Increasing selection in state schools the best way to improve legal diversity
Elitism is a huge problem in the legal industry. Research by Laurence Simons in 2010 found that 15% of lawyers still come from public schools that educate only 2% of the population. In a separate poll in 2012, 57% of women lawyers said their gender is a barrier to achieving partner level, compared with 15% of men.
The InterLaw Diversity Forum recently conducted research into diversity in the legal industry and found it is still disproportionately white, male, middle-aged and privately educated. The solution suggested in the ILDF report is the setting of targets or quotas to ensure recruitment from a diverse cross-section of society. I do not think this sort of positive discrimination is the right approach. Setting targets only addresses the symptom and not the cause of the problem.
The cause of this social exclusivity lies in the school system. Private school candidates are taught with more intellectual rigour and to a wider syllabus than their state school counterparts. They are, therefore, more valued by top universities - the natural hunting ground of top legal firms looking to hire the best talent. Comprehensive schools rarely offer the same opportunities for overall development - too many students are taught merely to pass exams rather than excel in academia. The kind of original and inquisitive thinking that is required in the legal profession is not as encouraged or developed.
Similarly, private school pupils have greater access to extra-curricular activities that encourage leadership, debating skills, self-discipline and confidence - qualities again highly valued in law. The answer is not to force people who are not necessarily the most able candidates on to the UK’s legal sector but to increase selection in the state sector to reverse declining standards. Law firms opened up to a generation of state-educated partners in the 1960s, who were predominantly from grammar schools and selected the most able students, offering them an intellectual environment they were otherwise unlikely to have had.
However, as grammar schools were phased out, this social mobility stalled and has since declined. Between 1988 and 2004, the proportion of partners under 39 at the UK’s five magic circle firms who had been educated in private schools increased from 59% to 71%. In reintroducing grammar schools widely, the government could reverse this decline and improve social mobility, and not just in the legal sector.
Regarding gender equality, however, the legal profession must address its office-centric culture. The ILDF research found that while women outstrip men at the start of their careers, as they get more senior their pay slips behind. Laurence Simons’ research found that just 16% of partners in UK law firms are female. The most commonly held reason is that women fail to make partner if they take time out to look after their children. But this need not be the case.
Many firms are introducing flexible working options to try to address this. Women using these options are often not as visible as people who are in the office every day, so are often not considered for promotion. Office culture needs to catch up with the new reality of technology, such as email and video calls, which allows people to play just as much a part in office life wherever they are sitting.
It is also worth pointing out that social mobility and gender inequality are not issues confined to the legal profession. Almost every profession has an over-representation of white, middle-class, male, privately educated candidates. The current cabinet is a case in point. It is also worth noting that of those who were state educated, 40% went to grammar school. Selective education is a contentious issue, but a solution to the problem, rather than a fudge, is required if we are to unlock the huge potential of those who do not fit the traditional mould of the typical lawyer.
Lucinda Moule is managing director at legal recruitment agency Laurence Simons