Opinion: Social mobility is a glass ceiling that’s yet to be smashed

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  • Not Optimistic

    I’m pleased this is on the agenda, but not optimistic that it will gain any traction within the legal profession. I sat on the diversity committee at a Magic Circle firm in the late 90s/early 00s. At the time, the fashionable initiative was a scheme that involved firms linking up with schools in boroughs neighbouring the City such as Hackney and Tower Hamlets and giving the kids there a chance to spend time in a law firm doing work experience. It was dressed up as a laudable, inspiring initiative but in reality it was the worst kind of program – a tokenistic, short-term conscience-appeasing fix, which was never likely to make any difference to the lives of the participants and ignored the far more pressing issue of social diversity. The diversity champions – most of whom tend to be middle-class women and have questionable credentials - loved it of course. It ticked all the boxes – race (most of these kids were black); gender, pro bono, “diasdvangted” area (don’t you love this diversity jargon). I mentored some of the kids: a few were good fun and treated the experience as an opportunity. Some of them were barley literate (and these were supposedly the good ones picked out by the school), some of them couldn’t even find their way to the office and got lost every day, many of them dropped out after a day or two. A couple were caught robbing stuff. I voiced the opinion at the time, that, while, in principle, this type of initiative was no bad thing, it was essentially tokenism and a way of enhancing the firm’s PR image, not a serious attempt to change the demographic composition of City law firms. Which, of course, is precisely want law firms want to do – not rock the boat too much. None of these kids had a chance in hell of getting near a City law firm, so, although it was good to get them in a new environment where they had a chance to think about career possibilities, it was, arguably, a pointless exercise. Sat before a group of partners and mangers, I recommended that we introduce a similar scheme but targeting kids from working and middle-class families, who currently lack the belief, knowledge or understanding that a City law career night be an option for them.

    Let’s be specific here. It’s not a clumsy working vs middle-class thing, but more nuanced than that. We’re not talking about the underclass or those with low intelligence, or those who have no chance whatsoever of succeeding in this field, no matter what opportunities they have. We’re talking about upper-working/lower middle class, and middle-middle class kids, who have the intelligence, the ability and the potential drive and motivation, they just don’t have the access to “invisible” privileges that the classic City demographic – the privately-educated upper-middle classes – enjoy. Many of these kids are white, though. And they don’t live in Hackney and Newham. They might live in Portsmouth or Rotherham. These are people who could easily end up working in a call centre, or an insurance office, or at the local council, or in an admin role – perfectly respectable jobs – but equally, with a bit of a push, or support, could succeed in a City law firm. We know what they lack: lawyers in the family, pushy parents who believe their offspring have a duty to justify the years of private school fees, a peer group of similarly privileged friends, daddy’s connections, the secret calls to the managing partner to secure that internship or training contract.vvAnd the barriers: the shockingly bad careers service in comprehensive schools, parents who perhaps wanted the best for them but had no experience of a top-flight corporate/professional career, lower expectations among their friends, prejudice because of their state-school education or their regional accent.vvThe basic problem is that City lawyers all believe that the profession is a pure form of meritocracy, a Darwinian-style process of natural selection, where the brightest kids go to the b

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  • Blindspot for ability

    The other thing I find very odd about the whole "natural ability and hard work" argument is that law firms don't actively recruit from among their paralegals. If ever one was looking to find people who deserve to qualify as a lawyer, surely it would be those who put themselves through law school without guarantee of a T/C and are doing all the work of a solicitor in practice.

    If you were looking to sort those who can do the job from those who can't, and further those with an enthusiasm for the actual work done in a law firm, it will not be found in vac scheme students nor in university degrees. Where is the logic in recruiting people without any practical experience in a job when there is a ready pool of candidates with that experience and the clear dedication to the profession? I am willing to wager that even if the Law Society's proposals to allow paralegals to qualify come into effect, there will still be relatively few law firms willing to consider a paralegal over someone still in university, which as Keith points out, means those with access to private schooling and privileges.

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  • Erudite opinion

    It's great to hear all the suspicions and theories I have had swirling round my head for the last few years expressed by Keith Styles in such a clear and informative manner. If only there were more clear thinkers like Keith involved in Law, social mobility might become a real possibility rather than the fairytale it remains.

    What I have found rather startling as a lower middle class female who went to a poor comprehensive and had no careers advice to speak of, but attained good academic results and went to a respected university (Warwick) is that gradually all my peers at college, (although class and schooling was put aside during the years there), have entirely reverted to their parents class position. So now, in our mid or late 30s we are all living in the same kind of houses we grew up in and all have the same plans for schooling, hopes and expectations for our children as our parents did. It is terrifying. I am determined to qualify as a lawyer, even if it takes me the next twenty years... If I win the lottery (yes, us lower middles often play the lottery) then I will devote myself to free advocacy in the Employment Tribunal, fighting the good fight for Claimants... wish me luck!

    I would advise the paralegal in the top 10 law firm to look at the tier below and apply to some of those for TCs. Paralegal experience and a completed LPC is essential these days. Try those that mainly do Claimant work (A particular favourite of mine is Russell Jones and Walker) as they are more broadminded in their recruitment policies.

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  • Education system

    Spot on. I have to declare an interest here, I'm white, male and middle-middle class (small fee paying day school), but even I can see the root of the problem here. Why have fees in public schools gone up so much? Why do parents 'honeypot' round good free schools? Because the experiment with comps hasn't worked.

    The best place a working or lower middle class child can be born today in Britain is N Ireland. It consistantly has the best record for getting such children in to good Unis. It is also the only part of the country to reatin Grammar Schools. This is no accident.

    While there's such a gap in the quality of education between the lucky few such as myself, and the unlucky many, this will continue.

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  • Old Boy

    As someone with a working class background from Northern Ireland I can say that it does have a good reputation in terms of education but the majority of the best schools, particularly grammar schools, remain dominated by middle class children whose parents can afford to put them through those schools. Now that the Transfer Test (the '11+') has been abolished most grammar schools with be running their own entrance exams, so essentially places will be limited to those who can afford to pay for tuition. I went to a grammar school and I can say it's not all about how good the school is. I left school at sixteen to study A Levels at a local polytech and ended up with straight A's while over half of those who remained at school performed quite poorly, often having to repeat a large number of subjects or leave the school altogether. A good standard of teaching is irrelevant if the student doesn't want to apply themselves and learn. As for social mobility, if you're from a working class background then NI's legal sector will almost certainly be closed to you for life. Last year out of one thousand potential trainees around thirty became paid trainees in the top firms that recruit on merit, while the other one hundred and twenty places at the Institute of Professional Legal Studies were filled with people who happened to know a solicitor that agreed to give them a training contract if they would work for, literally, nothing. This was despute the same solicitors telling other, potentially much better candidates, that they weren't taking on any trainees due to the economic situation. I know many of the unpaid trainees and the majority are certainly the sort of people who could afford to work for free thanks to generous handouts from parents. Northern Ireland already has laws on equal opportunities but they can be easily circumvented; a number of supposed fair employment firms (including a major public sector practice) hold initerviews for training contracts despite having already offered the contract to someone. There's no point in having ideas of social mobility and equal opportunities if they're not going to be implemented and it'll be a long time before any notion of fairness comes to NI.

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  • Keith is right

    I work at a MC firm and went to a comprehensive school. Keith's analysis is correct. It is unrealistic and tokenist (albeit fashionable) to tick the classic diversity boxes: race/ethnicity and applicants from the low end of the income scale. The real glass ceiling is exactly as Keith says, it is the bridge between middle/lower-middle class state-school candidates and the public school kids.

    I chose my university because I thought the course looked interesting, but I had no idea whether it was 'good' or not by luck it was one which MC firms recruit from. No-one at my school thought to tell us which were the top universities. It is this lack of ambition at state schools which means that the 6th formers arent thinking of doing law.

    Having had a bit of a sef-indulgent whinge however, I guess I would also ask the question whether it is the duty of law firms to aid social mobility.

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  • Hypocrisy

    Pants on fire.

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