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Breaking barriers: social mobility in the legal sector

updated on 12 December 2023

Reading time: eight minutes

“You don’t look like a solicitor, you’ll never make it.” This is what former president of the Law Society I. Stephanie Boyce was told throughout her journey to becoming a solicitor. Boyce’s story encapsulates the outdated homogeneity concerning what a typical solicitor should ‘look and sound like’.

Beyond individual anecdotes, recent statistics published by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) reveal a stark reality: more than half of solicitors (57%) come from a professional socioeconomic background, compared to 37% of the general population. These numbers aren’t just statistics; they reflect systemic barriers that limit diversity and inclusion within the legal sector.

As someone who came from a low socioeconomic background, as well as growing up in a single-parent household and being a Black woman, it becomes clear as to why Boyce met such resistance in trying to pursue a legal career. In the evolving legal landscape of the legal profession, the question persists: should who your parents are, the conditions you were born into or how you look determine the feasibility of a legal career?

The history of social mobility in the legal sector
Understanding social mobility
upReach and social mobility
upReach’s Slaughter and May Springboard

The history of social mobility in the legal sector

Historically, the legal sector has been perceived as elitist and exclusive. With 22% of solicitors coming from a privately educated background, compared to the general population of 7.5%, it’s no surprise that there’s a significant focus on enhancing access and fostering diversity within the legal sector.

Within the legal field, diversity and inclusion efforts are usually based on the nine characteristics outlined by The Equality Act 2010. These include sexual orientation, disability, race and other factors. However, socioeconomic background isn’t listed as a protected characteristic.

The SRA’s code of conduct encourages people to act “in a way that encourages equality, diversity and inclusion”.  While the nine protected characteristics are fundamental in acting in alignment with principle six, the issue of social mobility must be prioritised in order to achieve “equality, diversity and inclusion”. Recent SRA data demonstrates notable progress in enhancing accessibility, diversity and inclusion in the legal sector since 2019. There’s been an increase in the representation of women, Black and Asian lawyers, and disabled professionals.

However, the percentage of lawyers from fee-paying or independent schools has remained stagnant. Currently, 26% of partners are privately educated, an increase from 2019 when 25% of partners were privately educated. This disparity between the wider population and those in the profession highlights a lack of social mobility within the legal field, hence contributing to the lack of diversity within the field.

There have been various calls for socioeconomic backgrounds to be included as a protected characteristic. However, the fact remains that only 17% of solicitors in the UK come from a lower socioeconomic background, compared to 39% nationally. Arguably, we must not wait till socioeconomic background is included in the Equality Act for it to be deemed on par with the listed characteristics. The case for social mobility is overt and urgent. On a holistic level, the SRA’s data findings show that progress is indeed being made within the legal profession, but more work needs to be done to improve social mobility in the sector.

Understanding social mobility

Social mobility is the link between a person’s occupation or income and the occupation or income of their parents. Put simply, it refers to the relationship between an individual’s starting point and where they end up as adults.

Various factors contribute to the lack of social mobility in the legal sector. Below are some of the barriers within the field:

  • Financial barriers/burdens: The courses required to become a solicitor in the UK can cost between £26,000 to £60,000. Financial challenges force students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to fund their studies through part-time work, restricting time for academic and extracurricular activities, essential for enhancing employability.
  • Exclusive internship culture: Securing a training contract or graduate job is heavily linked to the successful completion of a vacation scheme (a legal internship). Although some firms offer vac schemers money for expenses (this varies firm to firm), candidates from less advantaged backgrounds can often not afford to work without compensation. This perpetuates a cycle where only individuals with financial support can access crucial opportunities.
  • Networking challenges: Building a network is pivotal in the legal profession. Without professional networks, individuals lack crucial application support and career guidance. This particularly affects students from low socioeconomic backgrounds who may not be informed about application process demands and requirements.                        

The Social Mobility Network by upReach is designed to be “the network for those without a professional network”. Using this platform, students can interact with hundreds of professionals keen to support their development by requesting expert advice, career chats and even mock interviews. The Social Mobility Network proves pivotal to students as they can develop their technical knowledge and commercial awareness. This is just one example of the various targeted interventions upReach offers to support undergraduates from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Within the legal sector, various initiatives are being implemented to ensure accessibility and successful progression for diverse talent. For example, one of upReach’s partners, Allen & Overy LLP,  implemented the Smart Start Scheme, which provides more than 1,600 young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds with high-quality work experience. It’s no surprise the firm recently ranked seventh in the Social Mobility Employer Index 2023, demonstrating the genuine efforts being made by firms within the legal sector to tackle social mobility in particular.

The introduction of diverse pathways to becoming a solicitor, such as apprenticeships and the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), enhances accessibility. It’s estimated that completion of the SQE as well as an undergraduate degree will cost approximately £20,000 less than the Legal Practice Course/Graduate Diploma in Law route, removing unjustified barriers for aspiring solicitors.

upReach and social mobility

upReach is an award-winning social mobility charity driven by a vision of a society in which everybody has an equal opportunity to realise their full career potential, regardless of social background. Founded in 2012, upReach supports more than 3,000 students to access and sustain top graduate jobs each year. upReach’s core programme includes delivering one-to-one career coaching to undergraduates from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. upReach supports students to discover a variety of career options and develop the vital employability skills, networks, and experiences needed to succeed in their chosen careers and beyond. Our 2022/23 cohort was typically five times more likely to be successful when applying to one of our partner employers than the average applicant.

Employers partner with us in a variety of ways. Some engage their employees by offering the opportunity to mentor our students, offer insight days or exclusive work experience opportunities – all helping to support individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, while improving their talent pipeline. Some also use our contextual recruitment tool, REALrating, to ensure they’re selecting candidates on potential, not privilege.

upReach partnerships are bespoke and impact-driven, which helps attract more applications from high-calibre students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, with a very high success rate. Of the students on our programme, 72% are from ethnic minority backgrounds and more than half are women. At upReach, a range of different interventions, programmes and initiatives are employed to ensure the multifaceted barriers listed above are adequately addressed and talent, not privilege, is recognised.

Applications for upReach’s Slaughter and May Law Springboard are now open!

upReach’s Law Springboard, sponsored by Slaughter and May, is a two-year programme of personalised career support, designed to help eligible university students interested in commercial law. The springboard helps students to explore their career options, increase their employability, widen their professional network and ultimately secure top vacation schemes.

The success of the programme is evident in the 2022/23 cohort where 96% of students stated that the springboard had helped them make informed decisions about their careers. Additionally, 97% of students felt that they’d had access to opportunities to which they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Apply for our 2023/24 Law Springboard

To apply, you must meet our eligibility criteria for the programme – that is, you must:

  • be in your first year of university (or graduating in 2026), studying full-time at a UK university;
  • have A-level grades of AAB (or the contextualised equivalent);
  • come from a household with income that’s below £42,620;
  • be state school educated; and
  • be interested in commercial law.

Applications for the programme will be reviewed on a rolling basis and places are limited, so submit your applications as early as possible. The deadline to apply is 15 January 2024. Applicants can expect to hear back from upReach on the next steps to get started with the programme sometime in January 2024.


Despite existing diversity initiatives, a more focused and sustained effort is needed to address social mobility within the profession. Former President of the Law Society Nick Emmerson rightly stated: “Talented, intelligent, tenacious solicitors can be found in every corner of England and Wales. We all need to prioritise diversity and inclusion, including social mobility, so our profession accurately reflects the society we serve.”

As we reflect on the state of social mobility within the legal sector, it becomes evident that addressing these barriers is crucial for fostering diversity and inclusion. Breaking down financial hurdles, redefining internship norms, promoting accessible networking opportunities, and actively seeking diverse representation are essential steps towards a legal sector that truly mirrors the diversity of society. By dismantling these barriers, we pave the way for a legal landscape where talent prevails over privilege, and where every aspiring lawyer has an equal opportunity to rise and contribute to the pursuit of justice. In doing so, we move towards a legal sector where nobody will be told that “they don’t look like a solicitor” because a solicitor can look like anybody.

Ola Hassan is a programme coordinator at upReach.