Elite law firms are systematically excluding bright working-class people from their workforce because they are ‘not posh enough’, the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission claims today. 

Research carried out at 13 elite law, accountancy and financial services firms revealed that 70% of job offers last year went to graduates educated at selective state or fee-paying schools.

Criteria used to identify ‘talented’ applicants were found to be skewed towards wealthy applicants as they included factors such as experiences while travelling, or people’s accents.

Many firms also look for ‘talent’ in a small group of highly selective universities with high proportions of middle-class and privately educated students. They then coach potential applicants through the recruitment process, the report, ‘A qualitative evaluation of non-educational barriers to the elite professions’, says.

Interviewees reportedly said that finding the best candidates regardless of class would be ‘too costly’.

Even graduates recruited from disadvantaged backgrounds were found to face barriers to promotion because of a tendency among senior professionals to promote in their own image.

Commenting on social data from the top 15 firms, the report noted that there was a ’relatively dramatic decline’ in the number of lawyers employed within these firms who are the first-generation in their family to attend university.

‘It appears that, with one notable exception, typically just under 40% of trainees appointed by leading law firms were educated at fee-paying schools. This figure is high considering again that just 7% of the population in the UK are educated privately.’

Labour former MP and minister Alan Milburn (pictured), the commission's chair, said the research shows those from working class backgrounds ‘are being systematically locked out of top jobs’.

‘Elite firms seem to require applicants to pass a "poshness test" to gain entry,' he said. 'Inevitably that ends up excluding youngsters who have the right sort of grades and abilities but whose parents do not have the right sort of bank balances.’

Milburn acknowledged that some firms make an effort to boost social mobility but said ‘for the rest it is a wake up and smell the coffee moment’.

‘In some law firms, trainees are more than five times likely to have attended a fee-paying school than the population as a whole. They are denying themselves talent, stymying young people’s social mobility and fuelling the social divide that bedevils Britain.’

Of the big firms that provided data, Slaughter and May was shown as having the highest percentage of partners (50%) and associates (47%) who went to private schools. Clifford Chance employed the highest number of privately educated trainees (40%).

Linklaters reported the lowest percentage of privately educated partners at 19% – it did not provide data for associates or trainees. CMS had the lowest figures for associates and trainees at 32% and 29% respectively.

Nine firms did not provide any data, including Ashurst, Eversheds, Freshfields and Norton Rose Fulbright. 

Andrew Austin, trainee recruitment partner at Freshfields commented: 'One of the challenges we face is that people from less privileged backgrounds do not have access to the same education, mentoring, work experience opportunities and role models as those from more affluent backgrounds. That is why many of our programmes focus on giving young people opportunities and support they may not otherwise be able to access.

'When it comes to graduate recruitment, we have recently reviewed our processes to ensure that we are recruiting for potential and that we develop that potential once graduates join us as trainees. We recruit from a large number of universities in the UK and abroad – far beyond the Russell Group.'