One in two partners at magic circle firms are privately educated, compared with just 7% of the general public, according to an independent survey which suggests social mobility in the legal profession has barely changed in over 30 years. The study suggests three-quarters of senior judges and top QCs were independently schooled.
The research from the Sutton Trust and Prime, a diversity access scheme set up by law firms, shows the situation has not improved much since the 1980s despite initiatives to try to boost social mobility in the sector.
Of the legal sector as a whole, solicitors are most likely to have received a state education, with less than a third of partners attending a private school. In London this proportion increases to 41%.
While 52% of senior figures in the legal sector polled by YouGov said improving social mobility was beneficial to their firm, just over a third rated the diversity of a candidate's background as an important factor when recruiting.
David Morley (pictured), chair of Prime and senior partner at magic circle firm Allen & Overy, said: ’The research shows that a large part of the responsibility for solving this issue lies with law firms, so we need to ensure they attack the problem with the energy and enthusiasm it deserves.’
Meanwhile, a second study further highlighted the lack of diversity at the top of the bar. The research from the London School of Economics found that male Oxford-educated barristers from London-based chambers are still more likely to take silk despite reforms to the appointment system in 2004.
Michael Blackwell, assistant professor of law at the LSE, who conducted the study, said the findings should be a catalyst for a debate about abolishing QC status.
The analysis of 11,452 barristers in 138 chambers between 1981 and 2011 shows that the disparity between Oxbridge and non-Oxbridge graduates has become more pronounced since the reform.
Before the reform a male junior barrister had a 7.8% chance of taking silk in their 21st year of call if they had been to Oxbridge, compared with 6.9% for a non-Oxbridge graduate. The respective figures are now 7.2% and 4.7%.
Meanwhile an Oxbridge-educated male barrister has a 98% chance of taking silk if they are in an elite set but only a 14% chance if they are without a tradition of producing QCs.
There were also signs that little has been done to boost gender diversity at silk level. Before the reforms a male Oxbridge graduate had a 57% chance of becoming a QC compared with a 44% chance if they were female. Their chances post-reform are now 52% and 40% respectively.
Blackwell said the research shows the QC system does not operate as a perfect kite-mark of quality for consumers and could inhibit judicial diversity by restricting the pool from which the senior bench is traditionally recruited.
He said: ‘Serious policy debate about abolishing QC status has evaporated following the 2004 reforms. But the research in this article and additional arguments show there to be serious issues as to whether the existence of QC status is in the public interest. It is hoped that this research will inform any such future debate.’