To what extent is law moving its emphasis away from education, and honing in on experiences?
In 2015, a report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission slammed the top UK law firms for their bias against graduates who did not attend private schools.
Drawing conclusions from the socio-economic diversity data provided by 15 elite London firms, the study shed light on the fact that roughly 40% of trainee solicitors were privately educated. The report further criticised law firms “current definitions of talent” — which it was argued could “be closely mapped on to socioeconomic status, including middle-class norms and behaviours”. While somewhat unsurprising, the findings served to prove the industry still had far to go in achieving true diversity.
Thankfully, the legal sector has woken up to the need for a diverse workforce and firms are finally taking concrete steps to encourage students from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds to apply.
In their new social mobility programme, this is exactly what PwC are trying to achieve.
Earlier this year, they became an affiliate firm to Aspiring Solicitors, a social enterprise dedicated to providing free access, opportunities and support to students from underrepresented groups.
The programme, which went live at the end of April, is the first initiative from PwC’s UK legal pro bono and skills-based volunteering unit; it builds on the work of the firm’s Community Affairs programme. Through the initiative, thirty volunteers from PwC’s legal network are providing mentoring and assistance to aspiring, would-be lawyers from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Further to this, PwC are co-hosting workshops with Aspiring Solicitors in its offices throughout the UK to help young people obtain the skills they need in order to land training contracts and vacation scheme placements.
Keily Blair, the founder of the pro bono unit and a solicitor and director in PwC’s regulatory and commercial disputes team, said:
“At PwC, we believe a person’s future should be determined by their talent and determination, but for too many people, unfortunately, that is not always the case,” she said.
“As one of the biggest recruiters in the country we recognise we can play a role in levelling the playing field and, through initiatives such as this, help give more young people access to opportunities and build the pipeline of future talent in the legal profession. “
Having recently integrated their legal arm into the wider PwC UK business, this ‘Big Four’ accountancy giant is leading the way on diversity in the legal sector by actively working to provide candidates from less fortunate backgrounds the chance at a thriving legal career. The question is, will others follow suit?
Ahead of the curve, magic circle firm Clifford Chance were quick to adopt blind CVs as part of their recruitment process when a study revealed that an Eton or Oxbridge education was still a must for high performers in a range of professions, including the practice of law.In their first year of using this technique, the firm took on 100 graduate trainees from 41 different educational institutions – a rise of 30% since the previous year.
Beyond this, almost 90 firms and legal departments across the country have signed up to Prime, an initiative dedicated in widening access to the legal profession which offers work experience to aspiring students from less privileged backgrounds. Prime often targets young people who would be the first in their family to attend university, or those who received free school meals due to low parent income.
One of Prime’s founding members is Linklaters, another “magic circle” firm who have been working to provide tutoring, mentoring, work experience and career opportunities to 2,500 young people in Hackney evert year through its Realising Aspirations programme.
Eager to improve diversity in the profession, many firms are beginning to offer legal apprenticeships which allow students to train at the same time as earning a salary. For young people without access to funds for university courses, these apprenticeships can make all the difference. Multinational law firm Baker & McKenzie recently launched its first legal administration apprenticeship programme for school leavers, delivered by the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx).
It’s clear that action must being taken to remove educational bias from legal recruitment, and according to the key players in the sector, there is a genuine commitment to improving diversity and taking advantage of the previously untapped talent pools across the country:
“We need people from different backgrounds who bring diverse experiences and views to the table in order to keep innovating and stay relevant to the clients we serve,” says David Morley, a senior partner at Allen & Overy and chair of Prime. “A process of change is definitely underway.”