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Barriers remain for ‘non-traditional’ students attempting to join the Bar

Universities struggle against stereotypically perceived constraints on barrister profession

25 April 2016

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Students from 'non-traditional' backgrounds continue to face serious challenges trying to join the Bar, new research has found.

The first detailed study into the role of the Inns of Court in increasing social mobility found that those not traditionally represented at the Bar - students from lower social economic backgrounds, the first in their families to go to university, and those with disabilities - suffered from a lack of understanding of the profession, along with financial constraints that made it difficult for aspiring barristers to complete work experience.

Funded by Keele University and the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple, the study also highlights the difficulties some universities experience in negotiating the line between providing balanced, realistic, and accurate careers advice and reinforcing perceived stereotypes about the Bar.

The report recommends the Bar communicates to universities that recruitment is based on merit rather than educational establishment or background, while also exploring ways to address how such issues shape access to the profession.

The report also calls on the Bar to do more to help non-traditional students, for example, by offering expenses to students on mini-pupillages and educating those responsible for administering such schemes with a better understanding of social mobility.

The study draws on the experience of students who participated in the Inner Temple's Pegasus Access and Support Scheme (PASS), a programme designed to support students from underrepresented backgrounds entering into the profession.

PASS was found to work well in increasing mutual exposure between non-traditional aspiring entrants and chambers.

The financial support provided by the Inn and chambers in covering travel and expenses was said to be a key benefit of the scheme. Some PASS students had been forced to cut short their other mini-pupillages due to costs.

The author of the report, Dr Elaine Freer, said there needed to be more mutual understanding between students, universities, and the Bar to ensure gifted students did not slip through the net.

Professor Andrew Francis, who supervised the research, added: 'Traditional thoughts on work experience might prevent those sitting on interview panels from recognising the depth and breadth of experience that underrepresented students might have gained through other means.

'Our understanding of what merit is and how it is applied is often ill-defined. Interview and selection panels must be clear on what they are looking for. Otherwise the experiences of underrepresented groups can often be overlooked.'

Meanwhile, Patrick Maddams, chief executive of the Inner Temple, commented: 'Since 2009, the Inner Temple has worked hard to create a more diverse profession and this report shows that our programmes are transformational for individual students.

'The report is also challenging reading about what more can be done and we will not shy away from these challenges.'

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