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Law leads on social mobility – but ‘too focused’ on top universities

By John hyde >>

(8 December 2022)

The legal profession has dominated the authoritative list of employers leading efforts to ensure that people from disadvantaged backgrounds have the chance to find senior jobs.

The Social Mobility Foundation published its index of top 75 employers today; 34% of organisations on the list are law firms, with national firm Browne Jacobson topping the pile. Other firms to make the top 10 were Herbert Smith Freehills, Baker McKenzie and Squire Patton Boggs.

The index measures how employers perform on eight areas of social mobility, assessing criteria such as outreach work in social mobility cold spots, the recruitment of graduates from universities outside the Russell Group, and the extent to which firms reward ‘potential over polish’ and remove barriers to people from poorer backgrounds being selected.

The SMF said there remains a long way for the legal sector to go, but the will to change was real, as reflected by the many examples of firms trying to widen their recruitment pool.

Browne Jacobson was placed top of the rankings for the second successive year. It was praised in particular for its outreach work at non-selective state schools and with children eligible for free school meals. The firm asks recruitment agencies to anonymise applications, removing mentions of academic qualifications, ethnicity, gender and flagging applicants from low socioeconomic backgrounds. It also ensures shortlists offer a balanced set of candidates with no more than 50% of candidates from Russell Group universities.

Caroline Green, senior partner at Browne Jacobson, who leads on diversity, inclusion and wellbeing, said: ‘As a firm we recognise that academic qualifications are not the only measure of success and the initiatives we have implemented have significantly widened the pool of talent as well as fostering a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

‘We believe in fairness and that success should not be dependent on ‘who you know’. We do not have limitless resources and our success has been achieved through a change of approach that everyone can adopt.’

Other examples of praiseworthy law firm initiatives included:

  • DWF uses body language assessments to make a judgement on whether candidates’ lack of confidence may be related to their socioeconomic background
  • Osborne Clarke offers leadership programmes for paralegals from poorer backgrounds
  • Clifford Chance gives bursaries to cover lost earnings if young people will miss paid work to take part in work experience
  • Freshfields conducts technological surveys with work experience entrants to identify digital poverty and purchase equipment which can be kept after their placement ends.

The foundation said work remains to be done across all sectors, including the law. Four law firms applying to be on the index offered unpaid internships, while nearly half of firms conducted more than 90% of their university visits to Russell Group establishments. Just one-fifth of law firms measure staff pay by background.

Sarah Atkinson, chief executive of the SMF, said: ‘Businesses and organisations are starting to lead the way to combat the cost-of-living crisis for their employees. Opportunity creation for the next generation must be at the top of their agenda, especially as working people are struck with a class pay gap and the rise in living costs eating away at their salaries.’

(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)