PRIME seeks to counter historical practices of granting work experience placements to family members, and the children of clients and other colleagues. There is now a recognition that these practices imposed a barrier for young people who did not have the advantage of family connections, reinforcing both the perception and reality of the legal profession as one which was unwelcoming to outsiders.
This week representatives of the PRIME signatory firms gathered in London at Hogan Lovells for the PRIME conference to review our strategy. The event was launched by Lord Holmes of Richmond MBE, lawyer and multiple gold medal winning Paralympian, who reminded us that we must ‘search harder and further for talent’ and that we must ‘become diverse or die’. Lord Holmes spoke of his personal story, overcoming challenges and achieving great things, making the point that talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not.
In the round table discussion I participated in there was a broad consensus that one week of work experience alone is not enough: PRIME must evolve. PRIME as a collective should be examining how firms can support students in the mid to long term and evaluate their programmes to understand exactly what is working to widen participation in the profession. Indeed many law firms have already implemented a range of additional initiatives and many were pleased to share their learnings. The value of collaboration cannot be understated when dealing with complex challenges and I am immensely grateful to all the firms who came willing to share insights.
A key proposal for the improvement of PRIME was to try to create a ‘keep in touch’ programme and be better aligned with graduate recruitment teams within the law firms, to provide a clearer pathway to employment for those students interested in careers in the legal sector. It was also suggested that firms should start engaging with first year university students, building the knowledge and confidence of young people to enter the profession. On behalf of all of the PRIME member firms I want to acknowledge and thank Kathryn Davies from the Social Mobility Foundation who helped us to crystallise our thinking on this important point.
In the competition for talent, leading law firms must ensure their recruitment processes allow them to access the very best and brightest students, whatever their ethnicity, postcode, gender or sexuality. PRIME work experience weeks can be a perfect starting point for engaging with the talent of tomorrow. It is self-evident that we will not be able to recruit the brightest young people in this country unless we cast the net wide.
As I reflect on the importance of improving social mobility and increasing diversity in the legal profession, I am reminded of the words of Shirley Marie Tilghman, OC FRS, professor of molecular biology and public policy and president emerita of Princeton University: ‘When the ability to have movement across social class becomes virtually impossible, I think it is the beginning of the end of a country. And because education is so critical to success in this country, if we don’t figure out a way to create greater mobility across social class, I do think it will be the beginning of the end.’
I am certainly optimistic that we can respond with all our might to the challenges that lie ahead.
Janet Legrand QC (Hon) Global Co-Chair Senior Partner (Interim) DLA Piper