Law firms must do their bit to foster social mobility.
A recent Prince’s Trust report warned that a ‘lack of inherited opportunities’ means that children from families who are not socially well-connected risk falling further behind their more advantaged peers.
This should not be a huge surprise to Gazette readers. For some time now the so-called ‘social bank of mum and dad’ has been as important as financial backing in giving children a head start. That is particularly so among the professions. In the law, a huge number of young people get a job interview or find work experience as a result of having the ‘right’ family connections. That is great for them but it puts those less fortunate at a distinct disadvantage – and they are, by some distance, in the majority.
Our experience at Hogan Lovells illustrates the point well. It would not be difficult for us to fill our formal vacation placement schemes with the sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, grandchildren and godchildren of our people, their friends, our clients and other business contacts. We have, though, chosen not to. The reason is simple: if we do not look beyond this self-selecting gene pool, we do not see who else is out there. We do not see the many talented young people whom we are depriving of the ability to succeed at the highest levels in our profession. We do not see what we are missing.
Some will say that it is not the profession’s role to right the wrongs of a society that has always rewarded privilege. Perhaps not. Perhaps it is the government’s job and perhaps the prime minister will be able to deliver on her recent pledge to make a difference.
However, as we look around us and see the consequences of social exclusion in this country and elsewhere, shouldn’t we also be doing our bit to make a difference? The rule of law is, after all, a vital component of a stable society. How can it be right that the creation, development and enforcement of that law should be the exclusive preserve of those who happen to have been born to the ‘right’ parents?
It cannot – so why perpetuate it? Let us be very clear about this though. We must not lower standards. We cannot afford to do that. Instead, we must raise aspirations. We must give opportunities to the potential future leaders of our profession who would otherwise never get the chance to showcase their talent. That talent pool is vast.
If we are prepared to look and offer that opportunity, we will find intelligent and determined individuals who have succeeded despite adversity; students whose life experiences bring a different perspective, one which is often much more rounded. If we are not prepared to do that, we will miss the future lawyers who have the ambition and drive to prove wrong those people who have written them off or told them that our profession is not for them or that they won’t fit in a firms like ours. They can succeed without the ‘inherited opportunities’ that benefit others, but they can only do so if we provide them with the opportunities which their efforts have earned.
We have been doing this at Hogan Lovells in a number of ways, by: broadening the range of universities from which we recruit; using contextual recruitment to assess the qualities of students in a more holistic way; working with organisations such as the Sutton Trust, Rare Recruitment and Aspiring Solicitors; getting into the schools early; and by providing mentors to pupils. All of these have the same aim: to reach out to those future stars who do not know how to reach out for themselves and who don’t have parents who can do it for them.
Fortunately, we are not alone. Other firms are also doing their bit, many of them through PRIME. My plea is for all firms to do their bit, however small. If collectively we do not address the issue of social mobility, our gene pool may continue to be rich but our profession will unquestionably be poorer.
Nicholas Cheffings is chair of Hogan Lovells