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The social mobility advocate: Christina Millan

“We need to be inspiring people to consider a career in law from the age of 13,” says Christina Millan, Liverpool solicitor and founder of social mobility project, the Legal Step-Up Programme. Christina’s goal is to encourage more young people from local schools and youth organisations in Merseyside to consider law and equip them with the skills to do so, using a grassroots model of workshops, work experience and careers talks to boost their confidence, knowledge and experience.

Christina first had the idea for Step-Up while doing outreach work with Manchester University’s Black Lawyers Matter project, a social mobility initiative targeting black males. As she explains, the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) membership of the solicitors’ roll may look fairly high (according to a Solicitors Regulation Authority survey in 2017, about one in five solicitors working in law firms were BAME) but closer inspection reveals extremely low numbers of black male lawyers, perhaps less than one per cent. A whole section of the population is not going to law school.

Manchester University wanted to recruit more black males from the local area to its law degree. It ran a series of workshops on, for example, confidence boosting, communication skills and entry routes to law, aimed at black males aged 14-16 years. Christina was asked to help, and ran workshops in schools, but realised careers intervention needs to happen much earlier if it is to be effective.

“If you’re not intervening until the age of 16 or 17 then it’s often too late,” she explains. “People have made their A-Level choices, and may have chosen subjects that won’t help them do law. You need to reach them earlier, boost their confidence, give them information and sculpt their pathway to make sure they have all they need. Extracurricular activities and work experience also make a big difference.”

She decided to do something about this obvious gap in representation, and contacted a variety of organisations to gauge interest, including The University of Law apprenticeship hub, Liverpool Law Society, business groups, managing partners of law firms and representatives from schools in the area.

The result is the Legal Step-Up Programme, which held its first steering group meeting in November. In January to March, it will run its first schools programme workshops and has already recruited more than 30 volunteers to talk about their journeys into law. The key age will be Years 8 and 9, the sessions will include interactive exercises and it will be left to the school to organise attendance.

There will be three arms of delivery. First, the schools programme. Second, work experience: this is likely to be organised on an informal basis, and at least six law firms have already committed to taking part. Third, a Law Day, where pupils move between several law firms in a close geographical area, taking part in talks and exercises at each. For example, they could take part in a session on corporate law at O’Connors, where Christina is an associate, then move to other firms for sessions on family law or other practice areas.

“Liverpool is diverse but law firms are generally not representing that diversity,” says Christina. “Firms want to boost diversity and inclusion, however, and have been enthusiastic about this initiative. All the firms we reached out to have been helpful.”

The impetus for Christina’s social mobility work is her own experience. She studied law qualified in 2015 and worked at multinational firm DWF’s Liverpool office before joining London and Liverpool firm O’Connors’ corporate team in 2017. She won the Rising Star Award at the 2019 Liverpool Law Society Legal Awards for both her legal work and her work to raise awareness of law as a career among young BAME people. However, she says she experienced “culture shock” at university, found most of her peers were already “ahead of the curve” in terms of career development and initially struggled to find a traineeship. For example, she didn’t know she should organise work experience.

“It can be really hard – you don’t know what you don’t know, and what you’re chasing can seem elusive,” she says. “Law firms can be intimidating places. People may think they won’t fit in, or may feel daunted by the fact they don’t see themselves reflected in the make-up of the firm. They may lack confidence or not recognise they have valuable skills. I always tell schoolkids that some of my best skills come from working in bar and retail jobs.”

“I grew up on the Wirral, where there is a high concentration of grammar schools – eight or nine whereas most areas that size would have only one or two. I’m the first generation of my family to go to university and it’s because I went to a good grammar school. Lawyers tend not to have a background like mine, quite the opposite in fact, they’re often privately educated, and that means whole sections of the population are missing out. Why should someone who is academic and capable of getting straight As not go into law simply because they weren’t lucky enough to go to a good school?”

 

This article was first published in our Verdict magazine - Pioneers and Innovators Special, read the rest of it online now.