2011 Round-Up – Social mobility: Class action

The launch of the Prime initiative to help state school students climb the legal ladder was the highlight of the social mobility year.

Social mobility shot to the top of the diversity agenda in 2011, with several key members of the profession contributing to the effort.

The launch of Prime was arguably the most revolutionary initiative. It was born of a meeting of senior magic circle partners who wanted to create the first-ever firmwide collaborative approach to social mobility.

The scheme, instigated by Allen & Overy senior partner David Morley, addresses issues surrounding access to quality work experience for state school students by requiring firms to agree to a number of principles.

The 23 law firms that have signed up to Prime to date will have to ­commit to offering meaningful work experience to a group of students that is half the size of their current trainee intake, with a target for the wider profession of 2,500 places by 2015. Firms will also have to offer between 30 and 35 hours of contact time per individual and a programme that informs students about opportunities as well as developing their skills (The Lawyer, 12 September).

Who’s counting?

However, despite this effort, a spring survey by The Lawyer revealed that fewer than 50 per cent of top 20 law firms in the UK conduct social ­mobility monitoring. Only Addleshaw ­Goddard, Berwin Leighton Paisner, ­Eversheds, ­Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith, Linklaters, ­Pinsent Masons and Simmons & ­Simmons ask socioeconomic ­questions in training contract and vacation scheme application forms (The Lawyer, 2 May).

Each of these firms, apart from Pinsents, also asks socio-economic questions of lateral hires at associate level, as well as of those applying for support staff positions. However, only Addleshaws and Linklaters ­capture data from lateral hires at partner level.

Rule call

But this could all change next year when the Legal Services Board’s (LSB) new rules on social mobility monitoring are put into practice. Law firms and barristers’ chambers will be required to publish information about the socio-economic background of their workforce for the first time (The Lawyer, 26 July).

The plans will also see firms and sets disclose statistics on the age, ­gender, disability, ethnic group and caring responsibilities of their workforce. However, the regulator will let employers keep results on sexual ­orientation, religion or belief and gender reassignment confidential.

In 2012 the collated results from the LSB survey will be used to build an aggregated view of diversity in each branch of the legal profession.

Give us a break

Elsewhere, in light of tuition fee hikes, the modern legal apprenticeship made its first foray into the ­market as firms attempted to widen access to the legal profession by ­giving school leavers the ­opportunity to break into a career in law.

Yorkshire law firm Gordons kicked off the trend, taking on five recruits to learn the practical skills necessary to qualify as legal executives through on-the-job training and supervised fee-earning work (The Lawyer, 20 June).

Subsequent to this DWF, Eversheds, Irwin Mitchell, Minster Law, Norton Rose and Pinsents each introduced apprenticeship schemes for staff or school leavers.

Meanwhile, the £3m widening participation initiative Pathways to Law run by The College of Law and The Sutton Trust revealed it has helped almost half its participants gain a place at either a Russell Group or post-1994 university. Of these, one third gained a place at a Russell Group university compared with just a quarter of the comparator group. (Lawyer2B.com, 5 July).

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  • We said, you said

We said: “For the record, we think Prime is great. No question. But as with all great new ideas, it’s only just begun to scratch the surface. These ­students have to battle not just ­economic disadvantage, but also work on their social and cultural capital, which is where ­mentoring comes in. What’s more, just as these school students start to aspire, just as they start to read Robert Peston’s blogs, join debating teams and get good GCSEs and A-levels, the goalposts will almost certainly be moved.”

Catrin Griffiths, Leader, 12 September

You said: “Time to become unemployed so Jonny can get a free school meal and qualify for this scheme – will help Jonny go to Oxbridge and become a QC in due course. ­Actually, better make sure Jonny goes to a second-class institution to increase his chances.”

Waynella Slob @ 11:54, 12 September

“Really this is all a cosmetic exercise by the legal profession to make it appear that something is being done when in fact the training ­contract ­system presents an ­insuperable obstacle to the ­majority of would-be entrants. The reason would-be lawyers are more likely to come from well-off backgrounds is that you need to be well-heeled to take the risk of going through the mill and yet not getting a training contract.”

Robert Craig @ 17:02, 12 September

“This is a step in the right direction, but as Robert Craig points out, it doesn’t really address the bigger issue. In short, many kids from lower- and even middle-income families are being priced out of a university education. Many will look at the sums involved and decide that they cannot afford to either have that luxury or take that risk.”

Rob Barklamb @ 09:08, 13 September

“Sad to see so much cynicism. I’m close enough to this scheme to know that it is entirely well-­intended and comfortably the most ­comprehensive response to a legitimate problem we’ve seen yet. Along with the attrition rates for women, the legal profession is fully aware of the huge pool of ­talent either remaining untapped or being lost. One cause is a lack of ways to identify talent, particularly given how early firms are recruiting for training contracts – ie before ­students have anything more than early academics as a guide. You can understand why a risk-averse profession might take safe options in selection.”

So cynical @ 18:07, 13 September