Roddy Dunlop: Legal scholarships fund is a devilishly good idea

Roddy Dunlop, QC, is Treasurer of the Faculty of Advocates
Roddy Dunlop, QC, is Treasurer of the Faculty of Advocates
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The public image of lawyers is all too often a distorted one: fat cats, divorced from the realities of life, and absorbed with self-interest. As a consequence, certain aspects of legal life – and life at the Bar is perhaps the clearest example – are often thought of as the preserve of the few, outwith the reach of the many.

It is hoped that a new initiative by the Faculty of Advocates will go some small way towards addressing these misconceptions. We have recently introduced a voluntary levy on earnings, with the proceeds going towards a new scholarship fund in the name of Lord Hope of Craighead.

The idea is along the same lines – though admittedly on a much smaller scale - as Juan Mata’s initiative to give something back. Manchester United’s Spanish midfielder leads a drive, Common Goal, to donate a percentage of footballers’ earnings to good causes.

In a similar fashion, those of us earning a living as an advocate – we have around 440 practising counsel in Scotland and the vast majority are taking part – make a monthly donation to a fund to be used to ease the financial difficulties which can be experienced when people are looking to enter the law or, having done so, have set their sights on a career at the Bar.

So, why do we think it is important that we should give people a helping hand? After all, these people, once admitted as members of Faculty, will be fighting it out with the rest of us, as self-employed, to attract work. In effect, we are helping the opposition. But we do not see it as an own goal. Rather, it is widely appreciated amongst members of Faculty that improving accessibility to the Bar, and avoiding perceptions that it is the preserve of white, middle-class males (and I acknowledge the irony of that being written by a white, middle-class male), is both in the public interest and, frankly, essential in ensuring the continuing relevance of the Bar to modern Scotland.

Early indications suggest that the initiative is working. In recent years, the number of “Devils” – those undertaking training to become an advocate – for each annual intake has been in single figures. For the intake expected in October 2019, we have already received 19 applications for scholarships. This is hugely gratifying: to see ongoing interest in joining the Bar, notwithstanding the various scare stories that surround the court reforms and the transitioning of business to the sheriff court, is extremely positive from the point of view of Faculty. We aim not only to be available to every litigant in Scotland who wishes excellence in advocacy and advice, but also to be accessible by every person in Scotland – regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or societal background – who has the ability to contribute such excellence to the people of Scotland. It is hoped that by making available the new scholarship moneys, the hardship which may otherwise be experienced in the unpaid “devilling” period can be alleviated to a sufficient extent that it no longer dissuades suitable applicants from pursuing their goals.

The initiative is not exclusively aimed at attracting people to the Bar. One of the first uses of the new money is to sponsor a place on the Lawscot Foundation, a charity set up by the Law Society of Scotland aimed at helping people from disadvantaged backgrounds into the legal profession. Faculty is delighted to sponsor such a place: whilst ideally we would hope to attract people to the Bar, assisting people into the wider profession is the primary aim.

We at Faculty see these initiatives as an essential part of maintaining the importance of the Bar in modern Scotland. For hundreds of years, the Faculty has stood as a bastion of independence – recognised in our motto, suum cuique (to each his/her own) – and yet one quintessentially collegiate in its nature and where the most senior members look out for, and are happy to subsidise, the most junior. The new scholarship scheme, in respect of which we are hugely fortunate to enjoy the backing of Lord Hope of Craighead, is part and parcel of that ethos.

The new scheme will be the subject of a formal launch shortly, in conjunction with the Scottish Ethnic Minorities Lawyers’ Association. It is hoped it will find approval from the legal profession throughout Scotland.

Roddy Dunlop, QC, is treasurer of the Faculty of Advocates