White law students “twice as likely to be sponsored” by employers

Students: More support for White candidates

White students are almost twice as likely to be sponsored by a law firm through law school than Asian and Black students, major new research for the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has found.

Researchers also said ethnic minority students experienced “racialised interactions” in the classroom, such as tutors mixing up their names or not even bothering to use them.

It formed part of findings that no single reason explained why candidates from certain ethnic groups performed better than others, yet multiple social, economic and educational factors combined to explain the differences.

The SRA has responded by committing itself to bringing together legal education providers, law firms and the wider sector to address the issues raised by the report and develop an action plan.

The SRA commissioned an interdisciplinary team at Exeter University in 2022 to find out the causes of the attainment gap between ethnic minority students compared to White students in professional exams, a situation that has continued from the legal practice course (LPC) into the Solicitors Qualifying Examination.

The first part of the project, which involved academics from the university’s law, business and psychology departments, was a systematic literature review released last summer.

It found, among other things, that marginalised candidates who felt they could not advance their careers post-qualification might not “give their best” in professional exams.

For the final report, researchers surveyed over 1,200 law students – 700 on university law degrees last year and 510 on the LPC – and conducted 59 in-depth interviews with students, newly qualified solicitors, law lecturers and senior managers in law firms.

Researchers found that while 24% of Asian and 26% of Black LPC students’ employers paid for their course, the figure for White students was 45%.

When it came to future jobs, 43% of Asian and 45% of Black students had a legal role secured for when they completed their LPC, compared with exactly two-thirds of White students.

Researchers said: “Recruitment processes that rely on A-level results, without looking at the context in which students received those grades (such as the school attended and their personal circumstances), were more likely to lead to White students being recruited.”

This tended to “perpetuate the status quo of diversity and representation in the profession and in education outcomes”.

Black candidates were the most likely to have family or friends financially supporting their LPC, while Asian candidates were the most likely to self-fund.

Financial constraints were “identified in both the surveys and interviews as an ongoing concern for candidates”, especially given the high costs of training.

“Having to take up non-legal but paid employment takes time away from studying. Moreover, worries about money while not having a funded LPC can influence self-esteem, outcome expectations, and remaining persistence, in turn potentially impacting outcomes.”

Some ethnic minority students felt “discouraged by their tutors, and noted classroom interactions from their LPC, where tutors would mix up minority ethnic students’ names, or even not bother to use their (non-Anglo Saxon) name in class”.

These experiences were “not limited to student-staff interactions”, as law lecturers also talked about “negative and racialised student interactions they have observed in class”.

The situation was made worse by the lack of ethnic minority representation among staff “at all levels of legal education, despite a diverse student cohort”. Some law lecturers said this was “particularly prominent in professional preparatory courses, where the teaching staff mainly hail from practice, and tend to be white and middle-class”.

Law students reacted to this by tending to “segregate themselves along racial lines”, which could “lead to environments that alienate them”. Some lecturers said students could be “separately taught on the basis of having training contracts or not”.

The lack of tailored support for students was another factor, “as an outcome of the huge expansion of student numbers in law degrees”, because it could act as “an obstacle to addressing any disparities that exist because of the background context”.

That background included the fact all ethnic minority LPC students had lower levels of academic motivation in early education compared to White students.

The research concluded that, overall, whilst issues such as socio-economic background influence later outcomes, different experiences in school and university (differential outcomes appeared early on in education) also impacted students’ ability to find legal work placements.

There are initiatives to address the issues, such as outreach and work experience programmes, but are generally on a small scale; more collaboration and widespread action was needed to effect significant change, the report said.

Researchers recommended, among other things, that legal education providers “increase understanding of the need and ways to support minority ethnic students”, ensure “greater diversity among teaching staff, senior leadership and decision-makers” and provide “more resources for practical help to increase academic skills, such as assessment preparation”.

Recommendations for law firms included creating “safe spaces and inclusive cultures for all staff and trainees” and using contextual recruitment.

The SRA should play “a leading role as a change agent in progressing diversity across the profession”, while increasing its ethnic diversity at leadership levels.

Paul Philip, chief executive of the SRA, commented: “A student’s ethnicity should not impact their opportunity to study law or secure a career in the legal profession, yet the evidence shows that it does.

“This is a wakeup call for the legal and education sectors to address a serious imbalance in outcomes for minority ethnic students.

“Taking the knowledge and insight from this research, we will bring together law firms, education providers and representative groups to discuss how we can all take action to address these differential outcomes. Collectively, we need to bring about widespread change.”

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