Many people perceive the legal profession to be the preserve of the middle-classes and inaccessible to those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. To a certain extent, these perceptions remain true.
The UK’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission claims that around 70% of jobs at top law firms go to applicants from private/fee-paying schools. Trainees are around five times more likely to have attended a fee-paying school than the general population. Over the past decade, there has been a conscious drive by the legal sector to improve access to the profession, but have these initiatives actually addressed the problem?
A lack of candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds attending university does not appear to be a cause for concern, as a recent poll carried out by the Junior Lawyers Division found that 70% of respondents were the first in their families to attend. The presumption is that a high proportion of these individuals will have come from such backgrounds. The issue, therefore, is how we address the apparent chasm between graduation and qualification for those individuals.
Many law firms still seek recruits from a small select list of institutions. Only 19% of trainees at City law firms went to universities outside the elite Russell Group. Of course, law firms are commercial entities, not social enterprises. They will always seek to hire the brightest and best candidates. The problem is the common belief that these candidates will come from the best academic institutions.
The question to consider is whether GCSE and A-level grades alone are genuinely indicative of a candidate’s suitability for a career in the law. Those within the profession will appreciate that a wide range of skills is required to be a proficient lawyer and this surely cannot be demonstrated by examination grades alone. Should wider considerations be taken into account to promote social diversity?
The lion’s share of responsibility in helping to solve issues of social mobility falls to law firms. If firms are perceived to be providing training contracts to a wider pool of candidates, this may allow more individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds to enter the profession.
The good news is that a number of law firms are taking steps to address these concerns. An index released by the Social Mobility Foundation this year named 14 law firms within the top-50 employers taking action to progress talent from all backgrounds. City firms are publicly stating that they are looking to recruit people from lower socio-economic backgrounds in an attempt to open up the profession to a much broader and diverse pool of talent, recognising that diversity within the workforce drives innovation and creates advantages within the legal market.
Encouragingly, a YouGov poll found that 52% of senior figures in the legal sector believed improving social mobility in the recruitment process had been beneficial to their firm, with only a third of respondents considering a candidate’s background to be a relevant factor during recruitment.
One way in which firms have attempted to broaden their recruitment process to make selection of candidates fairer is through non-traditional schemes such as blind CVs. Several City firms have now taken this approach, whereby candidates are assessed on tasks such as essays or interviews, with personal and educational details remaining hidden throughout.
Despite mixed reactions within the profession, with some considering the process difficult to run, blind CVs have led to promising results. Firms using this method reported the percentage of their trainees who were the first in their families to attend university increased from 10% in 2015 to 33% in 2017. It has also resulted in a wider pool of educational institutions from which individuals were recruited, rising from 32 to 45, with many successful applicants having attended non-Russell Group universities.
Another scheme adopted by several firms is to move away from a strictly academic focus by removing entry requirements on training contract and vacation scheme applications. This has allowed a much broader range of candidates to apply – candidates who may have otherwise fallen at the first hurdle.
It is not the case that those who attend the top-ranked universities are not to be valued or do not make skilled lawyers. The question is whether we want academic excellence to be the sole focus of recruitment in the profession. To exclude those who may not have had the means to access fee-paying schools or attend top-ranking universities would do a disservice to the legal market.
Law firms and other interested parties need to build on the progress the sector has made in recent years and continue to strive to create equal employment opportunities. The profession needs to represent the society which it serves. If people entering the profession are not afforded the same opportunities regardless of financial background, this is unlikely to be achieved. The measures implemented are certainly a step in the right direction, and with City firms leading the way in championing social mobility, hopefully other firms will start to take notice and consider adopting similar schemes themselves.
Adam Hattersley is a real estate finance solicitor at Fieldfisher. He currently sits on the National Executive Committee of the Junior Lawyers Division