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The Oracle

Are law firms elitist?

updated on 16 September 2019

Dear Oracle

I have read that some top firms still see 'poshness' as important when recruiting. I didn’t go to a selective school and have a Birmingham accent, 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 71% of Queen’s Counsel barristers and three-quarters of judges went to private school, while the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has previously reported that some of the country’s top law, accountancy and financial services firms continue to recruit on the basis of who has the right accent, background and connections, rather than on merit, regardless of background. One employer claimed that hiring people from the same background increases workforce efficiency because it guarantees that colleagues will always get each other’s jokes. That says a lot about the culture that persists at some firms.

A significant proportion of the senior lawyers at City firms remain an elite group, hailing from prestigious schools and universities, and often affluent backgrounds. In the example of the employer above, the ability to “get jokes” is not only about social skills, but the more nebulous concept of ‘polish’ – the ability to fit in with the behaviours and values that are common to that narrow social group.

If you were to ask a partner at one of these firms about equal opportunities and diversity, you may well receive an answer along the lines of "oh, anyone can work at my firm," and they could probably point to colleagues who didn’t attend elite schools as evidence. But if you look at how these firms' recruiting processes work in practice, the chances of breaking through from one of the universities they don’t already target for recruitment are fairly low.

This is because elite firms long ago shifted from a recruitment system in which people were hired through informal networks to targeting specific campuses, where they hire directly from the pool of second and third-year students – and increasingly first years, too.

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 the vast majority of campus visits by law firms are to a tiny number of universities – some 24 in all. Meanwhile, 126 other universities in the UK collectively account for only 9% of firms’ campus visits, despite the fact that students at these institutions hold 40% of the best A-level results nationwide.

Part of the reason for this highly selective approach is logistics. Firms’ recruitment teams cannot be everywhere at once, while during the law fair season especially, there are often multiple campus events taking place at the same time. However, these recruitment practices also ensure that firms miss out on huge swathes of talent, potentially overlooking candidates who would be better for the job.

The diversity of the profession is also damaged, 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 SMCPC 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. Many firms have made steps to improve diversity and inclusion in recent years, for example, 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 or not 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 your accent or the school you attended should discourage you from pursuing a career in the legal profession.