Education: They Are a Law Unto Themselves ; City Law Firms Seem Intent on Recruiting Students from Privileged Backgrounds. Can Universities Help to Redress the Balance?

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One by one, New Labour is attacking the bastions of conservatism. Having meted out treatment to medical schools in the case of Laura Spence, Gordon Brown may be looking for a new target. Which nest of elitism will he uncover next? The answer could be the entrenched business of law, in which gilded youths slide effortlessly from Manchester Grammar school to Oxbridge to the "magic circle" of big City law firms.

Legal education differs from medical training in that university places are not tightly rationed. But there are similarities - you need glittering A-levels to win a place at a good university, and you need a good degree at that good university to land a coveted training place at one of the 10 biggest firms of City solicitors. "They have a very strong preference for those who come from Oxbridge and the redbricks," says John Hodgson, principal lecturer in law at Nottingham Trent University, whose research on the subject is to be published later this year.

His study, conducted with Vera Bermingham, senior lecturer at Kingston University, shows that the big law firms are biased against students who have done their degrees at new universities. The result is that the "magic circle" firms are recruiting a certain sort of person, someone who shone academically from a young age and had the savvy or parental support to apply to an old university. The firms are mostly ignoring students from the new universities, who are overwhelmingly from low socio-economic groups and from ethnic minorities, and many of whom are older than 21.

Another piece of research - this time from the College of Law - has given reformers more ammunition. Black and Asian law students have a 30 per cent lower chance of becoming solicitors than their white counterparts, according to the college. They also spend far longer unemployed or working as clerks in law firms while searching for articles or training contracts.

"There is a problem," says Nigel Savage, chief executive of the College of Law. "Ethnic-minority kids have more difficulty getting through a legal practice course, which you take after your law degree. A lot of them are educationally disadvantaged and have gone to less fashionable universities. I am sure there is discrimination, but there are a number of other factors conspiring to impede the progress of these students. The effect is that we're creating a legal profession that is white, rich and upper-middle class."

The Law Society's long-term study, which has been tracking 4,000 law students, confirms these trends. It suggests that students with upper seconds from "good" universities will be chosen over students with firsts in law from new universities. And it shows that 65 per cent of trainees graduating in law from Oxbridge get jobs in the "magic circle" of high- paying City law firms, as against only 6 per cent from new universities.

Telephone calls to some of these firms revealed a reluctance to talk about equal opportunities. Herbert Smith, Lovell White Durrant, Freshfields, Slaughter and May and Clifford Chance failed to return calls.

Eversheds, which has 110 vacancies annually for 3,000 applicants, said it hired people with As and Bs at A-level and the potential for an upper second degree. "We look at the candidates rather than where they did their degrees," says Andrew Looney, a graduate recruitment officer. …