“I didn’t want my future to be shaped by how little money my parents had”. Those words were said during a recent catch up with a trainee solicitor.
That trainee comes from a family classed as ‘low’ on the socio-economic scale.
She’s had to fight every step of the way to follow her dream of becoming a solicitor, the route littered with barriers.
That dream is now within touching distance; and her words had a profound effect on me.
Browne Jacobson recently ranked 5th in the highly respected Social Mobility Foundation Index, an achievement we rightly celebrated.
But once the high fives and the celebrations were done, the reality kicked back in.
There is so much more to be done within the legal sector on social mobility.
A law firm should be an accurate representation of the clients it serves and the society in which they operate. That isn’t always the case.
One hurdle for aspiring solicitors is the insanely high academic bar some firms place into their application process for training contract or vacation schemes.
There simply isn’t justification for requiring such high grades with little data available to demonstrate that someone with straight ‘A’ grades at A’ level will perform better in the role of a trainee solicitor than someone with lesser grades.
You might even argue that those who have had to fight the hardest, because of their background, will work harder to ensure they succeed.
Another hurdle is when firms only allow candidates to apply if they already have additional qualifications such as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) or the Legal Practice Course (LPC) – and importantly, have already paid for them.
These significant costs prohibit so much talent from being able to afford to enter the profession, further widening the social mobility gap.
Lastly, what about securing work experience without having any connections at a firm or with its clients?
So, we decided to do something about it. And in 2016 we bit the bullet.
We removed the upper second class (2:1) degree and ABB grades at A’ level requirements for training contract or vacation scheme applications.
Candidates now apply with any degree classification. We don’t even look at A-Level grades.
In fact, we’ve completely anonymised our CVs to minimise bias.
Four years on, and as a direct result, we’ve seen the diversity of our junior lawyer population flourish.
Our 2016 intake comprised 7 per cent Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) individuals. Today, that figure is 42 per cent.
In the last three years, at least 33 per cent of offers have been made to candidates who would not previously have been eligible to apply, due to their academics.
Of this population, a high percentage achieved an ‘exceptional’ rating at their year-end appraisal.
This is talent we, and the legal profession, would have missed out on.
“The law profession is still unwilling to recruit non-Russell Group university graduates” – Social Mobility Foundation Index 2020.
Our university attraction strategy is now more inclusive. We run events virtually, meaning our outreach capability is huge.
From 2016 to 2019, we ran in person events at around 15 universities.
In 2019-2020 we delivered events accessed by 13,000-plus students from 96 universities, representing almost 64 per cent of UK universities.
We now have 50/50 representation within our trainee population of Russell Group and non-Russell Group attendees as a result.
We are a more diverse firm as a result of being brave and breaking the ‘norm’.
Law firms must quickly latch on to the fact that their client base will be more demanding of them in terms of diversity.
They have a key role in helping give the next generation of lawyers greater access to the skills sessions, contacts and insights needed to be successful with their applications.
Covid-19 has presented the opportunity to move events online. This offers a future where a fairer playing field for students attending universities not typically targeted by bigger firms’ ‘milk rounds’ have access to previously exclusive events.
Any aspiring solicitor should be able to access and progress in the profession – regardless of their socio-economic background.
Together, if we are brave enough, our profession can help overcome the traditional barriers and make a difference.
We just need to open our minds… and our processes.
Tom Lyas is talent acquisition manager at Browne Jacobson...