‘Suited up’ and driving a Porsche to ‘a bit average actually’: Moving towards a more positive attitude to the law and legal professionals

This year, in addition to our evaluation of the scheme, the Lawyers in Schools team focussed on two schools for a more in-depth evaluation of the impact of the programme on the students involved.

Five students from Haverstock School and five from Central Foundation Boys’ School welcomed me into their schools both before the programme started and once the programme had finished. This gave me a wealth of qualitative data to analyse and report on, a chance to measure more specifically the impacts made throughout the process and a great opportunity to meet the people who the programme has been designed for.

Perhaps the most surprising finding to come out of these focus groups was the discernible shift in attitude – both to the law and to legal professionals – from pre-programme to post-programme.

The young people made it quite clear that their initial expectations of the lawyers were somewhat unfavourable. Some of the amusing adjectives floating around were: ‘bald’, ‘stressed’, ‘formal’, ‘tired’ and ‘posh’ wearing ‘a suit, black leather shoes and a tie’ and of course, driving ‘a Porsche or something…normally they’re kind of posh so you never see them in a Vauxhall.’ All joking aside, the air of cynicism amongst these young people aimed at the legal profession was really quite shocking. The prevalent view was that lawyers do their job to ‘collect money.’ When asked where their ideas of lawyers stem from, one student admitted, ‘American movies seeing the lawyer take a bribe.’ I wondered what it would take to set these perceptions onto a more positive cycle and worried that six hours with lawyers might not be enough!

The switch when I returned for the post-programme focus groups was palpable. It was clear that their perceptions of the legal profession had had quite a makeover throughout the Lawyers in Schools process. I was keen to hear about their experiences and the first question I asked was, ‘were the lawyers how you expected them to be?’ One young person replied, ‘I thought they were going to be posh, high class and uptight. I didn’t think they’d want to speak to young people but they were cool’ – high praise indeed for our volunteer lawyers. Another contributed: ‘I thought they were a bit average actually…normal, like they’d been through what we’re going through.’

So what about the perception that all lawyers are money hungry monsters who drive around in Porsches made of gold? One of the young people said: ‘I think they’re here to help as well…it’s not just about the money.’ It was certainly apparent that the young people were grateful that the lawyers had volunteered their time. In their minds this meant that ‘they do want to keep us out of trouble.’ After all, ‘they gave us the rights bit [of the law] so that means they don’t want us to get in trouble.’

It wasn’t just the lawyers that were on the end of some severe criticism before the programme began, the law itself came under some pretty heavy fire. When asked, before the first session, what they knew about law the responses were similarly cynical. ‘Laws are a boundary to stop us having fun,’ said one of the young people. A ‘slightly’ more positive response of, ‘nothing,’ came from another. It became quite startlingly clear to me at that point how important the sessions would be for these young people. I was pretty sure that the excuse of knowing ‘nothing’ wouldn’t wash if this young person were ever to get into legal difficulty. God willing he doesn’t – but would ignorance really be bliss?

‘What would the country be like without laws?’ they were asked. ‘It would be heaven,’ one responded. To be fair, one of them did recognise the possible very worst case scenario: ‘there’d be naked people running around everywhere,’ a prospect that makes him ever so slightly grateful for the rules underpinning our society.

Again, the metamorphosis that took place throughout the sessions was a pleasant surprise when I went back to meet them. Yes they agreed that the law stopped them from doing some things that they wanted to do (they’re only human after all!) but they also saw that this was often for their own protection as opposed to an evil ploy set by adults to stop young people having fun.

I was interested to know if it was just the media that had influenced their thoughts or whether there were other forces at play here. What causes such cynicism in our youth today? Well, one of the focus groups told me that throughout their education they had received various visits from other people in authority: ‘in Year 8 we had police officers come and they talked to us about getting arrested but they were biased because they just told us things we can and can’t do.’ Apparently young people don’t like that very much. One of the things they liked about the Lawyers in Schools sessions, and something that really warmed them to the lawyers, was that our volunteers ‘explained why’ The volunteers also invited the young people to challenge them, form opinions, think about how the law affects them and evaluate where they stand on certain issues. A great formula for getting them to like you it seems.

The Public Legal Education Network (Plenet) states that a legally capable citizen will have the knowledge, skills and attitude to be able to anticipate and deal with any legal problems that may arise. Lawyers in Schools has been designed to raise young people’s awareness and understanding of the law – and often having the right attitude can be a vital element of this.

It is all well and good – if a bit inhuman – knowing all you need to know about the law and having the necessary skills but having the right attitude is key to dealing with legal problems if it ever becomes necessary. What good would it be having all the knowledge but having no faith or trust in the system or the professionals that you need to work with to get your problem sorted? When you look at it like that, attitude is a pretty good place to start.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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