Alex Aldridge, The Guardian, 10 March 2011
Widening access to the legal profession is not easy, but Blair has a message to convey: 'If I can do it, so can you'
As I wait to interview Cherie Blair, I strike up a conversation with her young assistant who, it turns out, wants to get into journalism. Overhearing from her office next door, the former prime minister's wife jokingly urges me to arrange some work experience, volunteering that she herself brings young people in to Matrix, the human rights chambers where she practises as a barrister.
Aysha, a student Blair met during filming of the Channel 4 series Jamie's Dream School, is the most recent recipient of this benevolence. "She was obviously very bright and she said she'd like to see Matrix, so I took her to see what it was like," explains Blair, who works under her maiden name as Cherie Booth QC. Blair is one of a host of celebrities picked by the programme's host, Jamie Oliver, to teach a group of largely working-class children who have messed up their GCSEs.
Of course, very few kids like Aysha will find themselves in a position to utilise a personal connection with a leading lawyer. Blair, who has a working-class background herself, knows all about that. "I certainly didn't know any lawyers and I never even considered law until my then boyfriend's mum, who was a nurse, suggested it," she recalls. This long-standing disconnect between the legal profession and ordinary people is reflected in recent research by Dr Louise Ashley of the Cass Business School which found that more than 90% of lawyers had fathers who had been managers or senior officials.
Blair accepts that Oliver's TV show is unlikely to change such a durable status quo. But she believes the legal profession can take a lead from it, giving the example of community programmes run by Matrix which send top lawyers such as her to speak to schoolchildren in the underprivileged Tower Hamlets district of London. "My aim is to convey the message that if I can do it, you can too," she says.
Having taught law to schoolchildren on two separate occasions - for Teachers TV as well as Jamie's Dream School - Blair believes making the subject part of the national curriculum would be another step towards broadening access to the profession. "I strongly support not just citizenship classes but also teaching children how the law works and the many ways it affects their lives," she says. Certainly most students at Jamie's Dream School reacted well to Blair's demystification of concepts such as human rights law and proportionality: the celebrity barrister proved an able teacher.
Blair acknowledges that a much bigger barrier to access is the lack of a level playing field in secondary education, with privately educated students often achieving grades that flatter them. "Someone with 4As at A-level from Eton may look good on paper and come across as very smooth, but push a bit more and often you get the impression they have learned to pass exams rather than think for themselves," she says, comparing such students unfavourably with "state school kids who are, if you like, less polished, but often have an innate intelligence that's not always so immediately obvious".
Blair says she knew when she was starting out that "the only way I had any chance at all was to be so much better than the rest of them". That's why at bar school she was "in the library at lunchtime eating my sandwiches while Tony [who went to the public school Fettes College, followed by Oxford University] was in the pub".
But dating a posh boy had its uses, helping to soften Blair's Liverpool accent and smooth her rough edges - important in a profession where sounding and looking the part can be valued more than ability. Recalling her days as a trainee barrister, when she failed to get taken on full-time after pointing out an error of law made by her head of chambers, Blair comments: "Now there's no way Tony [who did his traineeship at the same chambers and was taken on] would ever have done that, having been socialised in a public school environment."
Back then, the profession was expanding thanks to increases in legal aid funding and Blair got her career on track again, finding a place at another chambers. The opposite is happening now. In a less forgiving environment, what would have happened to her? Indeed, if she'd had to pay tuition fees - which will soon rise to £9,000 a year at some colleges - would Blair have gone to university at all?
"The opportunities for people like me, and indeed any young person, have certainly got fewer in the law," she says. Still, Blair is in favour of the fee increases "When I went to university I was among the 1-2% of working-class people to do so. Now when we're talking about educating 40% of the population, it would obviously be very difficult to fund that out of the taxpayers' purse," she says. "In any case, is it really fair for the person who cleans our offices to subsidise the costs of my children's university education? I'm not sure it is."
Another high-profile female lawyer, Lady Deech, recently cautioned that the fee increases could increase the incentive for women to "do a Kate Middleton and snag a wealthy man at uni". It's not a view Blair has much time for:
"I think Baroness Deech is wrong about girls who could be tempted to give up the career struggle in law firms because they could just marry rich bankers and stay at home. It's a very narrow point. The number of women who truly have that option is relatively small and even then, by losing their financial independence, they become very vulnerable to loss of their wealthy husbands whether through divorce, sickness or death."
Blair's hope is that private institutions will step in to reduce the impact of higher fees on individuals by sponsoring recruits through university - keeping a route into the legal profession open to students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds. That's why she is urging City law firms to follow the lead of the accountancy giant KPMG in paying students' undergraduate fees. "I feel passionately about this, because if the legal profession doesn't reflect society at large we're not just losing talent but ultimately we're undermining justice," she says, emphasising the unique constitutional status of law as the breeding ground for the judiciary.
In reality, though, it's the bar that supplies the vast majority of judges, not the City. And self-employed business model of barristers - sharing the overheads of their chambers but otherwise operating separately - would make such sponsorship schemes tricky to implement in this branch of the profession.
"While law firms can operate as a united single entity, getting a consensus is very difficult among barristers because everyone's so fiercely independent," Blair says. "It can be like herding cats." The implication is clear: unless someone does something drastic, the bar - already dominated by those from wealthy backgrounds - is set to become the exclusive preserve of the rich. Worrying for justice, indeed.
In her class on human rights at Jamie's Dream School, Blair asks students what they think the term means. "Everyone getting treated equally," responds Conor, before adding: "But whenever you have an upper class and a lower class there's never going to be human rights."
And for a moment his famous QC teacher is lost for words.
Alex Aldridge is a freelance journalist who writes about law and education
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