Social mobility in the legal profession: the battle has just begun

Social mobility in the legal profession: the battle has just begun

hurdleIncreasing gender, ethnic and social diversity is a widely discussed subject in most industries these days, especially within the legal profession.  Whilst there is visible progress with regard to efforts to increase gender and ethnic diversity in particular, dealing with social mobility is a much more complex issue.  However, to start addressing the issue we need to first acknowledge the difference between gender and ethnicity, and social mobility because they have different causes and effects.

We then need to start from the basics.  According to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission only 7% of UK schoolchildren attend independent schools, yet they make up 43% of Oxford’s undergraduates, 37% of Cambridge’s and around 23% of Manchester’s.  These statistics clearly show that as a society we have an issue with social mobility, but within the legal profession this issue seems to limit students at every level.  According to the Chambers Student survey from 2010-2012, it appears that the profession continues to limit their access to the legal market, as firms predominately accept trainees who graduate from a select number of universities; 16.4% of law trainees come from Oxbridge and 79.3% come from the Russell Group universities, which is made up of only 24 universities.

The problem in the legal industry is that you cannot qualify as a lawyer unless you have a training contract; 2 years hands-on training, usually within a law firm.  So, what if you did not go to a Russell Group university? How do you qualify as a lawyer?  The short answer is, you do not.  We have a barrier to entry which is automatically stacked against those who are not from independent schools.

So, law firms hire from top universities, why shouldn’t they?  Law firms are not social enterprises; they are commercial entities that are trying to pick the best of a pretty wide crop.  It’s logical that recruiters select from the best academic institutions, because we are conditioned to believe that the best lawyers come from the best universities; although we know that this is clearly not the case.   In addition, with the number of applications, there has to be some kind of benchmarking exercise to assist sifting through thousands of CVs.

The issue is not just about which university you graduated from, or whether you attended an independent school or not.  As many students know, CVs need to highlight a number of extracurricular activities as well.  However, extracurricular activities are not equally available to all. Historically, law firms have looked more favourably on students who spend gap years building bridges in developing countries and/or those who undertake a few weeks of relevant work experience.  However, spending every weekend or summer working as a waitress or a shop assistant is great experience and shows the characteristics we look for in any worker; it shows hard work, drive and determination of a different kind.  It is important to note that if you are from an independent school, you are expected to apply for summer placements and many parents have the connections to help you obtain them.  If, however, you are the first generation in your family to go to obtain GSCEs or A Levels, the first to go to university, you are unlikely to have those connections.  This means that your first day of work in a law firm will be your first exposure to this environment.  The earlier a student starts working in such an environment, the more you are exposed to the culture, and in the legal industry this is a big leg-up.

Law firms are unique environments and if you have prior exposure to working within one, you have a clear advantage when it comes to the recruitment process.  However, it is important to note that if a candidate from a less privileged educational or social background is successful in the process, the placement schemes, and starts a training contract, there are still cultural obstacles.  Many have talked about the “posh-ness test”, which can be judged by such factors as an individual’s accent, or whether they know the rules of rugby.  It all goes down to the cultural fit – there is an unconscious bias towards culturally strong players.

Needless to say, the groundwork is in place, but there is more to be done. Unlike gender equality, when it comes to social mobility, we are at an even earlier starting point and it is going to take a significant cultural shift to change attitudes. The profession needs to change its mindset that the only top universities breed the best legal talent.  We need to open up placement and summer schemes to a wider audience and ensure places are allocated fairly and not on the basis of personal contacts.  The University of Westminster report also referred to creating cost effective training schemes or a new quota system. If we want to truly tackle the issue of social mobility within the legal profession, this is going to take a multi-pronged approach. The law firms can only do so much on their own. The Law Society, universities and law schools should join the campaign.

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About the author:
Janvi was named as Red Hot Women 2013 (Power Part Time) and in the UK’s first ever Power Part Time Top 50 list. She is also a winner of the Enterprising Women of the Year Award 2013, and was nominated for the Asian Woman of the Year Award in 2013. An employment lawyer, Janvi is the Chairwoman and Co-Founder of Halebury.