Cost of Legal Education 'Is Barrier to Minorities'

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It may be easier for ethnic minorities to climb the ladder of the legal profession than it used to be, but the rising cost of higher education now poses a new stumbling block to progress.

That is the verdict of Birmingham lawyer Sandra Wallace who was recently appointed as DLA Piper's group head for employment, pensions and benefits across the UK.

Ms Wallace believes that while law firms have become far more diverse and inclusive, the high cost of education - both at university and law school - is enough to dissuade young people from ethnic minority backgrounds from pursuing a career in the profession. Having overcome many hurdles in her own career, Ms Wallace said there was an irony that society had moved on but new stumbling blocks were emerging all the time.

"It is easier in some ways but more difficult in others," she said. "It is easier in the sense law firms are more alive to the benefits of a diverse workforce and recruiting people from ethnic minorities and poorer backgrounds. But if the money is not there it can be quite daunting."

However, the Birmingham-born lawyer believes law firms are now more open to spotting people's potential, whatever their background, and offering practical assistance.

"They do realise it is difficult and they are reaching out more," she said. "Even from school age - telling people to go for it and in some cases offering support financially."

One of a family of six, Ms Wallace attended the former Lea Mason School in Birmingham where only a small number of students left with O-levels the year she finished.

Originally intent on a career as a hotel manager because she loved cooking, university seemed beyond her.

"Before me no-one in my family had gone to university," she said. "Eight of us lived in a council maisonette, though we later moved to a council house. My mum and dad were fantastic - we never went hungry - but there was nothing spare. Friends at school were talking about things they could buy and we had nothing like that. Generally it was quite hard."

Admitting to wanting a "life that was different" Ms Wallace enrolled at Sutton College but confessed to feeling "out of her depth" in a distinctly white and affluent area.

She felt more comfortable at the University of Wolverhampton where she studied law and where her potential was recognised.

Ending up with a 2:1 (with a first in her paper on employment law), she obtained articles at law firm Needham & James, which merged with the firm that is now DLA Piper in 1993, before starting her third year, much to the surprise of fellow students. …