I was once asked by a recruitment consultant what my parents did for a living.
They were shortlisting me for a professional job and seemed to be asking if I was from the ‘right’ kind of background. That was about 20 years ago, and a lot has changed since then.
However, it remains the case that if you had a parent in a professional job, you are still more likely to get in and get on in the professions than if you are from a working-class background – 60% more likely according to the Social Mobility Commission’s latest state of the nation report.
Other research data shows the lack of socio-economic diversity in the legal sector:
- 57% of the those working in the legal sector had a parent in a professional or managerial job compared to 37% of the wider working population.
- 23% of the solicitors’ profession was privately educated compared to 7% of the population as a whole.
- In 10 leading law firms, 53% of partners went to an independent school and 47% of the wider employee population.
This latter statistic from the Bridge Group research highlights the scale of the challenge, as not only is there a lack of socio-economic diversity at senior level, but it is also missing in the pipeline beneath.
This is despite some good initiatives that have been undertaken in the past 10 years, including the PRIME Commitment, which over 60 law firms participate in, committing to providing good quality work experience to school students from less privileged backgrounds.
It is time for firms and organisations to build on these initiatives and really ensure they are enabling, rather than blocking, greater socio-economic diversity within the profession.
The pandemic presents 'a huge risk that the gulf between the rich and the poor will grow ever deeper and wider,' according to the Social Mobility Commission.
There are reputational risks for firms and organisations if they do not become more reflective and inclusive of the diversity in the wider working population and some are beginning to realise the benefits that different perspectives, experiences and insights bring to legal practice.
The challenge many are grappling with is how to translate commitments into effective action and how to be more strategic rather than ad hoc in their approach.
There is clearly much that needs to change beyond the legal sector to improve social mobility in this country. But a starting point for employers in developing an effective strategy and action plan, identified by the Commission, is for 'all employers to measure the social diversity of their workforce and focus on career progression for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds'.
The Law Society and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) worked with the Commission last year to help develop an employers’ toolkit for professional services, which includes a set of questions for employers to ask to measure socio-economic diversity and gain a better understanding of the issues in their organisation and evaluate the impact of their initiatives.
The SRA is mirroring those questions in its latest diversity data collection exercise from law firms and in the data collected from individual solicitors. The key question to focus on is: 'What was the occupation of your main household earner when you were about aged 14?'
Additional questions can help organisations to understand economic or cultural advantage (like type of school attended or if a graduate hire’s parents had also attended university) or economic disadvantage (like eligibility for free school meals) which can help organisations target their outreach efforts.
Obviously, asking the question is one thing, gaining responses from individuals to build a reliable dataset and knowing how to analyse and use the data as the foundation of a strategy is quite another.
On 12 October, the Law Society, together with the Social Mobility Commission, the SRA and two member firms of PRIME will discuss these issues, practical challenges faced by organisations and existing good practice in our second webinar on Driving Social Mobility Change.
View the full programme and book your place here.
In advance of the webinar, tell us your views of social mobility in the profession and how comfortable you would feel sharing information about what your parents did for a living by participating in this poll.
A recording of our first ‘Driving Social Mobility Change’ webinar with the Bridge Group is available to watch here.
Sally Brett, head of diversity and inclusion at the Law Society
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