Finance is one of the first hurdles for many when breaking into the legal profession. Overcoming this is no simple task, but the first step is knowing what support is available.
“There’s definitely a strong correlation between stress and financial struggles as a student,” notes Emma Shardlow, who worked part-time throughout her undergraduate degree.
Shardlow is a future trainee solicitor at Clifford Chance and currently works pro-bono as compliance director at The 93% Club, a not-for-profit organisation which aims to improve equal access to the legal career. She explains that many students “don’t have a choice” about working part-time to support themselves financially. Similar expectations can be found on the Bar Council website which warns students of this reality, stating: “you may also need to consider part-time work and paralegal work”.
And this is putting students in a tough position; the Office of National Statistics found that over three quarters of students were concerned that the rising cost of living may affect how well they do in their studies.
This problem is especially acute in light of the “huge financial barrier” to entering the legal sector, argues Sophie Pender, the founder and CEO of The 93% Club. In order to be eligible for student finance, the SQE, LPC or Bar course needs to be integrated into a masters, increasing the cost of the course and the workload for individuals. Furthermore, law firm maintenance loans do not always reflect the amount of financial support people need, which can cause the additional stress of having to find the money elsewhere.
Many also prefer studying in London in light of the fact that many Magic Circle, Silver Circle, and US law firms are more readily accessible and it is easier to build a network . However, the fact that London legal courses are the most expensive in the UK can hinder social mobility. This insufficiently diverse environment risks damaging students’ mental health, with imposter syndrome being a commonly cited issue among students.
Therefore, the most common piece of advice for aspiring commercial solicitors seems to be: “secure a training contract”. But even with a training contract, the high costs of living and studying in London, which is normally required for the LPC or SQE, are accepted as part and parcel of the process. Even if you secure a training contract, different firms offer different levels of financial support. LPC grants range from £5,000 to £20,000 in London, which may not even cover all your living costs. In addition, this financial support is often granted on demanding conditions which might include passing all exams first time or meeting a certain mark.
Given this range, the financial support firms offer is clearly a significant factor for applicants with Shardlow acknowledging that it had been an important part of choosing which law firms she wanted to apply for. Otherwise, the reality is a stark one, where students are left feeling like they compromise their academic study. What’s more, the PGDL and SQE are fast-paced and intensive courses and, according to Shardlow, “tend to be too academically intense to work part-time alongside your studies.”
This can leave aspiring lawyers in a difficult and stressful position. In short, even those with help from firms are at risk of suffering additional stress and fear surrounding exams from a system that is not well structured to prioritise students’ mental health and promote social mobility.
Some, however, are trying to disrupt this structure. The University of Law boasts a scholarship fund of more than £2 million to help students realise their legal ambitions. Many of these are targeted at supporting those from underrepresented groups and from low socio-economic backgrounds with the aim of tackling this “financial barrier” to the profession. The same can be said of the Inns of Court which offer scholarships for aspiring barristers whilst there’s the Law Society Diversity Access Scheme for wannabe solicitors.
Daniella Davenport, who is due to commence her pupillage at Garden Court later this year, is one of those for whom a scholarship has had an important impact. Prior to obtaining her Princess Royal scholarship from Inner Temple, one of the four Inns of Court, she explained that she would be kept up at night worrying about money, with her mother offering to re-mortgage her house to pay for the course.
Davenport says that the Inns are now doing more than ever before regarding financial support. Even if you are unable to obtain a scholarship and are self-funding, Inns have hardship funds, where if you are facing financial difficulty, they can offer financial support. Further to this, for many of the more prestigious scholarships, it is both merit and means based, therefore individuals’ financial situations are reflected in the amount of scholarship money they are given. Also, some Inns’ scholarships include subsidised accommodation in London which can help people, especially given increased inflation and living costs.
When asked about advice she would give aspiring barristers, Davenport underlines the importance of applying for scholarships, but stresses how competitive it is to get one. She recommends gaining a mentor through a mentoring programme, talking to a careers advisor, or reaching out to people who were previously in the same position. “People are so willing to give their time,” she explains, lauding members of the profession who take the time to help aspiring barristers succeed.
All in all, there are lots of opportunities to gain financial support for aspiring lawyers, ranging from scholarships to training contracts to hardship funds. However, many barriers remain and there is still more to be done.