By -

The legal profession - and within that category I include law students, practitioners and judges - does not reflect the diversity of the broader Australian community.

My theme is not gender or cultural diversity, although those are important issues. My theme is social class.

In December 2020 the Law Society of NSW Journal published a short article titled A profession for the wealthy? The enduring problem for diversity in law, which noted: “Diversity has become the catchcry of law firms across the nation in recent years. … But it seems little or no spotlight has been shone on socio-economic or class-based discrimination; an issue that has ripple effects impacting all other types of diversity in law.”

My own interest in this subject stems from personal experience. I was a poor kid from the fringes of outer south western Sydney and went to a disadvantaged public school where almost no-one went on to university, some of the girls in my year had babies while at school and some of the boys had run-ins with the police.

A couple of months ago, Justice Dhanji of the NSW Supreme Court gave an address [at the Law Society of NSW’s cultural diversity networking event] in which he spoke about how class and socioeconomic privilege can intersect with and impact other kinds of diversity. He identified a number of key issues.

A big one is cost. This includes being able to afford to pay, or incur the debt for, the fees for university, practical legal training, the bar practice course (for those wanting to become barristers), as well as the financial ability to undertake unpaid internships and work experience.

I might add from my own experience the reality that cost is a barrier to full participation in law student life: I couldn’t afford to pay for first year law camp and I couldn’t afford the clothes to wear to fancy black tie student functions.

A less tangible but still very real issue is what Justice Dhanji called “privilege and sense of belonging”. He remarked that “privilege also determines whether a person develops the aspiration to enter the legal profession and their sense of belonging within the profession”.

He referred to a 2020 British book The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged, which shows that in the UK children of lawyers are 17 times more likely to go into law than others.

The Australian statistics are also pretty bad.


Starting with the judiciary. It will not surprise you to learn that the Australian judiciary is not particularly diverse. In 2018, SBS Online published an article with the headline: ‘17 per cent of NSW Supreme Court judges went to one exclusive Sydney private school’.

In the same year, Crikey reported “Since federation, 53 judges have served on the High Court, of which just 12 completed their education at public schools. More than half that number (seven) attended Sydney Grammar School.”


We don’t know much about the socioeconomic or class backgrounds of Australian lawyers because, while statistics are collected about their age, gender and cultural backgrounds, no statistics are collected about their socioeconomic or class backgrounds.

There is a saying: “what gets measured, gets managed”. It apparently comes from a 1952 book by Peter Drucker called The Practice of Management.

A variation of the saying is “what gets measured, matters”.

I believe diversity matters. Accordingly, I recently wrote to the NSW Law Society and the Victorian Legal Services Board, which both collect statistics on the demographics of practising lawyers as part of their annual practising certificate renewal processes.

They have agreed to consider – so time will tell what actually happens – collecting data on the type of school (public, Catholic, or other non-government) at which lawyers completed Year 12. This is something the UK Solicitors Regulation Authority already does.

That of course is an imperfect proxy measure of class or socioeconomic background, but it is easy data to collect and will offer some useful insights. And it’s certainly better than not looking at the issue at all.

Law students

Looking finally to law students and in common with the rest of the profession, law schools educate a cohort that is overwhelmingly from high socioeconomic backgrounds.

Using Australian Bureau of Statistics data and categories and Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre student admissions data, Monash (like other universities) has detailed internal data about student demographics.

At Monash, 70 per cent of undergraduate law students attended non-government schools – whereas two thirds of Australian students more broadly attend public schools.

Only 7 per cent of Monash undergraduate law students are from the lowest socioeconomic 20 per cent bracket or quintile. 57 per cent are from the top 20 per cent socioeconomic bracket.

It’s a worse situation with the Juris Doctor, the graduate-entry law degree. Only 6 per cent of Monash JD students are from the lowest socioeconomic quintile. And 61 per cent are from the top 20 per cent socioeconomic bracket.

Universities do not publish data like this publicly, so I don’t have the precise statistics from other institutions.

However, I have been able to confirm that this state of affairs – that Australian law schools are predominantly a bastion of rich kids from non-government schools – looks like being the case nationwide.

The NSW Universities Admissions Centre – which handles university admissions in NSW and the ACT – publishes aggregated data about the socioeconomic status of students entering degrees in broad subject areas.

The published data is not broken down to the level of law degrees; instead law is lumped together into a broader humanities category – which is not particularly helpful for the present discussion.

So I contacted the data team at the UAC to ask if they would consider publishing data about the socioeconomic status of students entering various professional degrees including law degrees. They have agreed to put this on their to do list.

In the meantime, they told me via email that high socioeconomic status students are overrepresented in law degrees and economics degrees, and that low socioeconomic status students are overrepresented in teaching and nursing degrees.

Rich kids tend to study to enter high status professions, and the poor kids who do go on to university tend to study to enter lower status professions — perhaps supporting Justice Dhanji’s point about privilege determining whether a person develops the aspiration to enter the legal profession.

Of course universities – including my own – have special entry schemes for disadvantaged students. But on the whole they’re clearly making only the smallest of dents in the problem.


To conclude my remarks, there is a lot of work to do in ensuring that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are able to enter the legal profession.

Some of the issues are very complex and some, like educational disadvantage, require tackling from even before children start school.

But one simple thing each of you can do is this: next time someone talks to you about diversity in the law or in the workplace, ask if they have ever considered diversity in terms of socioeconomic background.

And if they haven’t – or indeed if you haven’t thought about that before – perhaps it’s worthwhile reflecting on why not.

Professor Luke Beck is the Associate Dean (Education) of the Faculty of Law at Monash University. This is an edited version of speech given at the Monash University Law Review Annual Dinner in Melbourne on 1 December 2022.