We should be pleased with the report card handed to the legal profession last week in addressing obstacles to entry for people from underprivileged backgrounds by the government's independent reviewer on social mobility, Alan Milburn.
Described in Access to Professional Careers alongside journalism and medicine as a profession with a reputation for social exclusivity, law fared by far the best of the three - commended for the seriousness with which it is treating the issue and highlighted as an example for others to follow.
Perhaps we find it easier because many of the issues are familiar, having identified career barriers facing women, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered, BME and disabled solicitors. However, as is also the case with efforts around inclusion for these groups, Milburn warns us that progress in the legal profession remains too slow and that we have a considerable way to go. It is a warning we must heed.
Helpfully, four distinct areas for further attention have been highlighted in the report. First, we are told, greater focus should be given to the purpose of outreach and aspiration-raising initiatives. I would add to this that we need to ensure that aspiration is raised responsibly, and that those who do not have what it takes should be helped to understand that law is not for them.
Second, interventions need to be sustainable and properly evaluated. It is no good, we are reminded, providing a short burst of work experience if those students will automatically be prevented from applying for internships due to restrictive application criteria or financially barred from pursuing legal studies. This is why the Law Society Diversity Access Scheme provides financial support for disadvantaged students in addition to access to professional mentors and work experience. It is also why many support the scheme in addition to complimentary initiatives.
Third, a commitment to fair access must go beyond the efforts of a few individuals to be embedded in the values of the organisation and demonstrated in all aspects of practice. This is why responsibility for meeting the commitments to the Law Society Diversity and Inclusion Charter is required by a named senior representative, but must also be underpinned by demonstrable action and an annual report on progress against set standards. And fourth, Milburn says, the recruitment pool should be widened beyond the few universities traditionally targeted by graduate recruitment teams.
While I am delighted to see the profession commended for working together on initiatives such as PRIME, which assures high-quality work experience placements for those least able to access them and now involves more than 77 law firms, we also need more collaboration. Without it, coverage will remain patchy. The Law Society Diversity and Inclusion Charter has a real role to play here, already bringing together firms representing more than a third of solicitors in private practice. It is free to sign up to and provides practices with access to a suite of tools and support to implement good practice.
There are many examples of employers trying to ensure that the profession is inclusive and meritocratic who are challenging themselves. They are working out how to eradicate unconscious bias in selection processes. They understand the positive difference diversity makes to their businesses. They want to reflect the society they serve, and know they cannot afford to lose out in the competition to recruit the best people.
Equally, there are huge challenges before us. We have yet to see the impact of the decision by the SRA to abolish the minimum salary for trainees; however, evidence published with the equality impact assessment did highlight adverse impacts for individuals from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, which is particularly regrettable against the backdrop of the Milburn report.
There is a real incentive to redouble our efforts, as Milburn also suggests that the government should do more to pressurise the professions to act. Currently, the report card reads ‘some nice work here, could do better’.
Mark Stobbs is director of legal policy at the Law Society