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Kryss  Macleod

Director of undergraduate programmes, Manchester Law School

Building bridges

Building bridges


Dr Kryss Macleod says mentoring schemes, bridging legal education and employment, can increase mobility and diversity within the profession 

Mentoring has long since played a key part in professional life, characterised by the establishment of trusted relationships with meaningful commitments. To understand this, it’s important to consider how the goals and purposes of mentoring have changed, as our understanding of the barriers within the profession have developed; to reconfigure mentoring as a tool to increase mobility and diversity. 

Early strategy

Formally recognised as part of a career development strategy in law and finance since the 1970s, the benefits of professional mentoring are well established. Studies dating from the late 70s and early 80s demonstrate the key role that mentoring plays in successful career development.

The goal of the mentor is to help the mentee develop in some way and increase their effectiveness by guiding, encouraging and strengthening them to make positive changes that help with professional progression.

These early definitions of mentoring described the role of the mentor as a guide, counsellor and sponsor. They identified mentors as individuals with influence and experience who are committed to ensuring upward progress and support for the mentee’s career. Finding a mentor (by having access to suitable individuals in roles with influence and experience) often relied on individuals having existing links in these networks, also known as social capital.

Social capital

At its simplest, social capital is that networks have worth, recognised by the adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. This has a downside: some groups have far more developed networks than others and thus wield more influence. This can act to exclude individuals and groups with less social capital.

Cultural capital is seen in those markers that help an individual advance, such as knowledge, language, qualifications and educational institutions attended – which link to networks and social capital. Mentoring dependent on individuals having social capital to access networks in which suitable mentors are found, consolidates this capital within a largely pre-determined group based upon shared social and cultural capital. This reinforces the ‘type’ of people within the profession. 


Various studies over the past 15 years have identified that recruitment in the legal profession often relies upon both social and cultural capital. Recent figures on diversity in the profession, from the SRA’s biennial survey, indicate that despite advances being made in some areas, some trends seem intractable. There are gaps in educational background – lawyers who attended fee paying schools are overrepresented in law by 14 per cent (rising to 47 per cent in corporate practice).

‘First generation’ issues also crop up: 51 per cent of lawyers have parents with degree-level qualification compared to 19 per cent in the general population; and 15 per cent had a parent who was employed in a ‘traditional’ profession, such as law or accountancy. There are increases in both the percentage of female solicitors and Asian solicitors, but both increases come with limits.

Women make up 49 per cent of solicitors, though that falls to 34 per cent for partners, and then to 29 per cent in firms with 50 partners or more. Of all lawyers, 15 per cent are Asian compared to 7 per cent in the UK workforce overall; yet in firms with 50 partners or more, Asian solicitors made up only 5 per cent. Black people comprise 3 per cent of solicitors, broadly according to representation in the population.

But again, divisions appear in the types of work: firms doing mainly private client or criminal work have 40 per cent and 33 per cent black and minority ethnic (BAME) lawyers respectively, falling to 15 per cent of BAME solicitors in firms doing mainly corporate work. Access to the profession, viewed through these figures, is not translating to access to all areas of the profession, or to the wealth inherent in these tough to reach areas of practice.

Repurposing mentoring

Familial relationships, social connections, wealth and educational privilege all play a common role in creating networks of worth in gaining a foothold and advancing in professional life. They are often set in place even before an individual has begun to engage with a professional path. This is often compounded by the self-limiting belief ‘that’s not for the likes of us’ (noted by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) that can pervade expectation setting for those 
who do not have high levels of social and cultural capital.

When, as educators and employers, we wish to seek out talent based on merit, but networks play key roles in supporting actions that result in access to education and employment, the goal becomes the synthesis of the impacts of these networks within a short frame of time. For many law schools and firms, mentoring has taken on a specific social mobility focus aiming to bridge these capital gaps and work towards a more diverse profession.

The concept of bridging social capital, originally suggested by political scientist Robert D Putnam, could assist in the construction of mentoring schemes that act as a catalyst for mobility. Bridging social capital is the construction of social networks that extend beyond homogeneous groups, based on the premise of creating new relationships and helping individuals in adjusting within new environments and communities.

Mentoring models In higher education, mentoring schemes link students with mentors from a wide range of organisations in the legal sector. Mentoring schemes focused on bridging capital would ideally be designed around four key areas: expectations; behaviours; networks; alignment of norms; and identification of professional networks.

Barriers and hard-to-reach practice areas would be identified and targeted using this model. Firms too are increasingly implementing ‘newly qualified’ mentoring schemes. As is evident from the barriers highlighted in the diversity statistics, focusing these on bridging capital could bring benefits from higher education right through to mid to upper levels of practice.

Models of mentoring have also evolved considerably in the last 40 years to include team mentoring, online mentoring and multiple mentoring. This wider range of models can support organisations in ensuring their mentoring schemes can work within their structures and resources. As noted by Paul Philip, chief executive at the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA), in response to the data, a “diverse and inclusive legal profession which reflects the wider community is not only good for the public but for legal businesses themselves”. Good mentoring is a two-way process and the mentor will usually gain as much from the process as the mentee.

One approach for initiating mentoring relationships is that mentees tell their story to their mentor; gaining perspective like this can be an enlightening experience for many mentors. For firms, this can help give an insight into stocks of resilience required to pursue goals despite obstacles and the navigational skill sets deployed to navigate unfamiliar institutions and processes.

Diversification through mentoring programmes can also offer a way to exchange counter forms of knowledge and skills that challenge the presence and perpetuation of inequality. Mentoring to support the development of bridging capital for individuals based on merit will see the strengthening of that community in perspective, scope and ability, diversifying the range of members and developing the norms and purpose of the group as a whole. The legal community has much to gain from diversification of its members – mentoring is a way in which that can be supported.  

Dr Kryss Macleod is director of undergraduate programmes at Manchester Law School