort grew as I began to interact with other people from the profession when I would attend conferences, networking events, court etc. As I moved higher up the career ladder, the amount of people from similar backgrounds to me began to lessen and I would feel more self-conscious as I was having to deal with people from more affluent backgrounds.

I would avoid going to court where possible because I felt that I had no place being there. My accent didn’t fit and I felt that everyone else in the room was significantly more educated than I was. Whenever I would attend hearings I would want to hide because I felt that everyone could see that I didn’t belong. From a professional point of view, I knew exactly what I was doing but I still felt inferior to everyone in the room and, even worse, I thought that they thought that too.

This went on for some time until I eventually had Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for a number of anxiety disorders. One of the things which came up during one session was self-esteem issues arising from an inability to accept social background. Essentially, I was advised that because I grew up in a lower socio-economic area, I had a perception of myself that I did not belong in the legal industry which is known for being dominated by the middle and upper classes.

Of course, this was all internalised, no one had ever intentionally tried to make me feel ‘less than’, rather I had simply convinced myself that it was true. I felt that I had no place in this industry and I was constantly waiting for everyone else to figure it out too. I would completely overlook the fact that I was qualified to do the job, it became completely about trying to hide my background and blend with everyone else.

Eventually, with time and experience, I realised that my background didn’t have an impact on my ability to carry out my job, my accent did not dictate the level of service I was able to offer my clients, and my upbringing did not mean that I didn’t deserve a place in this industry.

Unfortunately, despite this all being true, according to the Social Mobility Commission, just 13% of solicitors come from a working-class background, showing that there is a huge disparity between the working and middle/upper classes when it comes to this sector.

There are a number of reasons for this but from my personal experience, access to education is a huge barrier to people from disadvantaged backgrounds entering the profession. Even now, at a time where funding for the LPC can be obtained by way of student finance, many people will face difficulties remaining in full time education when faced with other financial difficulties or familial obligations.

The significant difference in the numbers of working-class v middle/upper class lawyers will also be a barrier to working class people feeling like they have a place in the profession. BPP recently surveyed a number of students on how they considered that the legal profession would perceive them and the results of the survey revealed that over eight in ten students believed that candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds would have a hard time fitting in [1].

At a higher level, in 2020, the Ministry of Justice reported on ‘Diversity of the Judiciary: Legal Professions, new appointments and current post holders’ which took an in depth look at diversity across the judiciary. As part of the study, statistics were examined on gender, ethnicity, age and professional background, all of which are important on diversifying the sector, however no such examination was carried out on socio-economic background [2].

Recent research also suggests that, just as there is an on-going gender pay gap, there is also a pay gap between working-class and middle-class professionals with working class professionals earning around £6,000.00-£7,000.00 less than their middle-class counterparts [3].

It therefore seems that whilst the legal industry is making strides in diversifying across many areas, socio-economic background is still an area which is sadly overlooked and there will continue to be an uphill battle for working-class people to break into the profession.

Thankfully, at CEL Solicitors a concentrated effort is being made to combat such issues and employees are continually encouraged to be their authentic selves, whatever that may look like for each individual. Monthly empowerment and self-esteem sessions are conducted by the owner of the firm, Jessica Hampson, which focuses on opening up an honest dialogue on such issues and building people up to see that they are valid and have a place in this industry.

The diversity committee is also constantly looking at ways to break down any barriers across the firm and the internal recruitment policy of the company ensures that equal opportunities are given to all employees, rather than people being overlooked in favor of external candidates which reduces the risk of any disparity in socio-economic backgrounds and ensures that the company remains far from being ‘middle-aged, middle-class and middle-minded.’

Whilst CEL Solicitors are champions of social mobility, given the current statistics, it seems that greater effort will be required from the Law Society to diversify the industry as a whole and steps will need to be taken from other individual employers to increase the amount of working-class representation across the sector and finally close the gap once and for all.

References

1. Why the legal profession is still overwhelmingly middle class and what can be done about it?
2. Diversity of the judiciary: Legal professions, new appointments and current post-holders
3. We must do more to encourage social mobility in the legal profession