City law firms need get on with agreeing a common approach to measure social mobility in their recruitment processes, a roundtable has heard.
Former MP, minister and City solicitor Seema Kennedy, chair of Levelling Up Law, told the event organised by CILEx Regulation that she was “still waiting” for the firms taking part in the initiative to do this.
There are 15 City law firms involved after they signed a social mobility pledge last year that forms part of the Purpose Coalition, headed by former cabinet minister Justine Greening.
Standardising the collection of diversity data to capture socio-economic disadvantage would provide a benchmark against which progress could be effectively monitored. It was one of three recommendations made in the opportunity action plan published by Levelling Up Law last August.
The second was that member law firms form ‘opportunity bridges’ with 13 participating non-Russell Group universities to connect their students with placement and recruitment opportunities.
Ms Kennedy said: “We know there are a lot of students who are very talented but don’t have the knowledge or social capital to apply to these law firms. There’s been some progress but it’s quite slow.”
The third was that member firms should become wider advocates for strong practices on social mobility and diversity, forming a ‘Levelling Up Law Coalition’.
“I said to firms – you are very trusted by your clients. If you’re saying to your clients that you need to get serious about your ESG, your purprose strategy and recruitment, they will listen to you. The legal profession has an enormous advocacy and convening power.”
She said she wanted to widen out initiative’s work beyond solicitor firms and bring in the likes of CILEX. The body for legal executives was a “really powerful tool to increase diversity in the solicitors’ profession, at the Bar and then among judges and coroners”.
Ms Kennedy said she was encouraged that law firms “have definitely changed” when it came to diversity in the 25 years since she qualified at Slaughter and May.
But her work with Levelling Up Law has highlighted a range of issues: “Law firms were telling us that they really wanted to look outside Oxbridge and the Russell Group but they just couldn’t because they had so many applications, not only for training contracts but [work experience] too.”
As a result, they “just kept on going back to the same people”.
Universities were responding by telling City firms that they were “snobs” and not doing enough to advertise themselves outside the usual institutions, Ms Kennedy went on. Issues such as students being unable to afford the train fare to attend open days were not being addressed.
A-levels were a “massive barrier” too, she said. “If firms want to really broaden out their pool of candidates from a wider background, they need to rethink their ideas about A-levels, because they’re not a gold standard.”
In the discussion about social mobility that followed, representatives of both the Solicitors Regulation Authority and Law Society reassured her that work was going on beyond the initiative to standardise questioning on social mobility.
In response, Ms Kennedy urged “a joint effort between all the regulators just to have one set of standards”.
Sarah Chambers, chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel, urged a greater link between diversity aims and consumers. If understanding consumers from different communities was part of selection and recruitment criteria, “as a by-product will get more diverse profession”.
Jonathan Rees, chair of CILEx Regulation, said: “A number of key themes emerged from the session including the importance of sector collaboration. It is essential that we learn from each other and work together as a sector to improve outcomes for everyone.
“Ensuring fair access for all is not just the right thing to do but it also contributes to positive outcomes for businesses and consumers.
“By working with the sector to tackle counter-inclusive behaviours, we aspire to ensure that everyone working in the legal profession is treated fairly.”
He said the regulator would use the outputs from the roundtable to develop further its equality, diversity and inclusion strategy, “including continuing to tackle the barriers CILEX-qualified practitioners face in progressing in their careers”.