These were unusual words to find in a government press release: ‘There is a mind-blowing inconsistency of practice in how to improve social mobility outcomes, with little pooling of experience or evidence-based strategies… The country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division… Tinkering around the edges will not do the trick.’
But then days after the Fifth Annual Report of the Social Mobility Commission, its chair, the Rt Hon Alan Milburn, and all his fellow commissioners resigned. The government did not have the necessary ‘bandwidth’ to make Britain fairer.
And yet, the government has restated its commitment to social mobility.
Law and other professions got special mention in Milburn’s reports down the years, and going by its public pronouncements, the legal sector isn’t willing to give up on its social mobility strategies.
Law firms and some leading in-house legal departments are keen to talk about their work here.
Yet, much of what I hear feels doomed to fail, because it sounds like philanthropy and its targets are not very stretching.
Here’s where initiatives go wrong.
Not inherently bad, but alarm bells should ring if this is all a firm does. ‘They [children or students] from a deprived social background might not be able to come to this firm,’ I’ve heard countless times. ‘But coming in and here, meeting our lawyers, might mean they lift their aspirations a bit.’
This is the ‘come and see what you can’t have’ plan. It’s also not about spotting ability and aiming to one day hire it.
Wanting the finished product
‘Yes, but could X be put in front of a [City] client?’ However good the intentions, this is the reason people hire in their own image. And if you come from a certain background, you can come across as the finished product.
How tempting is that?
What’s forgotten is how quickly people learn, change and pick things up. You see this in the first few weeks of university – people arrive with the manners, accents and knowledge of the place and school they are from.
They mix, make friends, and very soon are borrowing slang, intonations, pretensions and habits.
Not looking hard enough
Some focus careers efforts outside the top nine universities. But is there is a student liaison person for Durham, but not for London Southbank, is it a surprise that a firm doesn’t have a lawyer from Southbank?
This is the crudest way top law firms filter candidates, given A levels are just a route to degree course. It also steers them straight back to nine universities that demand those grades – meaning you’re only notionally open to candidates from the rest.
Would it be so hard to look at just a person’s degree or time at law school instead?
They could have other roles here
Law is creating more roles – to manage IT, AI, low cost processing centres… But are the glittering prizes of law open to someone who takes those other roles? And if you could never get to leading the firm from them, it’s not really job done, is it?
It’s nice to want to do something ‘good’, but when we wonder why, despite good intentions, nothing much changes, it is surely because social mobility has been treated like a charity initiative on the side – whereas, spotting people who could make the best lawyers, but who might be from the wrong side of the tracks, needs to be about excellence.
That’s a selfish act that also does some good, and it’s the only attitude that will give the legal profession the ‘bandwidth’ to play a part in making the world a fairer place.