Some 70% of jobs at elite law, accountancy and financial firms go to applicants from private or selective schools, research from the UK’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission claims. In some top law firms, trainees are more than five times as likely to have attended a fee-paying school than the population as a whole. The commission argues that a ‘poshness’ test is being used, which favours candidates with ‘polish’ and discriminates against those with working-class accents.

Law firms have already acknowledged that there has been a problem – there has, for example, long been a bias towards recruiting from the UK’s top universities, otherwise known as the Russell Group. But things are changing.

The PRIME initiative

Initiatives include PRIME, an alliance of 80 law firms and legal departments across the UK that aims to broaden access to the legal profession by offering work experience to those from less privileged backgrounds.

Last year, 1,200 PRIME placements were provided across the UK, up from 751 in the first year. No fewer than 86% of those students met criteria in that they attended a state school and were either eligible for free school meals (FSM), attended a school with a higher than average proportion of students eligible for FSM or would be the first generation in their family to attend university.

Other aspects of the PRIME initiative include workshops. Since 2013, Totum has supported CMS, one of PRIME’s founding firms, to run workshops helping work experience students with interview skills and CV preparation (see our recent article detailing the latest event held at CMS). We are delighted to be able to share our practical expertise in efforts that we think can make a real difference to a student’s ability to get into a career in law.

Above and beyond

Such initiatives don’t stop once the placement has ended either. Another PRIME co-founder Allen & Overy, for example, offers e-mentoring after the placement, and a couple of outstanding participants are also awarded a bursary to support them in their university studies.

A similar programme is offered by Simmons & Simmons. We recently attended a CSR evening at the firm, in which we learnt more about their longstanding partnership with Frederick Bremer School, which featured in Channel 4 show ‘Educating the East End’. The firm’s Young Talent Programme offers students from the school work experience, as well as the possibility of a university bursary. Apart from helping to improve social mobility in law, it may be that such endeavours secure for these firms some great future talent.

Additionally, law firms are making great efforts at the recruitment level. Hogan Lovells and Baker & McKenzie have signed up for a new contextual recruitment tool, which hardwires social mobility metrics into a firm’s existing graduate recruitment system.

This enables firms to take the economic background and personal circumstances of a candidate into account, and allows them to assess a candidate’s academic performance against the overall performance of their school.

The tool’s developer, Rare, points out that someone who gets AAA at A Level from a school where the average is DDE, whose parents may not have attended university, and who lives in a deprived postcode, is outstanding – even if he or she does not have glistening work experience and extra-curricular activities.

A ‘CV blind’ policy for final interviews is also being implemented by some law firms, with the interviewers not being told any information about which university candidates attended, or whether they come from state or independent schools.

Overcoming the obstacles to change the future

But there are challenges. Unlike gender or race, there is no standard indicator of social class, and firms face obstacles in terms of defining what class diversity truly looks like. Indeed, the commission’s report notes that more could be done to encourage ‘ordinary’ applicants: those in the upper echelons of society already have an advantage; diversity initiatives focus on the least privileged; but those in the middle are being neglected.

The commission praised those firms that are taking a lead in promoting diversity. But for such strategies to truly work, there needs to be ongoing support to help those from less traditional backgrounds to fit in. The firm’s entire culture has to be one of inclusiveness and not be something that simply stalls once diversity recruitment targets have been hit. Prominent role models will also become invaluable to help inspire others and keep up the momentum.

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