Many of our most famous law firms are keen to do well in the employer Social Mobility Index, and this is a good thing. Alan Milburn, one-time social mobility ‘Tsar’, had harsh things to say about the legal profession’s declining contribution in 2009. This week he credits many firms with ‘stepping up to the plate’. They are 14 of the top 50 in the rankings.
We are right to place very high expectations on elite law firms – on transparency, equality and diversity, and on ethical behaviour and wellbeing. These firms have the money, time and size to focus on things they want to fix, and superintending - as they do - the legal profession’s glittering prizes comes with responsibilities.
If these competing firms succeed in their goals, and the lesson from other league tables is that competition is good at driving change, then it is an example of enlightened self interest. More of that below.
It is worth taking a look at the criteria that contribute to the rankings. Some should definitely count – with others, I wonder if they should attract a score, creditable though they are.
Internships and work experience at leading firms are now practically compulsory for candidates hoping to land a traineeship. The Index gives credit for these schemes being targeted at, and awarded to, people from lower-income backgrounds.
Then there is attention paid to recruitment and selection processes. Here, I would hope what scores most highly is the use of contexualisation data – which can now be highly sophisticated in the rich layer of information it provides, going much deeper and simply state school/private/selective divides.
Though as we have seen with the chequered history of attempts to improve judicial diversity, attention to process and transparency does not translate neatly into diverse appointments.
What should attract the higher score is actual hirings – otherwise ‘outreach’ work with schools and young people, which does attract a score, looks a little more like well-meaning missionary work.
How do recruits from lower income backgrounds progress in these organisations? This is an interesting one. At one level the Index is right to give credit for a good record here, as in some areas like race and gender, progression and vertical progress can be poor.
But when it comes to progress for recruits from lower income backgrounds, the evidence is that it can almost be assumed – people who have overcome more to be appointed then make better progress once in. That is the case in university and it is the case in a professional environment – getting lawyers who turned out to be even better than they seemed on application is enlightened self-interest.
One closing thought. I am interested in what lawyers from lower-income backgrounds, who did not have the advantage of a fee-paying or selective education, do when they reach law’s glittering prizes – partnership in a firm where PEP is a 7-figure sum, say. Where do they send their children to school?