Embracing the possibilities of law grads from nontraditional backgrounds
Matthew Channon created the #mypathtolaw hashtag on Twitter in January. Our guest column celebrates the diversity of the legal profession through attorneys’ first-person stories detailing their unique and inspiring trajectories.Read more #mypathtolaw stories on Twitter.
I always thought going to university and working as a lawyer was only an option for those who had money, and that going into the law profession depended more on family connections rather than hard work. I didn’t have an expensive education, and I was sent to my local community school.
Many judges, senior lawyers and barristers in the UK are educated privately at fee-paying schools. This gives the impression to some young people (like me) who haven’t had the same experience that these roles are unachievable for them.
I often suffered from a lack of confidence in my own ability while at school, thinking that I would never make it into the legal profession or make a success of my life. My confidence hit rock bottom on a number of occasions, and I dreaded taking exams. I often felt people had low expectations of me because of my own absence of self-confidence.
I continued to struggle on through school and then at a local college. I was often tempted to give up and felt other people didn’t have faith in my ability. This wasn’t true—one tutor encouraged me to apply to study for a law degree, and from then on things started to improve for me. I still realized it was hard to get a job in the UK legal industry, but I secured a good degree.
I went on to apply for a PhD and was accepted, but this was largely self-funded. To pay for my PhD, I worked evenings in a local pub and often didn’t finish working until 6 a.m., a situation that often eroded my self-confidence further.
However, I am proud that I didn’t give up and I became a much stronger person after overcoming my own confidence issues. I am now an academic, researching the impact of driverless cars and also, importantly, working to inspire future generations of lawyers.
Now, I not only lecture students at the University of Exeter Law School but also go to local state schools to try to inspire future generations. I am passionate about showing those who do not come from traditional backgrounds that they can make it, that barriers can be overcome.
I am attempting to provide the inspiration that I really craved while I was at school. At the University of Exeter, we offer a program called Pathways to Law, run by the social mobility charity the Sutton Trust and funded by the Legal Education Foundation, which offers support to high-achieving students from nonprivileged backgrounds as they finish school and start the process of applying to university.
These young people, who will typically be the first in their family to attend university or live in areas with low progression rates to university, engage in academic and skills sessions, visits to local and national legal institutions and law firms and, in some cases, take part in visits to other local partner Pathways to Law universities.
The students also receive crucial help with the application process to university in terms of writing their personal statements and preparation for admissions tests and university admissions interviews.
In addition, Pathways to Law students benefit from gaining work experience in a legal setting and having a law undergraduate assigned to them to personally mentor them through the whole program. Over the four-year period that this program has run at Exeter, it has shown an increased number of state-school applicants, not only to the university itself but to other research-intensive universities across the UK.
‘every path is different’
I’ve realized over the years that actually many lawyers, judges, barristers and academics come from all sorts of backgrounds and have had to overcome remarkable obstacles to get their roles. It is absolutely not the case that people are barred from privileged positions only because of their backgrounds, and we all have to show the next generation the world of possibilities. Those of us who have had challenges on the way to working in the legal industry must speak up about their own experiences to inspire others.
I recently started a conversation on Twitter to find lawyers from different backgrounds to help me in my liaison visits to schools in the future. I was sure my own story wasn’t unique, but I received thousands of responses from lawyers across the world using the hashtag I created, #mypathtolaw.
Doing a lot of work at Exeter on Pathways to Law , I want to help make Law not seem so far away as it seemed for me . I was the first child in my family to go to Uni and wasn’t from a privileged background . I would love to hear some of your #mypathtolaw stories.— Dr_matthewchannon (@matthewchannon_) January 9, 2018
People have told me their parents were heroin addicts, had mental health problems, that they worked all hours of the day and night to put themselves through higher education as a single parent holding down several other jobs.
I wish I had been able to hear from people like this when I was on my way to reaching the legal profession—I would have found their advice and perseverance inspiring. People have to know their own situation is not a one-off.
The tweets show it can be challenging to come from a diverse background and work in the legal profession, but it is possible to succeed through hard work and the support of others.
These truly inspirational stories show that nobody should be put off trying to get a job in the legal profession—those of us who have gotten here have to show it is possible to do well whatever your childhood experience. We have to speak up about our own journeys and backgrounds to show that every path is different.
Matthew Channon is a lecturer in law at the University of Exeter and researches the law of autonomous vehicles.
This article was published in the July 2018 ABA Journal magazine with the title "Embracing the Possibilities."