Social mobility in the legal profession
Holes will be picked by some lawyers in Alan Milburn’s ‘progress report’ on social mobility and the professions, published today - even though he was nicer about lawyers than other professionals. As was argued with his previous findings, critics will point out that law firms cannot use their selection policy to fix, at point of entry, all the wider woes of the UK’s unequal education system.
That is a point the Milburn thesis is timid on. His terms of reference are clear: in submissions from interested parties he wanted no backchat on the importance of income and education inequality here. A somewhat circumscribed debate then, on a big topic.
But picking holes on Milburn’s report will not make the issue go away. His data on falling social mobility in the legal profession - it is worse now than it was three decades ago - is just about the best there is. As the late Baker & McKenzie partner Russell Lewin told me when the initial report was published, these findings are no surprise to anyone who has been in the legal profession, and paying attention, over this period.
One problem is that for too long this entry point issue was delegated, in large commercial firms, to poorly resourced graduate recruitment departments. Eight years ago I sat in on a roundtable discussion attended by graduate recruitment heads, organised by a magazine for student lawyers.
The related topic of diversity was on the agenda, and the discussion was revealing. For these pressed individuals, the key issue was managing, and filtering, the superfluity of applications they received. (Achieved then, as now, in most cases by using ‘AAB’ at A-level as the crude filter).
There was not much other imagination on offer. As one attendee put it: ‘There are only nine black law students at Oxford, and some of them will go to the Bar.’ Major law firms who have not engaged with this issue (there are some honourable exceptions) wrongly think they are being asked to ‘water down’ the quality of their intake.
In fact they should be looking at some of the lessons from, say, the Oxbridge colleges who have been living with the pressure and the challenges of increasing the diversity of their intake for a generation.
At Cambridge, the background to debate over the state school/ private split in intake was the decision in 1972 by three all-male colleges, King’s, Clare and Emmanuel, to admit women.
For my old college, Clare, the effect of fishing in a wider pool was to propel it from the middle of the academic rankings to the top five or six, where it has stayed pretty much ever since.
By the 1990s, King’s had pulled off something else - a 70% state-school intake. Brilliant before, you would still be hard-pushed to find a year when King’s has not topped the table of 30-plus colleges by academic performance. (Clare now comes close at 64% - the master using his annual report to alumni to reinforce the importance to college of this figure when it slipped back, and to ask for a bit of latitude in addressing the issue.)
At an institutional university-wide level, vice chancellors of elite universities would clearly rather get credit for ‘outreach programmes’ whose goal is to generally raise pupil aspirations to go to university - rather than change their own intake stats. That is now part of the basic agenda of the elite vice chancellor organisation the Russell Group. To be honest, I think many colleges ‘get it’, but the VC and the Russell Group do not.
A debate for another day, perhaps. But fast forward to the comparatively recent experience of law firms, where I recognise the same issues, the same sorts of progress and the same excuses.
As with progressive, high-performing colleges, effective remedies are about actively fishing in a bigger pool, and applying some intelligence to the task.
For a firm like Herbert Smith, that means establishing actual campus contacts at universities like Brunel, as they had at more traditional feeder universities.
For Addleshaws, it has been using their summer work scheme more effectively - asking one law school to nominate their best students who had not met the traditional A-level requirements. Freshfields and DLA are among the firms who have made direct hires from schemes arranged by the Legal Launch Pad (brilliant, small, and always in need of more funds).
None of these firms are ‘there’ yet, but these steps take them in the right direction. And none feel they are lowering their standards – quite the opposite.
Others, like those Russell Group VCs, would rather be judged by what they do in local schools - important, but different - rather than who they are selecting to join the firm in three, four or five years. There are holes to pick in Milburn’s arguments, and I’m sure there are holes to pick in my quick canter through this complex issue.
But failure to address this issue does not just open the legal profession to unwelcome criticism - it also leads it to lose of on talent that could compose its competitive edge.
I have heard some gripe that King’s, by dint of its reputation for such ‘open access’, simply gets to ‘cream off the best of the state school kids’; that it may be, ironically, harder for a non-privately educated candidate to get into King’s than, say Magdalene.
I do not buy that argument. But even if you do, which law firm would not rather be in King’s position?
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor
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