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The Oracle

Are law firms elitist?

updated on 06 April 2021

Dear Oracle

I have read that some top firms still see 'poshness' as important when recruiting. I didn’t go to a selective school, but have good A levels and my ambition is to be a City lawyer – what does this mean for my chances?

The Oracle replies

Your background or accent should make no difference to your chances of achieving your ambition and there are many employers, including City firms, that have an appropriately modern approach to basic fairness in recruitment. Unfortunately, on the other hand we know that in 2020 private school alumni made up 50% of City partners, while solicitors from lower-socio economic backgrounds take 18 months longer to reach partner, according to a study by Bridge Group. Meanwhile, more than half of the public believe that covid-19 has worsened social inequality and only one-third of adults think everyone has a “fair chance to go as far as their hard work will take them”, a new poll from the Social Mobility Commission found.

Despite the elitist culture persisting at many firms, there are a number of initiatives that have been developed over the past few years that are aimed at levelling out the playing field and removing the invisible obstacles that prevent state-educated students and those from low socio-economic backgrounds from achieving their academic and professional goals.

It is true that some firms have certain universities that they target for law fairs, presentations and other forms of campus engagement, which they are convinced are the ‘best’ universities that are worth visiting. Research by the Social Mobility Foundation shows that most pre-pandemic campus visits by law firms were to a tiny number of universities – some 24 in all. Meanwhile, 126 other universities in the UK collectively accounted for only 9% of firms’ campus visits, even though students at these institutions hold 40% of the best A-level results nationwide.

Part of the reason for this highly selective approach would have been logistics. Before remote working and virtual events, it was impossible for firms’ recruitment teams to be everywhere at once, especially during the law fair season with multiple campus events often taking place at the same time, at opposite ends of the country. As such, recruiters would miss out on huge swathes of talent, potentially overlooking candidates who might have been better for the job. However, the past year has seen these recruitment practices turned on their head for the better, as the pandemic forced the country into lockdown and face-to-face events transitioned to virtual ones. Law firms and aspiring lawyers have benefited from the influx of virtual events and the opportunities they’ve had over the past year to speak to multiple firms at various law fairs from the comfort of their own homes. It is very likely that these virtual events will remain.

On top of this, 15 City of London Law Society (CLLS) member firms recently joined forces with Justine Greening’s Social Mobility Pledge, which will see them work closely with universities including Bradford, Staffordshire, Lincoln, York St John and Liverpool John Moore to improve access and equal opportunities into the legal profession. The project will focus on schools, access and recruitment. DLA Piper, Ashurst and Kingsley Napley are among the CLLS member firms that are part of the partnership, which is the first sector-wide initiative designed to facilitate leading law firms working together to develop solutions to address the lack of social mobility in the legal profession.

In addition, former Bristol University student and Herbert Smith Freehills trainee solicitor Sophie Pender founded the 93% Club to support those from low socio-economic backgrounds in making valuable connections and ultimately working towards equal opportunities. With 36 participating universities, the club now has a reach of more than 10,000 students, has charitable status and backing from law firms including Herbert Smith Freehills, DLA Piper and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.  

It’s also vital to note the lack of diversity within the profession. This is a fundamental issue, which weakens the whole sector by limiting the range of perspectives and experience that firms can bring to bear on behalf of their clients. For example, one employer infamously admitted to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (now called the Social Mobility Commission) that his firm is missing out on talent from less-privileged backgrounds, but was reluctant to spend resources on sifting through too much "mud" to find the odd "diamond" – a complete misconception of the amount of talent that is out there.

However, this does not mean you should give up. Despite attitudes like those and the fact that there is still a significant way to go, many firms have made commitments to work towards a more diverse and inclusive profession. Researching a firm is a great way for aspiring lawyers to find out about its culture and identify the initiatives it has in place to create a representative workforce.

There is increasing (and welcome) adoption of contextual recruitment practices, which factor performance against other relevant factors to give everyone a fair shot. Your good A- levels and a similar performance at university should give you the base ingredients you need to compete. From there, it’s all about getting as much work experience as you can and making sure your communication and teamwork skills are honed.

Target your applications carefully. A glance at a firm's roster will tell you a lot about the kind of people it recruits and whether it is a bit of an old boys' club. Firms with a broader outlook will be better to work for anyway. If you can demonstrate all the qualities and credentials for the job, there is no way that you should feel discouraged you from pursuing a career in the legal profession.