A guest blog by Nichola Evans, partner at Browne Jacobson in Manchester
Tackling social mobility has become a key issue within the legal profession. Targets and initiatives aimed at improving diversity and inclusivity have gathered momentum in recent years, and this has culminated in a marked increase in the volume of women and ethnic groups entering the sector.
Indeed, the legal sector is perhaps doing more than most to combat diversity issues. Published in June 2017, the Social Mobility Employer Index ranked UK employers for the first time on actions taken to provide opportunities for people of all backgrounds. In total, 16 law firms made the top 50, as well as the Honourable Society for the Inner Temple.
These efforts are paying dividends. Data released by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in October 2017 highlighted that, from less than 10% of all new admissions to the roll in 1970, women now constitute nearly half of all practitioners in the legal sector, representing over 60% of new admissions in 2016.
The representation of solicitors from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds has also greatly increased. This is perhaps most prevalent amongst those of Asian background, and in 2016 Asian solicitors accounted for 19% of all new admissions.
While the broadening of the sector to include more women and ethnic minority groups is clearly encouraging news, there remains, however, a great deal of work to be done if the legal sector is to truly reflect the society in which it operates.
The SRA suggests that the legal profession is still heavily influenced by factors such as class, gender and ethnicity. Large City law firms undertaking the highest-paying legal work are, for instance, dominated by white men who are likely to have attended fee-paying schools and have a family background of attending university.
There remains, then, a responsibility for law firms to continue to leverage the flow of diversity entering the sector and ensure those that do enter are afforded the same progression opportunities, regardless of whether that individual is from a poor background, is an ethnic minority, or a woman.
Challenging traditions within the sector is vital to achieving this, and this starts from the point of entry. The most traditional route into the sector, through training contracts, is a recognised issue in itself as these schemes tend to target high achievers and predominantly candidates from Russell Group universities.
Law firms need to look carefully at their application processes and how the requirements they are often asking for can create filters that deter the application of those from less privileged backgrounds. A-level results for instance, which are a common requirement for trainee contracts, prevent the consideration of candidates who have missed grades due to subjective circumstances.
Regardless, A-level grades can’t accurately portray candidate ability. There are a range of skills required in becoming a good lawyer and this can’t always be demonstrated by examination grades alone. It is for this reason that we at Browne Jacobson have removed entry requirements for our traditional training contracts and summer vacation scheme.
Another crucial factor impacting entry is the unspoken requirement for candidates to obtain work experience in order to secure a training contract. While work experience is no doubt beneficial, students from underprivileged backgrounds have greater difficulty in accessing these opportunities, often due to grades and financial restrictions.
To combat this, our Manchester office has set up a joint mentoring scheme with Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), which supports students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The scheme targets students who don’t have the advantages of private education, family wealth or access to networks in the sector, in order to help them develop the skills and knowledge needed in securing a training contract.
The legal sector is responsible for the fair administration of justice, and consequently has a duty above and beyond that of many other sectors to reflect the diverse society it serves. Truly tackling social mobility issues requires commitment and sponsorship from the top down, not just from an HR perspective alone.
Law firms large and small need to take more responsibility in their role in opening up the sector and in creating equal employment opportunities in order to build on the progress this sector has made in recent years.