Claire Butler - Time working-class kids were PRIME candidates?
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While women and black and ethnic minorities have increasingly come to populate the legal profession, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are still woefully underrepresented. Research published in late 2010, for example, analysed nearly 50,000 lawyers' LinkedIn profiles and found that 15% had been to public school - this despite only 2% of the general population receiving a private education.
Bias on the part of legal recruiters towards candidates from wealthy backgrounds must be partly to blame; a study published last year found that firms tended to favour candidates with 'smart' accents and public school backgrounds because it was perceived they would promote an 'upmarket' brand. All the while these firms claim to embrace diversity, said the leader of the study Dr Louise Ashley: "Focusing on ethnicity enables law firms to boast excellence or at the very least improve diversity outcomes, despite the fact that they have continued to recruit using precisely the same types of class privilege that have always been in operation."
And with soaring tuition fees and poor graduate job prospects likely to discourage those from less-wealthy backgrounds from going to university, there's a real risk of the legal profession becoming more, not less, elitist.
Hoping to change this is a new initiative called PRIME - backed by the likes of Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance and Linklaters - which will provide legal work experience to underprivileged 14- to 18-year-old school kids. But are projects like this enough to open up the profession or is a fundamental shift in attitudes necessary?
Law blogger Charon QC thinks the initiative is at least a step in the right direction: "A career in law should not depend on contacts. PRIME provides an excellent opportunity for all who wish to enter the legal profession to start at the same start line. After that, it should all be down to talent. Hopefully even small law firms will sign up for this."
Puneet Tahim, graduate recruiter at DLA Piper (one of PRIME's founding firms), also thinks it will improve things: "Many people, from both fee-earning and business support communities, have already volunteered to contribute and are excited at the prospect of taking part in such an important initiative. We firmly believe that it is our responsibility to widen access to the profession to people from all backgrounds and that giving them exposure to the sector from an early age will help to raise their aspirations."
Whether this well-intentioned project will improve the opportunities open to candidates from less-wealthy backgrounds remains to be seen, but it could simply be masking a much deeper problem.
Richard Moorhead, writing in this post for his Lawyer Watch blog, takes a similarly critical view of the initiative.