Two weeks ago, I was fortunate to be able to attend PRIME’s tenth anniversary conference. It was fantastic to see so many people from different areas of the legal profession come together to talk about what we have achieved so far to improve social mobility, and what the future now holds.
In 2011, when PRIME was founded, I was in the early stages of my legal journey. Whilst there was a clear variation in life experience amongst my peers, the concepts of socio-economic background and social mobility were not always spoken about. The discussions I had around training contracts often included concerns about whether firms might prefer one Russell Group university over another, and the question of who I knew at a particular firm was one I found myself having to answer on several occasions.
If we fast forward to today, the situation is very different. Over the last decade, the social mobility agenda has been catapulted into national consciousness. The concept of recruiting solely from elite universities is often viewed as unacceptable, and many firms are adopting blind recruitment practices as a matter of course. Socio-economic diversity is being considered alongside other areas of diversity, and outreach programmes are expanding day by day. For this, we must acknowledge the contribution of PRIME, in bringing lawyers together to raise awareness and take action.
However, the social mobility challenge is far from over. We heard about research that has found 68% of our judges attended independent schools (compared to 7% of the general population); that only a third of lawyers feel they belong where they are currently employed; and that it takes someone from a lower socio-economic background an average of 1.5 years longer to reach partnership. If we want our profession to be one where everyone can succeed regardless of their background, then we cannot be complacent. We need to be consistently asking ourselves what we can do differently.
At the PRIME conference, we did just that. We heard from lawyers who have had first-hand experience of dealing with socio-economic inequality, as well as leaders in key social mobility organisations, in order to consider how best to move forward. For law firms looking to improve social mobility, our discussion can be summarised into three “dos” and “don’ts”:
- Link outreach to recruitment practices. Whilst outreach programmes are vital in encouraging talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds to aspire to a career in law, their effects are not always seen in recruitment statistics. It is important to see outreach as a step towards recruitment rather than as a separate activity, and use the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination to move away from narrow recruitment practices.
- Use social mobility networks. Many individuals who enter the legal profession from lower socio-economic backgrounds will have used a lot of energy trying to assimilate in a culture that is unfamiliar. Without appropriate support, this can have a significant impact on their mental health. A social mobility network can empower people from similar backgrounds to share their experiences, whilst at the same time showcasing a range of positive role models for junior staff.
- Set clear guidelines for progression. Confidence, gravitas, and extroversion can all be very helpful in making someone visible – but often come much more easily to those from higher socio-economic backgrounds. Unless progression criteria is clearly specified and understood by managers, this can lead to significant barriers developing.
- Treat social mobility as a box ticking exercise. Social mobility is increasingly becoming a hygiene factor in clients’ selection of law firms. This means that those who are not taking proactive steps are likely to miss out on clients and on talent.
- Assume that the problem stops after recruitment. Research from the Bridge Group has shown that there is a correlation between career progression and socio-economic background. It is therefore important to think about the steps you are taking to support career progression, particularly in terms of sponsorship and mentoring.
- Expect change to happen quickly. Whilst the social mobility agenda is gaining momentum, it can take several years to build up a clear picture of the impact of our initiatives. During this time, it is important to stick with them, and focus on the long-term goals.
I am inspired and encouraged by the steps that the legal profession is taking to improve social mobility, but we are still only part of the way along the road. However, if we keep up our existing efforts, we have every reason to be optimistic about the future.
Alice Kinder is an Employment Lawyer at Anthony Collins Solicitors, Deputy Vice President of Birmingham Law Society, and a Social Mobility Ambassador for the Law Society of England and Wales.