Is the legal profession becoming more exclusive in these supposedly more egalitarian times? The possibility has been raised by the research published this week by the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, set up by the Prime Minister in January to examine what more can be done to ensure fair access to professional careers.
Initial findings suggest that among professionals in general, and the legal profession in particular, the average entrant born in 1970 came from a family with an income well above the national average, more so than for those born in 1958. Whether the trend is continuing for those born after 1990 is still to be established; however it would not be too surprising if it did, if parents' career is still an indicator of what their children will choose to follow, given the rapid growth in earnings especially in city firms in recent times.
The paper identifies various contributory factors. Some require support for people from all backgrounds, including relevant information about what professional careers involve, opportunities to gain crucial soft skills, ditto practical experience, and flexible entry and progression routes. Others may be more specific to those from average or lower income families, such as support in developing aspirations, financial barriers in the form of the impact of unpaid internships (from which employers increasingly recruit their new intakes), and support for those seeking to qualify while working for financial reasons.
It does acknowledge that greater efforts are being made by the professions to reach out to those at the stage of thinking about future careers, and that progress has been made on diversity issues. So what are the factors working against progress?
The paper states that the panel's focus is on social mobility, not on wider issues such as the higher education finance system. Can these really be separated out? With a lengthy qualification period compared to many occupations, is the need to support oneself over several years not likely to be a factor? It also poses the question whether increasingly good exam results will broaden the intake in future years - but surely needs to inform itself as to what people are choosing to do with these qualifications and why.
A further factor is that entry opportunities are set to be squeezed for the next few years due to the recession, as a backlog builds up of those qualifying and looking for posts. Will economic advantage play a yet further part then? I hope I am wrong, but I fear the outlook for a reversal of the social trend is not good at present.