Monday 24 October 2016

Fair access to legal profession for pupils

The Bar of Ireland is working to remove social barriers to a career in law

Meadhbh McGrath

Published 11/11/2015 | 02:30

Call of the Bar: Sara Moorhead of The Bar of Ireland with CBS Brunswick Street, Dublin students (from left) Alan McKenna, Ryan Conroy, Chirayu Mohan, Pawel Rutkowski and David Somerville in the the Four Courts' round hall
Call of the Bar: Sara Moorhead of The Bar of Ireland with CBS Brunswick Street, Dublin students (from left) Alan McKenna, Ryan Conroy, Chirayu Mohan, Pawel Rutkowski and David Somerville in the the Four Courts' round hall

A new Transition Year programme hopes to remove the barriers that prevent students from disadvantaged backgrounds pursuing a career in law.

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The Bar of Ireland will welcome 100 Transition Year students next February, with 20 places reserved for students from schools in the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) programme.

Schools are invited to nominate one student each, and The Bar will hold a lottery to allocate places.

To apply, students must write an 800-word essay explaining why they are interested in law.

Valerie Roe is Transition Year Coordinator at St Paul's CBS, North Brunswick Street, a DEIS school in Dublin's north inner city, only a stone's throw from the Law Library, but, culturally, a much greater distance.

She says the allowance for DEIS schools was what drew her to the programme: "During September and October, we're inundated with offers for Transition Years, but what attracted us to this one was that it was holding places for students from DEIS schools."

While people associate DEIS schools with financial disadvantage, Ms Roe believes the greatest challenge facing her students is that they don't have the connections that more privileged students enjoy.

"Our students don't have aunts and uncles who are barristers or solicitors," she said. "What do you do when your parents don't have contacts because they didn't do the Leaving Cert or go to university?"

Ms Roe is involved in helping Transition Year students secure work experience placements, and says that the standard of work tends to be "quite low".

"They come back very excited when they get two weeks working in a supermarket or fixing bicycles. That's brilliant, and that's a great job when you're 16, but we want them to try and sample the kind of job they want to have when they're 36."

She was delighted when one of her students was accepted on to last year's programme, and plans to help another student apply this year.

"It gives our students an equal opportunity to try things out, and it's fair - it's not based on who you know and who can get you in," she said.

"As well as that, it's a quality work experience. It's not filing in an office. They were kept busy all day long, and they weren't left in a room while somebody tried to figure out what to do with them."

Ms Roe hopes to see other businesses and organisations adopting a similar model for Transition Years in future.

"If there are no places reserved, the chances of a student from a DEIS school getting in are much slimmer than a student in another school who has better contacts," she said.

Sara Moorhead SC is the Programme Coordinator for The Bar of Ireland, and said that before this programme launched last year, work experience placements were quickly snapped up by students from privileged backgrounds.

"We always had a Transition Year programme, but it was very much connections-based," she said. "We had 25 places twice a year, and it was first come, first served, so colleagues would get their kids in. That was the way it worked."

The new model, she said, is an effort to improve social inclusion.

By creating an allowance for children from disadvantaged areas, they hope to make the programme accessible to pupils from all backgrounds.

"Under-representation of certain socio-economic classes is very much a problem. We're very gender diverse at this stage, and we're starting to become more culturally diverse," she said. "But the reality of the situation is, although it is difficult for everybody, it's particularly difficult when you don't have connections."

Ms Moorhead acknowledged that Transition Year students are still very young to be making decisions about their careers, but said it is important to engage with them early so they don't feel a legal career is cut off from them before they even begin third-level education.

"We don't want to be seen to be putting up a drawbridge. Don't believe that your daddy has to be a judge and your mummy has to be a senior counsel so you can be a barrister," she said.

During the week-long programme, students are split up into groups as they shadow barristers, go on court visits and tours of the King's Inns and take part in Q&As with speakers such as the Chief Justice.

On the final day, The Bar will hold a series of mock trials, which were a particular favourite among students last year.

"We try to bring them into the mundane as well as the more glamorous aspects," said Ms Moorhead.

"They do enjoy the criminal trials, and they think that's very exciting, but we also spend time showing them ordinary administrative tasks, and the poverty of some of the stories being told in the district court."

As the programme accepts only one person per school, the students are encouraged to mingle and make friends.

"In the past, three or four friends would come in together, and their appetite for learning was much more limited because they had their buddies with them," said Ms Moorhead.

"With this programme, you're on your own for that week. It was like they were in Irish college, by the end of the week they had all bonded so much.

Schools should submit applications to The Bar of Ireland before December 16. Further information at

The student's experience

David Somerville (16), from St Paul's CBS, North Brunswick Street, Dublin, took part in the programme last year.

He is the first member of his family who hopes to pursue a career in law.

Although he didn't have connections to help him secure a place, he applied with the help of his teacher, Valerie Roe.

He was thrilled to be accepted.

"The programme was really good. I thought it was a great way to interact with the members of the courts," he said.

David's favourite part of the week was meeting the Chief Justice on the final day and getting the opportunity to ask her and the barristers about their work.

"It was great to get answers from them, instead of what your guidance teacher would tell you," he said.

"I'm not sure what I'll do yet in college, but I'm definitely interested in studying law."

Irish Independent

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