Every able student deserves a fair chance to succeed – Heather McKendrick

The school you attended should not act as a barrier to a career in law, writes Heather McKendrick

Heather McKendrick is Head of Careers and Outreach, Law Society of Scotland
Heather McKendrick is Head of Careers and Outreach, Law Society of Scotland

My role at the Law Society for the last few years has been focused on fairness – fair access to the profession and fair progression through the profession.

It is an issue that has been raised once more by Scottish exams being moderated and downgraded in a way that has disproportionately affected pupils attending lower-performing schools. The pass rate of pupils in the most deprived data zones was reduced by 15.2 per cent compared to 6.9 per cent for those from the most affluent backgrounds.

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The SQA has now thankfully reversed its decision, but it underlines an important point that has an impact across society; does and should the school you attend and the area in which you are brought up determine your future path? We don’t believe it should.

This is a bigger issue than one professional body can tackle on its own, but we have made great inroads.

Through our Street Law programme, law students – not much older than the pupils - teach legal lessons in predominantly low-progression schools to provide legal knowledge, make it relevant and help to raise aspirations. We have worked with over 50 schools across Scotland and met incredible pupils who have learned about law and developed new skills and interests.

We established the Lawscot Foundation to support talented young people from less advantaged backgrounds to study law at university via a bursary and mentoring programme covering each year of their studies.

Even with this support, finance remains a huge barrier. The phrase ‘financial barriers’ can be woefully inadequate as these extraordinary young people have faced serious challenges in their lives, including homelessness, time in care, family estrangement, bereavements, abuse, physical and mental illness in the family and extreme poverty.

The effort, determination and resilience these teenagers display is humbling. That they have managed to secure a place studying law is a boon to the future of the profession and we will feel lucky to welcome these individuals.

While proud of what we have achieved so far, there is more to do. Even those students who have successfully made it on to the LLB and Diploma can find they face another battle in securing a traineeship. Reasons might include fewer connections than their more advantaged peers, lack of interview and psychometric testing experience, less legal work experience (likely because they focused on part-time work) and that old chestnut – school results.

We are not saying ignore school grades – they can be an important part of a recruitment process, but only if they are used in context.

So what can employers do?

Law firms are starting to understand the limitations of school results, with many starting to use contextualised recruitment systems to help reveal the invisible ink sitting under each set of results.

The systems use data to calculate each applicant’s grades, comparing it to their peers at the same school and year to give them a score. For example, a student securing an A and 4 Bs at Higher at a very low progression school may have outperformed their peers by 80 per cent.

The system also makes sense of other elements of the application form. For example, by flagging if an applicant is working many hours a week to support themselves and their family – and helping to explain a possible lack of internships or extracurricular activity. Simply put, it helps to put a person’s achievements into context so the most intellectually able, talented and determined stand out and are not missed as they might be in a normal process.

It mirrors the universities’ admissions processes and I am delighted that some law firms have started using this – and are seeing great results.

We have worked with Dickson Minto, Morton Fraser and Gillespie MacAndrew over the last year to set up our own system. It is accessible to all law firms, regardless of size, as we believe it makes a real difference to the fairness of the process and the quality of future solicitors.

A level playing-field does not happen naturally - we all have a role to play in helping to achieve it. Contact us at [email protected] if you’re interested in finding out more or getting involved.

Heather McKendrick is Head of Careers and Outreach, Law Society of Scotland

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