Solicitors from less affluent backgrounds are struggling to move up the ranks in their firm because they try too hard to fit in to the culture that dominates the profession by, for instance, toning down their accents, social mobility research suggests.

The Bridge Group, which promotes socio-economic diversity, has published a report, Socio-economic Background and Early Career Progression in the Law, which notes  encouraging efforts to increase the diversity of people entering the legal profession. However, it says much less attention has been paid to who stays on, gets ahead and how.

The Bridge Group analysed data relating to nearly 3,000 individuals and spoke to current and former employees at magic circle firms Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance and Linklaters, and international firms Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, Dentons, Hogan Lovells, Holman Fenwick Willan and Pinsent Masons. It also worked with social mobility charity Sutton Trust.

Data from the survey suggests that just over half of 'early career' solicitors educated in the UK attended state schools and 28% were the first in their family to study at university. Those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to be the highest performers in their firm. However, they appear on average less likely to progress.

The interviews suggest there is a perceived tendency to recruit and progress solicitors who share similar traits to those who currently dominate the profession. Those who get ahead are often characterised as extroverted, confident, charismatic and having gravitas. However, employees from lower socio-economic backgrounds often carefully manage their differences to fit in. For instance, they might tone down their accent, adjust their speech, avoid certain conversation topics, and feign interest in other topics. Those trying to fit in say they find it exhausting, tricky, worrying and draining. As a result, they are less confident, less inclined to speak up, and less engaged socially.

The Bridge Group says its findings suggest that senior managers need to be more engaged in the debate about diversity and inclusion. The definition of what makes a good solicitor is inconsistent due to 'embedded perceptions about the characteristics of an effective solicitor, which have been established over centuries by a dominant population (affluent white men)'. Firms are encouraged to work internally and collaboratively to clearly define the competences associated with effective practice.

The report recommends that firms get workforce diversity data benchmarked by a third party. Firms should also ensure their networking and social events do not exclude certain groups.

Commenting on the report, Simon Davis, the Law Society's vice president, said the potential advantages of increased socio-economic diversity in the law will never happen without a corresponding commitment to inclusion. 'This collaboration among eight leading law firms is testament to the growing desire within the sector to tackle the issue in an informed way, and to drive real change based on evidence,' he said.