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Big data to improve social mobility in twelve global law firms

Will create 'a truly class-blind, background-neutral meritocracy'

4 September 2015

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By Manju Manglani, Editor (@ManjuManglani)

A dozen international law firms are leveraging technology and big data to improve their levels of diversity and inclusion in London.

The contextual recruitment tool hardwires social mobility metrics into each firm's existing graduate recruitment applicant tracking system.

Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields, Linklaters, Macfarlanes, Norton Rose Fulbright, Slaughter and May, and Travers Smith aim to integrate the system into their own application systems during the 2015/16 graduate recruitment season.

In May, Baker & McKenzie and Hogan Lovells were the first firms to adopt the Contextual Recruitment System (CRS), with the aim of using it from the 2015/16 graduate recruitment season. They were followed by Ashurst and Herbert Smith Freehills in June.

The CRS is the first technology and data-driven tool of its kind in the UK. It enables firms to collect standardised data on candidates' economic background and personal circumstances, and to take a consistent approach when assessing their achievements, selection process performance and hiring potential.

Impact of unconscious bias on diversity levels

Several professional service firms, such as PwC and Freshfields, are providing unconscious bias training to overcome the inherent leanings of managers to recruit and promote people who resemble themselves.

"Implicit (or unconscious) bias is the silent destroyer of diversity in the legal profession. Favouring 'people like us' is human nature, but this becomes an issue when applied to the recruitment and promotion of staff," commented Funke Abimbola, a senior in-house lawyer leading the UK & Ireland legal team for the world's largest biotech company, in her Managing Partner article 'Inclusive practices: Why law firm diversity is key to client retention'.

For diversity specialist Sneha Khilay, the key to managing unconscious bias is to take proactive measures where concerns are acknowledged and acted on, with robust solutions put in place.

"Even well-meaning individuals who profess egalitarian values may hold implicit biases that result in negative employment consequences for minority groups," she warned in her Managing Partner article 'Hidden prejudice: Tips for tackling unconscious bias in your law firm'.

PwC has won several awards for its unconscious bias training, which is now a mandatory e-learning resource for all members of the firm. Diversity considerations are embedded in all of its processes and initiatives, including recruitment and performance management.

"Whenever we're doing a promotion interview - at various gateways through the firm there will be interview panels - we will always make sure there's at least one female on the interview panel. So this is really embedding diversity awareness throughout the process," commented Kate Wolstenholme, a PwC partner and UK business services sector leader, at a Managing Partner roundtable on gender equality in law firms.

"Similarly, before we do our staff moderation meeting where we're grading different staff on performance, we will read a statement to formally remind everybody about unconscious bias and diversity considerations at the beginning of that meeting just so that it is front of mind for everybody. And then it's a case of calling out bad behaviour when you see it."

The impact on her global firm's culture has been palpable.

"I think certainly our culture has changed in that respect very much through our open-mind training, which looks at unconscious bias. So many things now are no longer acceptable which previously would have been acceptable."

Impact of contextual recruitment on social mobility

The CRS is based on a two-year research project conducted by Rare and sponsored by Clifford Chance. The two research reports resulting from this partnership investigated the effects of socioeconomic status and unconscious bias on graduate recruitment.

As part its research, Rare convened a cross-industry group of people from leading academic, business, public and third-sector organisations to discuss the practical application of the reports' findings.

"It is an example of how practical solutions can arise from genuine cross-industry dialogue. Irrespective of the members' industry we all wanted to identify the best applicants, whilst ensuring that our selection processes remained rigorous, continued to target excellence, and were fair for all," said Annette Byron, a partner at Freshfields, which was involved in the working group.

"As a Rare client, Freshfields had already had a glimpse of what contextual data could do via the Articles legal development programme but through the working group discussions we really saw how contextual data could be applied to candidates. Importantly, it unified the language that we used to define disadvantage."

Nine law firms were involved with the Articles development programme at the time and received contextual information on all Rare applicants: Allen & Overy, Ashurst, Clifford Chance, Freshfields, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells, Macfarlanes, Slaughter and May, and Travers Smith.

Among them, hiring numbers are up 44 per cent so far this year. Around two-thirds of the candidates placed on summer vacation schemes had a moderate level of socioeconomic disadvantage and a third had higher levels.

In previous years, fewer candidates with social mobility characteristics were getting hired. This suggests that, as a result of contextual data, firms are now interviewing and hiring people that they previously would not have seen.

"The CRS is a game changer: the ability to measure and assess an individual's personal circumstances and academic environment, we believe, will lead to better, fairer, and more consistent decision-making by recruiters as to what 'top talent' at their organisation looks like," commented Rare's managing director, Raphael Mokades.

The issue of what really constitutes 'top talent' was the starting point of the contextual data project. Rare's research over the past 10 years consistently demonstrated that the best candidates were not necessarily those who looked best on paper. In addition, definitions of 'disadvantage', 'best' and organisational 'fit' were not universally agreed upon.

"In embracing technology and adopting both data and evidence-based approaches to defining disadvantage, we hope to unify the language - and thus approach - that top professional organisations use to address social mobility," said Mokades.

He believes the CRS represents a significant step in bringing about "a truly class-blind, background-neutral meritocracy".

The CRS uses information drawn from two databases: the first contains the exam results of more than 4,000 secondary schools and sixth form colleges in England; the second contains 2.5 million UK postcodes.

The system uses this information, together with the candidates' responses to questions asked, as part of the application process, to produce real-time contextual information on all of the candidates.

The algorithms and data analysis behind the CRS were informed by contributions from an expert geodemographer at Cambridge University and an expert in data science at Oxford University.





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