PRIME – Opening up the legal profession

Posted on 26th Nov 2015 in Legal Profession

What does diversity look like in the legal profession? How can law firms do more to encourage applicants from less privileged backgrounds? Are there relevant differences between law firms and their corporate clients, such as Tesco or the National Grid? Are there regulatory constraints which prevent the professions from opening up different ways in?

These were some of the issues discussed at a conference organised by PRIME and the Legal Social Mobility Partnership (LSMP) and held in the City of London offices of Allen & Overy, on 25 November 2015, in conjunction with the publication of a report by Byfield Consultancy, Opening Up or Shutting Out? Social Mobility in the Legal Profession(October 2015).

Prime Conference

L to R: Funke Abimbola, David Morley, Sir Terry Leahy, Dr Louise Ashley, Barry Matthews, Michal Husain

The panel discussion was chaired byMichal Husain, a BBC Radio 4 Today presenter who moved into broadcasting after a disappointing early brush with a barristerial career, and included –

  • Sir Terry Leahy, former CEO of Tesco plc,
  • David Morley, Senior Partner at Allen & Overy LLP and chairman of PRIME,
  • Dr Louise Ashley, of Royal Holloway, University of London, co-author of a recent report for the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission,
  • Barry Matthews, Director of Legal Affairs at ITV and co-founder of the LSMP initiative,
  • Funke Abimbola, Managing Counsel at Roche UK, a diversity champion who also sponsored the Byfield report.

Introducing the discussion,Michal Husain said the PRIME scheme had given many young people  an insight into the legal profession and ensured that diversity and social mobility were embedded as an approach into organisations like the participating law firms.

David Morley said a little help could go a long way. PRIME had started only four years ago, but already it now had 89 law firms participating. Over that time, 4,000 quality work experiences had been given to students from less privileged backgrounds. Some of the earlier ones had now worked their way through their studies and beginning to reap the benefits of the training process.

Dr Louise Ashley said there were barriers at every stage for those who came from disadvantaged backgrounds. It affected both the supply side – who applied, and the factors that prevented people from applying; and the demand side – the expectations of those selecting candidates, and how they identified talent (often by associating it with middle class status or attributes). Both had to change.

Funke Abimbola said there were pockets of elitism throughout the professions. In terms of public discussion, gender seemed to be prioritised these days. The Byfield report had looked at the whole profession – big law firms, the judiciary, small high street firms. The role of clients was increasingly important. Clients were adopting well developed diversity policies, and they were demanding the same of their professional advisers. [More about the report below.]

Sir Terry Leahy recalled how at Tesco the problem had been a different one. Most employees were recruited at too low a level – young 16 year old school leavers, or mums returning to work at the checkout. So an internal system of talent spotting had been created, which sought out those with potential for promotion. It proved a good engine for social mobility. But since then, he had noticed that social mobility now seemed harder than it had 30 years ago.

Barry Matthews explained how LSMP worked with PRIME in joining clients and law firms to provide the students with an experience that helped break down the psychological barriers to entering the profession and develop skills to enable them to succeed. It was often the things that middle class people took for granted, or learned by observing their parents or peers, than was hardest for those outside that world to anticipate. But bringing them into the profession was not just a case of doing the right thing: it was also a way of making the business fit for purpose.

Following further discussion by the panel, prompted by questions first from the chair and then from the audience (mostly drawn from large and medium sized firms of solicitors), a number of (broadly paraphrased) conclusions emerged.

  1. Talent was often too narrowly defined, it was important to look beyond higher academic skills and not simply judge by which university a candidate had gone to, or by absolute exam results rather than looking at them in context.
  2. Schools played an important role in encouraging students to believe in themselves, mentoring them, offering work experience.
  3. There were more ways than one into a legal profession. Apprenticeships were a viable alternative, and there were many roles within a law firm which did not require being fully qualified as a solicitor, such as legal executives, paralegals, managers etc.Regulatory changes [which may have inhibited it in the past] would make that process easier.
  4. Social mobility was an issue for society as a whole, but there was a strong business case for it, there was pressure from clients, and selecting from a wider pool of talent could only be a good thing for the professions.

There remained, however, a slightly depressing feeling that there was a long way still to go, and in some ways society had moved backwards in terms of social mobility (though perhaps not in ethnic diversity, I would suggest). For example, it was noted that the print and especially broadcast media, which had once been very open to people of less privileged backgrounds, had now been “colonised by the middle class”. Judicial diversity, much in the news recently, hadn’t really changed in terms of the background (the proportion from private schools) since the 1980s.

Those “pockets of elitism” mentioned by Funke Abimbola were also identified in the Byfield report which she had sponsored, and which was available for delegates to take home after the event.Opening Up or Shutting Out? Social Mobility in the Legal Profession was initially released last month, and we mentioned it on this blog at the time. Written by Jon Robins, creator of the Justice Gap website and Legal Voice, it was based on a survey conducted with 26 firms out of the UK’s top 50, together with interviews of a selection of the judiciary and some representatives of front line services on the high street and in law centres.

Among the City firms, less than one if five trainees had gone to a non-Russell Group university and many were from the even more elite Oxford or Cambridge universities. A top firm might receive 2,000+ applications for just 50 training contracts and so even a brilliant student with straight As and a First can easily get overlooked. But there were signs that things were changing. PRIME was cited as well as such techniques as blind CVs. A significant observation was the pressure which could be applied by clients: Alison Kay, general counsel of National Grid, was quoted saying “We will certainly be expecting firms to put together a sufficient mix of diversity, not just women but also BME and social diversity,” and “We will definitely evaluate firms on that basis.”

Among the judiciary, Lady Justice Hallett said “We have a long way to go” and cited “unconscious bias” as a bar to progress. (What Baroness Helena Kennedy described as a form of self-cloning in the judicial selection process.) But progress was being made. Sir Gary Hickinbottom, now a High Court Judge, had become a solicitor under pressure from his father, a baker who sat as a magistrate. He had worked his way up to the High Court bench from being a part time parking adjudicator, and was at the time only one of three solicitors to have reached that post. Another interviewee, Judge Carol Atkinson, recalls her experiences in the 1980s as a barrister who had grown up in North Yorkshire, was the first in her family to go to university, and was baffled by the wining and dining traditions of Gray’s Inn and terrified by the social minefield of chambers etiquette. “I suffered not only because I was female but because I was Northern, working class and went to a state school.”

Pupillage – or the lack of it – is an area of concern. Some 2,941 students applied for the Bar Professional Training Course last year, but only 397 pupillages were available, the lowest for five years. High levels of student debt plus the cuts in legal aid make prospects of a career at the publicly funded bar worse than ever. Mary-Rachel McCabe, a paralegal at the charity Just For Kids Law, has been offered a pupillage at Doughty Street chambers. But despite this, she says “I cannot remember a single person being encouraging”.

On the brighter side, one part of the legal profession stands out as a shining beacon for social mobility. Some 74% of members of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) are women, 75% went to a state school, 80% have non-graduate parents, and a third of new students come from BME backgrounds. The legal executive movement provides a route into the profession without the need for a law degree. As such, it is a genuine facilitator of social mobility in the legal profession. Some legal executives have even been appointed to the junior judiciary.

Comment: The Regulators’ role

Having read the report and attended the conference today, one issue that I think remains to be investigated is the role of the regulators. Not CILEx, which seems to have been admirably proactive in providing for non-graduate entry, but probably the Solicitors Regulation Authority and definitely the Bar Standards Board. The SRA might like to reflect that there are many solicitors now practising who did not come into the profession as graduate trainees, but worked their way up through in-house training and completing of articles. The current Training Regulations (2014) do mention “equivalent means” as an alternative to graduate entry, but it is quite hard to find out how that actually works in practice, since almost all of the documentation is predicated on the graduate entry mode. And the Bar Standards Board should not be asking itself whether to require a 2:1 or higher degree as a condition of entry to the profession, a threshold that inevitably favours academic achievement (and, indirectly, factors such as social class, private education etc) over what may turn out to be great practical skill and ability as an advocate. I seem to recall it being said, not that long ago, that there were judges on the High Court bench and famous QCs who had only got a third class degree, at a time before universities came to be regarded as commercial providers of professional training. To be fair, the recent BSB Future Bar Training (pdf) report (July 2015) at paras 70 to 77 does consider the negative implications for diversity of requiring a minimum 2:1 standard entry, and shies away from such a recommendation partly for that reason. But I’m left with the feeling that diversity and social mobility are, if anything, a bit of an afterthought when the regulators come to consider entry requirements to the professions, so focussed are they on “outcomes for consumers” (no doubt very properly) and the like. PRIME is a great idea, but seems to be based on the assumption that graduate entry is the only way in, and perhaps that isn’t the only way to achieve its ultimate goals.

This post was written by Paul Magrath, Head of Product Development and Online Content at ICLR, who also tweets as @maggotlaw. It does not necessarily represent the opinions of ICLR as an organisation. Comments welcome on Twitter @TheICLR.