As the son of Windrush-era Grenadian parents, it would be easy to think that I had to overcome institutional and oppressive barriers to establish a legal career in the 1980s. In truth, if I were the same young black man walking into a City law firm nowadays, I think it may actually be considerably harder for me to enjoy the career I have.
This may seem a strange thing to say when there has been a clear societal shift in terms of diversity during the past generation. Statistics from The Law Society in 2016, for instance, said 36.4 per cent of UK students that applied to study law at undergraduate level were from minority ethnic groups (considering the 2011 Census had the BAME population of the country at 12.9 per cent, that is a very strong showing). Likewise, the young lawyers – of all ethnicities – who are coming through the ranks today are bright, intelligent and enthusiastic. Many will have fantastic careers ahead of them.
Law firms too have been transforming – most foster corporate cultures that actively promote inclusion and diversity. There are role models, mentoring programmes, focus groups and committees to help support the business and develop diverse lawyers.
Even so, the reason I say I would find it much harder today to carve out a legal career is not because I am black. If anything, the culture of diversity would, in theory, make it considerably easier for me to get the chance.
No, it would have been my socio-economic background. Unfortunately, social mobility remains a major barrier to the profession when hiring black or ethnic minority talent; just as it always did when the sector was dominated by white men.
If I look at my route to the law, it would be considerably more difficult for someone from my socio-economic background to achieve this in the modern era. Intense competition for young talent means firms are increasingly looking for graduates with a first-class degree from a select group of universities – and that is just to get an interview (I imagine many lawyers currently in the City would worry that they may not have their CV read if they were competing for training contracts under the current process). Obviously the chances of getting into this position in the first instance are increased by better socio-economic factors. Private education, which is something that my parents and most Caribbean immigrants like them could only dream of, is one key component.
Indeed, research from Chambers Student in 2017 suggested more than 60 per cent of City law firms’ trainees were privately-educated, compared to 7 per cent of the total population. Even a university education can be harder to attain for less well-off students. An Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) paper from 2015 claimed that only 12.8 per cent of the least well-off White British students went to university compared to 54.8 per cent of the most well-off students. This pattern continued for Black Caribbean (29.9 per cent compared to 52.9 per cent) and, while the gap narrows for some groups (Black African was 53.1 per cent against 64.1 per cent) there is still a noticeable difference between the chances for poorer and richer young people, irrespective of ethnicity.
Obviously a strong academic knowledge of the law is vital but there is always a risk of ending up with the same types of people; increasingly diverse when it comes to ethnicity, gender and sexuality but less diverse when it comes to social background. Statistically, a young black boy from a working class family (or a white boy for that matter) has less chance of going to university – let alone a top university, achieving top grades and getting a training contract with a leading City law firm – than a young black or Asian girl from a more comfortable background.
In my case, after I left school I applied for a job with the legacy SJ Berwin to help manage the office and business operations in the London HQ. After working at the firm for the best part of a year, the senior partner said that I was relatively bright and asked if I would like to study law.
I jumped at the chance, continuing to work at SJ Berwin in my business function while studying the law with CILEX through day release and evening classes. It was a fantastic opportunity to combine an understanding of the law with an understanding of the business of law. After studying, the firm provided me with the opportunity to work as part of the real estate team. I’d gone from office services to working on major property matters for the likes of British Land. Over the last 30 years, I have been fortunate to work with many amazing clients in great law firms too.
The chances today of a law firm’s top brass selecting a member of the office services team based on being bright and offering to train them up in the law seem pretty slim (indeed, many support staff roles now have graduate-level entry requirements). It is more effective in terms of costs to take on the best graduates than it is investing in training working class office services staff from scratch, irrespective of skin colour.
This is not to denigrate the amazing young talent coming through (I see how hard my own children have worked) or suggest that law firms need to ignore graduates and train their office staff in the law. It merely highlights the disparity in opportunities and suggests that a more diverse approach to assessing and acquiring talent – looking at different people with different skills – can sometimes be another option.
There are many encouraging initiatives within the legal sector to boost social mobility. Blind CVs, interview quotas, apprentice schemes and recruitment firm Rare, which focuses on placing talent from disadvantaged backgrounds, are just some of them,
I look back at myself as that young black lad, with his afro, as he started work in a City law firm. I am lucky that a firm saw something in me to invest in, which opened up great opportunities and had allowed me to enjoy a fantastic career.
Stephen John is a counsel at King & Spalding