We may all be at the table now - but some of us had to fight harder to get there.

By Holly McKenna

I don’t think anything has quite cemented the fact that I’m working class more for me than the first term I spent at the University of Glasgow. That’s not to say that people actively did anything exclusionary or unkind; but, like a lot of things, the divide and the closed doors are subtle and under the skin. Law as a degree and a career certainly doesn’t have a stellar reputation for being inclusive and welcoming, and while I do think a lot of the stick it gets is old-fashioned and a bit ignorant, some of it is justified.


You very often feel, as a distinctly (and in my case, very proudly) working class law student, that a lot of people around you just do not speak the same language as you. You learn quite quickly that many of your cohort won’t ever have to have a job until they get an internship with their dad’s friend, that they’ll never have to fight for a traineeship that will pay for their Diploma because the money for that is just there, that they won’t have to pay their own rent or bills, or top up an electricity key, or refuse to turn the heating on because they can’t afford it, or forgo going to ‘valuable networking’ events because they can’t afford the ticket. That barrier is one of social language, one many of us speak fluently but one that many law students don’t ever learn a word of. Mainly because they just don’t have to.


While these barriers do exist, there’s no doubting that, there has been a great deal of progress made and with the exception of some horror stories about traineeship interviews, we do have a lot more equal footing now. Nobody has ever been able to tell me that I can’t do something because of where I come from. The difference that I see lies in the level of work we need to put in. Not all of us have the luxury of not needing a job – for me that was 16 hours of my week that were given up, where others could spend those 16 hours studying. That is an inequality. The anxiety of financial uncertainty, the worry of not affording your next steps, the awkwardness of not knowing the customs of networking and university life, having huge groups of people around you who all went to the same school while you’re the only one from yours, being able to afford the ridiculously expensive books, your parents splashing out on the most up-to-date laptop for you – these are all inequalities.


Yet, despite being on the lower end of the scale for all of these points, I graduated with a first-class LLB (Hons). Privilege helps but it isn’t a substitute for hard work all of the time. Where I see more of a difference now is in what we do next.


We may all be at the table now – but some of us had to fight harder to get there.


Where that sentiment became most true and where I became the most frustrated was in trying to navigate where I wanted to go after my undergraduate was finished. In Scotland we have free tuition, of course, but that only extends so far. Once you get an undergraduate degree, it’s so much trickier. I had a first class Honours degree – above the prerequisite for the LLM by Research I sought to apply for. What I didn’t have was thousands of pounds at my disposal to spend on it. At the time I applied, SAAS/the SLC did not fund research degrees. I could not get my tuition paid OR a loan. This struck me at my core and made me incredibly angry. I had worked so hard, I had better-than-required grades, I had extracurriculars coming out of my ears, I had a polished research proposal – I had so much to contribute to the field and the passion to do exactly that. But I didn’t have the money.


What made it worse was that the funding opportunities for LLM (Res) were also limited. The majority of research funding is reserved for PhD level research, and I had to hedge my bets on one funding application to the Clark Foundation for Legal Education – a bursary which was entirely at the discretion of its trustees and without which I wouldn’t have been able to do the LLM. Thankfully, I was given funding from them, and just after I started my degree SAAS changed their criteria which allowed me to apply for a backdated maintenance loan (though only for 12 months of my 18 month degree). I was lucky enough to be able to move back to my parents’ house in preparation for not having a SAAS maintenance loan, but not everyone has that available to them. Without that and without SAAS, I would have had to work full-time to support myself whilst also completing a full-time research degree. It worries me that exceptionally talented, passionate researchers may have been barred from starting at all because of these (ultimately discriminatory) criteria. As I go further into my desired research and teaching career, I’ve no doubt that my fight will continue.

Seeing brilliant resources like Legable (which I wish I’d had available to me as an undergraduate) and concerted efforts to widen accessibility and make the profession more diverse makes me feel positive about the future of legal education and careers. It is the responsibility of those of us who had to fight that bit harder to make sure that those who come after us have an easier time getting to where they want to be. It’s our job to look at where the scales are tipping and see how best we can remedy that inequality. If the law is to represent everybody’s interests, it must have lawyers who are collectively representative of everybody. The legal profession only misses out on incredible talent, work ethic, and ideas by keeping these barriers, direct and indirect, in place.


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