Students think they need connections to progress legal career

Students: Socio-economic status a significant factor

A significant number of students think nepotism and connections are important to progress in the law, according to research which found that this did indeed help some get jobs.

It highlighted the “poor conversion” of students from low socio-economic (SE) and Black heritage backgrounds who are interested in a legal career into actually pursuing one.

The survey also found a good work-life balance to be the top attribute students were looking for when applying to law firms – this meant having a life outside of work, rather than remote working.

Cibyl, a market research agency specialising in students and graduates, polled 1,228 people across two cohorts – students and recent graduates, and trainees and newly qualified (NQ) solicitors – in 112 universities and 62 law firms, for its Levelling the playing field in law report.

It said women and students from non-Russell Group institutions were more interested in studying law but there was “a poor conversion of low socio-economic and Black heritage students into legal careers”.

While 10% of students and graduates were interested in becoming a solicitor were from low SE backgrounds, they only made up 1% of trainees and NQs. Twice as many Black students and graduates (31%) aspired to work in law as actually found a job (15%); it was similar for students of Indian heritage (14% v 6%).

Of the 65% of students who disagreed with the statement ‘Everyone has the same opportunities in the legal profession’, 38% believed nepotism and connections were a factor and 35% suggested that SE barriers impeded success.

Nearly two-thirds of all respondents had no connections within the legal sector. Of those who did, only 10% said their connections did not help them at all.

Asked how their connection helped them, 37% of trainees and NQs said they managed their expectations or demands of working as a solicitor, while 21% identified support with the recruitment process.

Some 18% said their connections helped them get an interview, while 14% admitted that they helped them secure a job.

“These benefits do tend to be limited to high SE students,” the report said. “Only one in 10 low SE respondents have a connection in the legal sector (compared with more than five in 10 high SE).

“More is needed to increase support to low SE students so they do not start off at a disadvantage.”

Students and graduates with a legal connection were more likely than average to have undertaken legal work experience (67%), whereas those without connections were less likely than average.

Low SE students and graduates were also less likely to have done legal work experience (58%) than those from high SE backgrounds (71%).

The report said: “There is a perception, particularly amongst low SE students, that there is a lack of legal work experience available, and this is seen as a significant barrier.

“Where possible, firms should invest in virtual internships which have mass access, appeal and opportunity to fill knowledge and skills gaps.”

While 29% of students said they wanted to join the legal profession to help people, this fell to 12% of trainees and NQs, who were more motivated by the challenge of the work.

Asked what they were looking for in a law firm, 35% of students said a good work-life balance, followed by good reputation or prestigious firm (30%), friendly culture (29%), high newly qualified salary (21%) and job security (21%).

“Despite studying online through the pandemic, very few of the students who answered our questions about work-life balance specified hybrid working as something they considered part of good work-life balance. Instead, responses focused on having time to have a social life and to spend with family and friends.”

This was against a background of students expecting to work long hours (45 or more per week). “This suggests students understand work as a solicitors can be demanding so actively seek out firms that report good working practices.”

Cibyl told firms that being “realistic and transparent” about what the work-life balance “is likely to look like for your firm will ensure expectations are managed from the outset. Be sure to showcase the support structure you have in place, such as access to wellbeing services”.

The research found too that 72% of the respondents wanted to work in London (men more than women). “Reasons varied, but both male and female students reported that they felt the capital had the most opportunities for becoming a solicitor.”

A good or prestigious firm was the top reason (31%) respondents chose one training contract over another, although there was “a socio-economic divide”, with 47% of high SE respondents citing this as influencing factor, compared to 30% of low SE respondents.

Magic circle firms were popular, particularly with students from high SE backgrounds, and Asian and Black students. However, 18% of respondents did not know what this term meant, rising to 30% of Black students.

The research revealed that trainees and NQs were finding the Solicitors Qualifying Exam “helpful to their day-to-day work but noted that both parts of the exam preparation were difficult”.

Just over a third of trainees reported that they had received financial support from their firms for the SQE, while 29% had wellbeing support; 20% were offered study leave.

Lisa Marris, head of research at Cibyl, said: “Our research suggests there is more work to be done by universities and firms to support and prepare students from less privileged backgrounds to succeed in getting through the recruitment process, and indeed once they have secured their place at a firm.

“Perceptions of students around where and how they can gain access to work experience and through this, legal connections seems to be key, and there is a real opportunity for the legal and education sectors to work together to help improve this.”

The research was supported by law firms BCLP, Clifford Chance, Gateley and Macfarlanes.

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