If I had a pound for every time someone joked with me “It’s not what you know, but who you know”, I’d have so much money I’d never need to work as a lawyer. Despite being an industry which is traditionally notorious for its class divide, law firms claim to be “changing”. The social mobility charters and Diversity & Inclusion commitments would have you convinced that such a mantra is entirely inaccurate. However, as a first-generation student at a Russell Group University from a low-income background, I wish I could be as confident in that statement as all law firms seem to be. You only need to look at the SQA results debacle to see how ingrained inequality is in our education system. And telling aspiring lawyers from disadvantaged backgrounds that they just need to “know the right people” in order to succeed is an everyday example of this.
I attended a large Roman Catholic secondary school in Glasgow that operated on a very strict budget, had increasing class sizes and, as we were frequently told, “other problems to deal with”. I owe a lot to my guidance teacher, a strict woman who didn’t like to talk that much but, fortunately for me, believed that I was capable. Capable of academic success at school, achieving a place at my dream University and forging a successful career in Law. She pushed me to pursue law, proofread my personal statement and helped me apply to various “widening access” programmes, such as Reach at the University of Glasgow and the Prime work experience programme. Less could be said for the other teachers who, under enormous stress to hit certain targets and keep lunchtime fights to a minimum, constantly asked me: “Do you not think you should set yourself a more realistic goal? After all, how many people like you ACTUALLY go on to become a lawyer?”
When I was offered unconditional places at University to study law, it felt like the ultimate achievement. I thought I would never have to convince someone that I was academically capable ever again. I’d spent years at school studying and working hard, all in the belief that when I went to University, life would magically change and fall into place. I soon realised achieving good exam results at school despite having large class sizes, underfunded departments and a lack of private tutoring was far from the last hurdle I would face as I entered a deceptively unequal higher education system.
In my first semester of university, I almost failed two classes. I was so distraught I couldn’t even speak about it. My disappointment was exacerbated by the fact that I knew exactly how it had happened and that it would be almost impossible to prevent a similar result in the summer exam diet – I was working too much at my part-time job. I worked over 30 hours a week just to be able to afford the same nights out as my course mates. I would finish work at midnight, go home and complete my tutorial preparation until 4am. The following morning as we waited outside the lecture hall, others spoke about winter holidays skiing in the Alps and summers on yachts while I pinned my eyes open and thought about how I was going to get to work on time that evening.
Socially, I was lost. I had no idea how to navigate University life. The doubts my teachers had for me at school were replaced with persistent feelings of inadequacy. I felt like I had to prove to everyone that I deserved to be there and had rightfully earned my place. I didn’t have any knowledge of the legal system whereas everyone in my tutorials seemed to have an anecdote of the time they learnt about x case or y piece of legislation from when their Dad was working for a client on the matter. I began to awkwardly laugh when I told people where I was from, pre-empting the most common questions - “Yes, it is the council estate in the south side”, “Yes, it is where that article in Glasgow Live was talking about with the gangs.” I once visited a classmate’s house for dinner where I was told by their parent that I only got into the same course as their privately educated daughter because I was “one of those disadvantaged kids” and used the Reach programme. That person has probably forgotten that moment, but I never have. I was embarrassed of my upbringing and how I had achieved a place at University. I began to think that I didn’t deserve to be at University, I was only there to fill a quota. Maybe the reason I didn’t fit in was because I didn’t belong there.
Discussing the struggles that I had faced and the various programmes, such as Reach, that I had benefited from was frowned upon. It told me that I either had to disown my roots to succeed and pretend I was like the majority of middle-class students or I would forever be marked as the working-class girl from the bad area who somehow got accepted to study law. It felt like a lose-lose situation. If those barriers and hurtful comments I faced because of my background became insurmountable then I would never achieve my dreams. And if I did make it, then I worried I would never be accepted because I wasn’t the stereotypical law student.
Now that I have graduated with a degree in Scots Law with French Legal Studies, began studying the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice and have gained a Training Contract with my dream firm, I want to go back to that girl in first year who let people tell her she was only there to fill a quota and shake her. With every year of my degree, I met people who shared their experiences and made me feel worthy and accepted. I stopped letting where I was from define how people saw me and refused to feel embarrassed. I take pride in my achievements and am comfortable in the fact that I am not the traditional law student.
The fact that I have made it to this point is not the social mobility success story the statistics would show - because it betrays every single obstacle I faced. We need more people to talk about the complex contours of social mobility in the legal sector, so that the next generation of future lawyers won’t waste the time that I did doubting themselves. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds should not have to fight every day of their degree to feel worthy.
A signifier of successful social mobility in the legal sector would be the next generation of future lawyers completing the degree on an even playing field. Students shouldn’t have to spend study leave at their part time job instead of the library, nor should they feel undeserving of their university offers. I wish I could snap my fingers to ensure that no student will have to work additional hours to earn the same as some students’ pocket money. However, some things are easier to change than others. For example, our attitudes. If a conscious effort was made to consider social mobility in the way we speak to each other and interact, as opposed to a tick box exercise during application processes, a more significant change would be felt. As a young future trainee of the next generation of lawyers, I feel a duty to carry forward the confidence I have slowly built regarding my
background and make kids like me feel pride and hope instead of embarrassment.
I used to nod in panic when people told me that I “just needed to network more” or as they shook their heads and sighed while saying: “if only you knew more people in the industry you would be able to get experience.” Or was I absolutely sure there was nobody my parents knew who could at least get me an interview as a favour? During these conversations, I’d feel trapped in a dead dream, pursuing a career I’d never realistically get a shot at. But the next time someone smirks and says “It’s not what you know…” I’ll probably scream before they even get to finish the sentence.