In an interview last year Lady Hale was asked what could be done to improve judicial diversity, and how to encourage more women on to the bench. She replied that “the most obvious barrier to the progression of women in the judiciary is that high judicial office has been reserved to those with successful careers as barristers.  The Bar is the least family friendly profession in the world . . . the proportion of senior women at the Bar is still relatively low.” She suggested that removing barriers to women within the profession and also encouraging more solicitors to sit on the bench could achieve more diversity. The inevitable question is how this is to be achieved.

Trends in legal education suggest that the Bar, and whole legal profession, may be approaching a position where it is set to become less rather than more diverse, dampening hopes of achieving a more varied judiciary in the future. The current state of legal education and what can be done to remedy it was the subject of The Future of Legal Education conference held at Inner Temple on the 18th. Speakers included Baroness Deech, Nicholas Green QC and Lord Falconer.

The speakers all identified a number of inherent problems with the existing system and particularly the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC). The first is massive oversupply. In 2009-10 there were around 1500 BPTC students and 460 available pupillages. Only around one in eight students will get pupillage. At best this statistic suggests that competition is extremely high, at worst that there are students on the BPTC who stand no real chance of pupillage and have wasted £16,000. Those who do not get pupillage are frequently comforted with the maxim that the course equips them with ‘transferable skills’. Never mind that the entire course is geared towards a career at the Bar, or that recent changes mean that barristers now cannot transfer to be a solicitor without taking the LPC, making the skills that they have learned un-transferable to the closest legal profession. The second is the exorbitant fees. Once fees at undergraduate level are introduced the cost of qualifying will stand at around £40,000 if you study law as a first degree.

With such fierce competition and high fees it is inevitable that success requires readily available funds and time to do the numerous unpaid internships and work placements that are now de rigueur for any pupillage application. Nicholas Green warned that there is a real risk that “the increased investment required to obtain a law qualification is likely to hamper the profession’s best efforts to increase diversity since it stands to reason that the middle classes are better able to withstand such fees than others . . . our gene pool will narrow.” Baroness Deech was even more forthright, given current trends it may seem a far more tempting option for women to “do a Kate Middleton and snag a wealthy man at uni.”

How then to remedy the problem? Nicholas Green suggested amalgamating training for barristers and solicitors, making switching between them easier. Others such as James Wakefield, head of the BPTC at Kaplan Law School, remain committed to separate training for the two. There were also proposals for the course to be shorter. All speakers were in favour of an aptitude test for the training course, and attempting to make the law schools more transparent as to the costs of the course and the success rates of those taking it.

The latter may be particularly difficult. The law schools do give information to potential students as to the obstacles facing them in entering the legal profession. But, speaking from personal experience, much of this information is only emphasised once you have paid your deposit. Overall the course prospectuses pedal an “unwavering message of optimism”. It can be argued that caveat emptor should apply to those undertaking the bar course, but law schools do owe a responsibility to those parting with such a large amount of money to give a more realistic assessment of students’ chances than is currently the case. A member of staff from one law school blithely stated that, “The law is an attractive profession. And a success rate of one in 10 is a hell of a lot better than you get with the lottery.” However, as a scientifically minded student pointed out, your chances of winning a prize in the lottery are actually one in 54 and as you can buy 16,000 lottery tickets for the price of the BPTC, the lottery odds begin to look like a sure bet in comparison.

Whilst there is a clearly a consensus that the current position needs to change, it is likely that the pace of change will be slow. This is in part because the current oversupply actually benefits both chambers and training providers. Chambers benefit from a massive selection of highly intelligent candidates to choose from, and training providers annually gather considerable revenue from training courses. Those who would benefit from the change are students themselves (who are largely powerless to effect reform whilst juggling studies, applications, work experience and often part time jobs) and society as a whole, who would benefit from a more representative bar and judiciary. Unfortunately social benefit can seem a rather abstract concept when pitted against fee revenues and professional inertia. But if there is to be any hope of the more diverse judiciary envisioned by Lady Hale then reform urgently needs to start at the very bottom of the professional chain.