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Law firms are ignoring students from comprehensives and new universities when it comes to recruiting trainee solicitors, a major new study commissioned by the Law Society has revealed.
A survey conducted by the National Institute of Eco-nomic and Social Research found that law firms are more likely to select graduates from older universities for interviews and target their recruitment activities at a group of traditionally favoured, high-ranking institutions, including Oxbridge.
Students with family contacts in the legal profession or those with a selective or independent school background also have definite advantages in the selection process, giving rise to new fears that the legal profession is still at the mercy of the old boy network'.
According to the survey, larger law firms are most likely to single out particular universities because of the 'image' they project and a belief that they will produce a better calibre of candidate.
Research fellow Heather Rolfe, who interviewed senior recruiters from 46 firms, said the research could explain why students from ethnic minorities and lower social classes - who are more than twice as likely to study law at new universities - are currently under-represented in some firms.
Rolfe said: "Missing out on free drinks may not be such a hardship, but students at new universities lose out on valuable information from the horse's mouth, or how to apply for training contracts, they also have less opportunity than those at favoured old universities to make informal contacts within firms."
Firms wanting to shake off the 'blonds and blues' tag need to start recruiting at former polytechnics as more than half of all law students study there.
Rolfe said: "If firms are serious about increasing diversity in their workforce, they should seek closer links with new universities and place less emphasis on the university attended in selecting applicants for short-listing and interview."
Christopher Digby-Bell, Law Society council member for the City of London, said it was up to new universities to develop a competitive edge and to prove to law firms that their graduates are worth recruiting.
He said: "What City law firms are looking for is quality - a combination of brains, commitment and business sense. They invest about £200,000 in each trainee, so if a particular university has consistently produced a flow of good candidates, why change a winning formula? The recruitment market operates as a meritocracy and that's the way it should be."
Freshfields' partner Hugh Crisp said trainees were recruited from 33 different universities last year. "We don't judge people on what course they did or where. All we want are the most talented people."