Top firms told to stop cherry-picking from Oxbridge
Law firms are still recruiting from a narrow elite pool of graduates, the government’s independent reviewer on social mobility and child poverty reports today.
The Labour former minister Alan Milburn (pictured) said today that access to professions remains dominated by people from wealthy socio-economic backgrounds, which he described as ‘social engineering on a grand scale’. He said he does not accept the argument by top firms that their clients expect the best, and that this requires them to recruit from a handful of universities.
However Milburn compliments the legal profession for ‘starting to make real efforts’ to be more socially inclusive. Law ‘is on the right track but its progress is too slow,’ he said. ‘It needs to significantly accelerate.’
Milburn’s report Fair Access to Professional Careers, the first of three to the government, praises the Legal Services Board for making the collection of socio-economic data a priority. 'When you shine a spotlight people will be pretty horrified at what they see.’
It commends initiatives such national firm Addleshaw Goddard’s scheme to identify training contract entrants from less privileged backgrounds.
Milburn identifies four areas for the profession to consider further.
- Creating more clarity about the purpose of inclusion programmes. At present ‘so few schemes are fully evaluated that it is impossible to pinpoint the outcome’.
- Sustainability and evolution of programmes. Initiatives ‘must be more than a one-day burst of activity’.
- Putting social mobility at the heart of the sector and organisations. Employers should consider how to embed social mobility ‘into the fabric of their organisation’ rather than leaving it to ‘a small number of individuals who are genuinely comitted to change’.
- Selecting the workforce from the widest possible pool. The report says that some firms told them that clients expect them to recruit from a few top universities. ‘We do not accept this as an argument,’ it says. ‘We have heard from universities that they cannot persuade law firms to visit or undertake outreach. There are 115 universities in the country and law firms should recruit from as wide an academic pool as possible.’
Overall, Milburn condemned the ‘informal economy’ of internships and work experience placements, especially when these replace paid jobs or are an essential pre-requisite to them. He called for employers to select interns transparently and pay them at least expenses and preferably a wage.
Milburn’s team examined four professions: law, medicine, the senior civil service and the media, His harshest judgement was on the journalism, which ‘does not seem to take the issue of fair access seriously’.
The LSB's chief executive Chris Kenny said: 'We welcome today’s report and in particular the focus on issues around progression and retention that have an impact throughout a lawyer’s career. All available data suggests that these are the areas where significant progress has yet to be made in the legal profession. The report also emphasises the importance of data collection and evaluation in driving progress, where the LSB has provided decisive leadership to the approved regulators.'
He said the board agrees with the report’s assessment that progress in the legal profession must be accelerated and that it would publish tomorrow its assessment of the approved regulators' action plans for improving data collection and transparency around diversity and social mobility in the legal sector. 'These assessments are broadly in line with [Milburn's] judgement that, although headway is being made, significant progress is still required.’
Law Society president John Wotton said: 'The Law Society strongly supports efforts to increase social mobility - the profession must have access to the best talent, irrespective of social background. That is why we and our members have been working hard for so long on this issue. Our ambition is clear, we want the solicitor's profession to be widely recognised as a meritocracy where the sole criteria for entry and advancement are integrity, ability and hard work. That is already the case for most of our leading practices. The efforts made by the solicitor's profession have been properly recognised by Alan Milburn, but we agree that there is further to go.'
He said the Law Society 'stands ready to work with other interested bodies to address the issues Alan Milburn has raised'.
- Read Ed Reyes's blog on the report