Law firms are still failing to recruit outside of the usual routes of public school and elite universities with the lack of diversity particularly acute at senior levels.
The Social Mobility Foundation (SMF) will next month publish a report showing that law firms are missing out on talent and profit by not taking graduates from non-professional family backgrounds who attended state schools.
The SMF constantly monitors the backgrounds of people employed in the UK’s top jobs and looked into the performance of 40 law firms, including the four magic circle firms.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority reported in April that although 7% of UK citizens were educated at private schools, the figure for privately educated corporate lawyers is 33%. This has led the SMF to conclude that despite widely publicised efforts to broaden recruitment, the selective promotion of lawyers from a narrow social group has changed little.
Last year’s social mobility employer index compiled by the foundation, which features the Cabinet Office, the BBC and MI5, as well as the professions, has examined the performance of 40 law firms, including four “magic circle” firms, and barristers’ chambers.
As an absolute starting point, all law firms need to collect socioeconomic data on their staff to assess the problem. Then they can get serious about solutions” – Rosalind Goates, Social Mobility Foundation
Rosalind Goates, head of advocacy and campaigns at the foundation, said: “Law Firms are waking up to the need to hire for potential, not simply polish; however, progress is slow. Many in the sector still only recruit from Russell Group universities, which have fewer people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and we know that there remains a lack of senior leadership and buy-in from the top at many firms.
She implied that some firms had not approached social mobility with enough seriousness: “Critically organisations cannot simply pay lip service to social mobility. There needs to be an emphasis on culture, ensuring those with different life experiences are welcomed and not overlooked. Otherwise, individuals get in but don’t ‘get on’.
“It is a large sector, and some firms are leading the way, such as Browne Jacobson with their Fairer Access into Real Experience and Clifford Chance with their decision to measure, report and close their class pay gap.”
She said the collection of data was important: “As an absolute starting point, all law firms need to collect socioeconomic data on their staff to assess the problem. Then they can get serious about solutions.”
Sarah Atkinson, the chief executive of the foundation told The Times: “Every year, we have flagged that progression and social mobility at senior levels [in law firms], even among the best performers in the index, is the area where we see little change.” This year, she added “we are worried we are seeing things that are slipping back”.
She said some of the large City law firms still recruited 95% of their graduate intake from elite universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and those of the Russell Group, and that there was a “real nervousness” among law firms to do anything different that might feel as if it risked “lowering standards or quality”.
Research has shown that the best lawyers are not necessarily those with privileged backgrounds who studied at the top universities. Data analyst firm Pirical has shown there is no correlation between performance of lawyers and what school they attended and the A levels they were awarded.
Many law firms have launched diversity schemes, signed up to networks to improve diversity and social mobility, and collected data on their recruitment performance. But while all this was praiseworthy, said Atkinson, there was often a failure to to support and sponsor graduate recruitment using social mobility inclusion schemes.
Senior lawyers, she said, too often resort to informal networks and mentoring to progress lawyers who look and behave like themselves. This denies talent and representation from lawyers who are outside the traditional corporate groupthink, she added.
The foundation’s findings support those of inclusion consultancy Extensis, which reported last week that only 1% of partners at law firms were black. It identified five measures that law firms could implement to improve diversity at senior levels. These were: tying executive compensation to diversity and inclusion outcomes, support for the “nuanced needs and talents acutely faced by black talent”; sponsorship programmes to target underrepresented talent; and delegating work and career development opportunities equitably through use of algorithmic technology.