Work on increasing social mobility in the legal profession is losing ground amid concerns over the effectiveness of the many separate initiatives aimed at increasing diversity, the latest paper from the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) has suggested.
It also highlighted worries that increasing financial constraints on legal aid and the “growing vulnerability” of smaller firms and the third sector may mean there are “increasingly few opportunities for lawyers to train in social justice/social welfare settings”.
The discussion paper on equality, diversity and social mobility issues affecting education and training in the law said this could have significant longer-term implications for access to justice, particularly for many in black and minority ethnic (BME) communities.
The wide-ranging paper said the LETR’s work so far highlighted “both the undoubted progress that has been made in increasing equality and diversity in legal education and training, and the widespread concerns that not only is there still more that could be done, but that work on increasing social mobility is losing ground…
“The picture painted is thus of a system where early social and educational inequalities have a long reach forward from childhood into (young) adulthood, often reinforced by institutional barriers created by a system that actually rewards the most socially advantaged.”
The LETR acknowledged the argument that the legal professions are not responsible for correcting the shortcomings of the education system, but said there is still the question of how far they should take responsibility for perpetuating or even re-inscribing the effects of these into their training and recruitment systems.
The paper noted the numerous diversity initiatives currently in place – such as Pathways to Law, PRIME, the Pegasus Access Scheme and Professions for Good – and said that while they “undoubtedly make some difference” to the individuals involved, it is “rather less clear” what impact they have collectively.
Further, it has also been argued that the fact they are largely confined to the large corporate firms and the in-house sector mean they are unlikely to produce significant or rapid changes to the overall diversity of the profession.
The paper said that creating more flexible entry routes to the law may help increase diversity, but “only if the value of those alternatives is respected and assured, otherwise there is a danger that flexibility and expansion may also generate new forms of discrimination. Differences, it seems, breed hierarchies.
“This also begs a much larger question: how do we address discrimination by the market, within a system that increasingly looks to the market for regulation?”
The LETR said that while there is insufficient research to draw firm conclusions about the fairness of recruitment processes, there are trends that are “a cause of concern”.
These included using A-levels as a selection criterion, which “risks re-inscribing the inequalities of the secondary education system straight back into the workplace”; the significance of prior legal work experience in recruitment decisions, “which evidence suggests is often not allocated on a fair basis”; and the extent to which legal recruiters focus their interest and resources on a narrow range of universities.