Founders of the State-Educated Lawyers Association (SELA), Georgia Brown and Gabriel Neophytou tell us about how the association came about and what it aims to achieve.
What prompted you to launch this new association?
Starting the GDL was a steep learning curve for me (Georgia), not only due to the mass of new content, but also in learning about the legal profession, career options and everything else. It was only after graduating from my postgraduate degree that I decided to consider a legal career. I had never had law mentioned in any careers advice, or otherwise been told about what lawyers actually did. Words such as vacation schemes, mini-pupillages, or mooting were completely new to me, let alone had I undertaken them. Many of my peers already had some understanding of or network in the legal sector or student body, and as I didn’t know any other law students or lawyers, I could not help feeling somewhat overwhelmed and isolated in this new world I had entered. Speaking to Gabriel, he felt the same, and out of this, the idea for SELA was born.
Although we had both cold-contacted lawyers and had many friendly responses, we wanted to find a community of people with similar educational backgrounds to talk to, not least to know that succeeding in law as a state-educated, non-Oxbridge student was possible! We found that many of the fantastic social mobility initiatives were aimed at improving access to law for those currently in sixth-form or secondary school. We wanted to create a community of people from state schools at all stages of the process, to learn from each other, and discuss the challenges, but also highlight the strengths and skills that we have gained from the state-school system. Having been told by barristers that we had to catch-up having not been to private school, we decided that instead of trying to “make-up” the fact that we went to state schools, we wanted to celebrate it, and all the skills we’ve learned from those experiences which others may not have. We are both proud of our education and want to ensure those from non fee-paying schools feel supported and able to pursue careers in law.
What challenges do you think state-educated individuals can face on the path to becoming a lawyer?
Those who attended state schools are underrepresented in the legal profession. We believe this is a symptom of and perpetuates a number of overt and covert challenges faced by state-educated individuals.
Firstly, money. A legal education is inordinately expensive for most people, particularly if going down the GDL route. Those from non-fee paying schools are less likely to have the financial support to afford this. Students undertaking employment alongside their studies have less time to give to academics or extracurricular activities, which are near-essential for a training contract/pupillage. Working makes scheduling vacation schemes and mini-pupillages difficult, if not unfeasible, and annual leave quickly dissipates leaving none for actual rest. There is also the added mental stress of financial and/or time pressures.
Secondly, networks. Despite ~93% of the population being state-educated, they made up only 45% of trainees in 2017. At the Bar, at least 33.9% of barristers attended fee-paying schools (40.5% declined to answer), despite making up just 7% of the population. Those from fee-paying schools are likely to have more extensive alumni networks, who are an invaluable source for advice, exposure to the legal profession, or work experience, but also in providing role models to young adults choosing career or university degree options.
Third, many state schools do not have the same emphasis on advocacy skills, both informal and formal public speaking. This means more ground may need to be covered on the vocational components to develop these skills. Interviewers may not always spot the potential of candidates with less ‘polish’, thus honing these skills is an important factor in obtaining a training contract or pupillage.
Fourthly, the legal profession still favours those who attended the Universities of Oxford or Cambride. 75% of senior judges attended Oxbridge, and one look at any Chambers’ website will show the significant number of graduates from these two elite universities. Attending a fee-paying school increases one’s chances of going to these institutions, by corollary, those from state schools are underrepresented.
Despite these challenges, we strongly believe that state-educated students have the potential to succeed just as much as those who attended fee-paying schools. A key objective of SELA is to create a space for those who may feel overwhelmed by these statistics and emphasise the skills we have gained from our education that are equally valuable in the legal sector.
Is it mainly aimed at those on the bar route or solicitors too?
SELA is for anyone interested in law, whichever route. We have a network of speakers from both sides of the profession and aim to cater for all our members’ interests, including those who are not yet decided. We are developing future events which are both more tailored to each particular route and more general, such as on current awareness.
Obviously early days in the association, but what kind of support activities are you planning?
We have a number of events planned for the coming months, including our regular networking events, preparing for the further legal study session, mooting practice and more. Please check out our events page for more information! We are also working on a further series of events including talks with practitioners, interview practice and application guidance.
In addition to our events, we have a Resources page, where members have access to key resources and our ‘No such thing as a silly question’ forum. We are always eager to hear from our members about what they would like us to provide – our inbox is always open to offer advice, connect members to practitioners, mentoring schemes or provide anything we can to help!
Have you had any support from the practitioner network?
Yes, we have had lots of interest from practising barristers and solicitors, as well as those embarking on training contracts and pupillage. We have many practitioner members and are looking to formalise events for the coming months where practising lawyers can share their knowledge with our student members.
Take a look at their website and join up!