Diversity Access Scheme: Helping hopefuls get in-house

The Law Society's Diversity Access Scheme is a long-running initiative that helps budding solicitors from less advantaged backgrounds access a career in law. Diana Bentley speaks to two former awardees, who are embarking on careers in-house
In this rear view, focus is on a Muslim businesswoman as she sits at a conference table with coworkers.
Photograph: SDI Productions
Law Society president, I. Stephanie Boyce knows something about the struggle that entering the legal profession can entail. Returning to the UK as a teenager after several years in the US, she wanted to be a lawyer but had no contacts in the profession to ease her way.

“As president, I’m focusing on social mobility and enabling people from disadvantaged and diverse backgrounds to enter the profession and I speak from a personal perspective. I know what it’s like to feel you may not be able to fulfil your dreams,” she says.

Appointed president in March 2020, and the first person of colour to hold that position, Boyce is taking a keen interest in the Law Society’s Diversity Access Scheme (DAS). Launched in 2004 to support aspiring solicitors from disadvantaged backgrounds who can’t afford to qualify, the DAS started by funding 10 places for the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and providing mentors and work experience for awardees.

To date, the DAS has helped over 250 aspiring solicitors qualify and this year, with more funding, 15 awards were offered. From 1 September 2021, the first funded place for the Solicitor Qualifying Exam (SQE) was included. “We know that this scheme has transformed people’s lives, not only through funding, but through the individual support it provides,” Boyce says.

90% of awardees come from state schools, though the 10% who attended private schools often did so on bursaries. 86% come from low-income households.

Boyce says she is often struck by how many individual routes are taken to enter the profession. Fahmida Chowdhury, 28, didn’t speak English until she went to school. “I had an executive role in the family early as I translated documents for my parents who’d come from Bangladesh,” she says.

Studying economics at school she realised that she was drawn to analytical thinking and moving on to study law at Bristol University was a natural progression. “I found the lack of diversity on the campus challenging, but I loved studying law – the debates, the cases, learning how the law developed,” Fahmida recalls.

But after graduating in 2016 with no contacts in the legal profession, she was at sea. Even as a paralegal at Herbert Smith Freehills, she found herself stuck as there was no available pathway to getting a training contract.

In her next paralegal job in Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank’s legal department, she realised she’d like to work in-house as a lawyer. “I loved seeing close hand how business operates, and you’re included more in these departments. I handled my own matters which was great experience.” Sadly, there was no progression to a training contract available there either. Searching for scholarships for the LPC, Fahmida found the DAS and was thrilled to get an award. In September 2020, she started her LPC part time at BPP London.

Fellow awardee Abigail Pacey, 27, studied part time for her LPC with MSc Law Business and Management at the University of Law in Moorgate. After leaving home at 16, Abigail spent time in YMCA accommodation and later developed an eye condition which caused some vision impairment.

At 21, through an access to higher education diploma, she gained her A-level equivalents then studied law at the University of Westminster while working in an Apple store to earn money. “No one in my family had been to university and it was a whole new world,” she says.

An internship in the AT&T legal team ignited her interest in commercial and corporate law, and she gained a Master’s degree in medical law. A post as a paralegal for the Marriott legal team ended with the pandemic but later, while working as a paralegal at Bosch, she decided she wanted to be a solicitor.

Although Abigail gained a place for the LPC, she had no means to pay for it until she also found the DAS and gained an award. That led to a short internship at UBS which she relished. “I was exposed to a range of matters and it gave me great confidence,” she says. A mentor also provided good advice on managing work and study.

Both Fahmida and Abigail say that working and studying has been tough but that the award has been life changing. Fahmida’s mentor, Kate Chapman, managing associate in financial markets at Simmons & Simmons, has helped her with applications for traineeships. “Like me, she’d struggled to get a training contract. It makes you realise you’re not alone,” she says.

As part of the award, Fahmida completed an internship in the legal department at private equity firm, Cerberus Capital Management. Within weeks she was offered a permanent role and intends to qualify there and be a long-serving member of staff. “It’s a small team and we do everything. It’s a very high-performance environment. More in-house departments are hiring younger people and that says a lot about their culture. They’re less rigid than law firms and good at making quick decisions,” she notes.

Yet many more need help: this year there were 277 applications for the 15 awards. “The applicants are high quality and we’d like to see more awards made available,” says Stephanie Boyce. “We get DAS funding and work experience placements from law firms and business and from in-house departments too and we’d love to see more in-house involvement. The in-house community is the fastest growing sector of our membership, and now stands at about 25%.”

Fahmida is now planning to undertake a master’s degree in business law. “It’s all worked out. You have to be tenacious,” she says. Meanwhile, Abigail, who is still working as a paralegal at Bosch, is hoping to get a training contract in-house or in private practice and would like to work in the corporate, commercial and technology fields. "The recognition the award has provided has been great. It shows I can be successful. I can see that all the work I’ve done has amounted to something and that I can have the future I want.”

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