Pupillage providers using blind recruitment “are less diverse”

Neale: Profession still has much to do

Pupillage providers using blind or contextual recruitment techniques have a higher proportion of male and White pupils than those who do not, research by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) has found.

Separate independent research for the BSB found that at the final interview stage, it became harder to “ignore the ‘polish’ of more advantaged candidates”.

The BSB found, in the first report, that blind recruitment – where those responsible for shortlisting are not given personal information about applicants such as names and schools – was used by 42% of providers. The proportion was higher, at almost two-thirds, for the largest pupillage providers.

Other recruitment techniques to encourage diversity were less popular. Only 18% used contextual recruitment, which takes into account candidates’ personal circumstances when assessing them.

While a third of pupillage providers with 50 or more barristers used contextual recruitment, it was used by little over 1% of those with fewer than 25. Blind and contextual recruitment was most commonly used by chambers and other providers specialising in commercial law.

One in seven pupillage providers, 16%, were committed to using “diverse interview and/or recruitment panels”.

Researchers said their “most striking finding” relating to outcomes was that providers using blind or contextual recruitment had a “higher proportion of male pupils and a higher proportion of White pupils” than those which did not.

“This suggests that for many organisations, adopting particular recruitment approaches such as contextual or blind recruitment may have a relatively limited impact in terms of increasing the proportion of their pupils who are female or from minority ethnic backgrounds.”

However, organisations using blind recruitment approaches had a slightly higher proportion of pupils from state schools than organisations that were not.

Pupillage providers requiring a 2:1 degree or completion of a mini-pupillage had lower proportions of female pupils, pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds and pupils from state schools.

In separate independent, qualitative research for the BSB, Community Research interviewed 30 pupillage providers and 10 stakeholders, including the Inns of Court.

A “recurring theme” throughout the interviews was the extent to which success at final pupillage interviews depended on ‘polish’.

“Discussions highlighted how this ‘polish’ was more likely to be displayed by applicants who had enjoyed the benefits of a ‘middle-class’ education, top university and, to a lesser extent, mentoring schemes.

“Some pupillage providers noted that, while applicants from diverse backgrounds were making it through the initial application and potentially the first interview, for the final interview it became more difficult to ignore the influence of polish.”

Researchers commented: “Chambers are typically recruiting small numbers of people each year and the people responsible for recruitment tend to have their own day-jobs and limited time to dedicate to the process.

“Furthermore, they have to be certain that the pupil represents a good investment for their organisation – they can’t afford to take risks on an individual that they are not sure about.

“In this context, there was much debate around the possible tension between recruiting the ‘best’ candidate regardless of background and the need to actively recruit for more diverse outcomes.”

Researchers said there was “widespread unease about any notion of positive discrimination”. There were also “some references to processes which do not appear to meet fair practice guidance”, such as making access to work experience “easier if you know someone who works at the chambers”.

Mark Neale, director general of the BSB, said that while recruitment to pupillage had become “steadily more diverse in recent years”, the profession had “much more to do”.

He went on: “There is inconsistency in recruitment methods and, despite the adoption by many chambers of blind or contextual recruitment approaches, ‘polish’ still plays too big a role in final decisions.

“The Bar also needs to consider carefully the case for a fair gateway to mini-pupillages, which are given much weight in the recruitment process, but which are not allocated on a fair and consistent basis.”

The objective of the research was to strengthen the regulator’s evidence base around pupillage recruitment to inform the development of the BSB’s policies, including its forthcoming consultation on the equality rules.

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