Will the profession finally add class to its diversity stats?
2 February 2009
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New Research commissioned for The Lawyer has exposed the extent to which the legal profession is dominated by the wealthy, just as the Government unveils a new campaign to drive elitism out of the profession.
The study, carried out by Bristol University-based Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO), found that lawyers are more likely to come from a privileged background than any other profession and that the gap has increased during the past decade.
Geoffrey Vos QC, who sits on Labour’s new social mobility commission under MP Alan Milburn, admitted there was a problem but told The Lawyer that things were starting to change.
“The legal profession exists to service society. It won’t service society properly if it only employs people from one background,” he said. “What I’m trying to do, and the Social Mobility Foundation is trying to do, is to make sure that people coming in now, born in 1985 or later, are from all backgrounds.”
Firms including Addleshaw Goddard, Berwin Leighton Paisner, Clifford Chance, Field Fisher Waterhouse, Macfarlanes and Taylor Wessing, have signed up to the Social Mobility Foundation’s mentoring scheme for disadvantaged children, chaired by Vos.
But few can deny that the law lags behind other professional and City jobs when it comes to recruiting those from poorer backgrounds.
According to the CMPO research, taking wealth as an indicator of social standing, when investment bankers and stockbrokers born in 1970 reached the age of 16, their families’ average monthly income was £1,885 and £1,623 respectively. This was on average 22 per cent and 44 per cent less than lawyers’ family income, which stood at £2,300. Over the past 12 years the gap between what lawyers’ families earn and what the families of other professionals earn has widened further.
Dr Lee Elliott Major, research director for education charity the Sutton Trust, argued that there are a number of reasons for the legal profession’s poor performance on social mobility.
These include a lack of good careers advice in many schools, the cost of getting legal qualifications and a perception that law is elitist.
“Law is perceived to be a profession that’s not for the likes of us,” he said. “That comes across in survey after survey.”
Part of the problem is that although few people would accuse lawyers of outright bias, there remains a view that it is not the industry’s problem and that firms can only chose from the candidates put in front of them.
One TheLawyer.com reader posted a comment that read: “I’m going to be brutally honest and say I disagree with the concept of ‘social mobility’ because it’s patronising and removes any notion that the legal profession is, and should be, based upon meritocracy. It’s not about your background – it’s about how hard you are prepared to work to achieve in a very tough industry.”
But Major said this view was “not good enough”. He believes there is a vast pool of untapped talent being ignored by the profession.
“If law firms don’t do it themselves, who else is going to?” he retorted. “They could help in raising aspirations and providing advice early on. We want law to represent the society it’s intended to service.”
The Sutton Trust runs its own mentoring scheme called Pathways to Law, which identifies bright pupils at age 16 and provides them with careers guidance and contacts in the legal profession.
It is run in partnership with the College of Law.
Despite this, social mobility remains a forgotten issue for many. Law firms and chambers have arguably been quicker to embrace more fashionable diversity issues. As one poster on TheLawyer.com put it: “I think it’s about time that the question of socio-economic background is tackled alongside the ‘traditional’ diversity issues of gender, ethnic background and sexuality.”
Vos argued that there might also be cultural reasons for the lack of lawyers from working class backgrounds. “One of the reasons is that, certainly at
the bar, it’s a profession of presentation,” he explained.
“Therefore when young people come into the profession, if they come from a poor background they won’t naturally present as well as people from public schools and top universities.”
Although chambers are now realising that these skills can be taught, Vos said there was a long way to go. Shortly after becoming social mobility commissioner, Milburn singled out the bar in a speech, noting that seven out of 10 of the country’s top barristers went to public school.
Adding to the problem is the fact that most firms only recruit from a select group of universities, which have a disproportionate number of privileged students.
“A lot of law firms only look at graduates from the top universities. They need to look for talented candidates who come through lesser universities,” Vos said.
The legal profession does not hold all the answers. But if Milburn is to realise his aim of giving everyone “a fair crack of the whip”, law firms and chambers must do more to shed their elitist image.