Law firms: Breaking down the stereotypes

Law firms are interested in your skills and aptitude, not your family background or schooling, says Paula Quinton-Jones

When you think of a City solicitor, what image springs to mind? Bowler hat? Pinstripe suit? Old? Male? White? Law firms in the City are often stereotyped as being full of Oxford and Cambridge graduates who all played rugby together at school. Thankfully, this is a long way from the truth and law firms today are putting more and more emphasis on recruiting the very best talent from the widest range of backgrounds.

Recently, the Law Society requested that all law firms publish their diversity statistics. Although ethnic minorities and women are still relatively under-represented at higher levels within the profession, the pipeline of new entrants (those starting training contracts) has a much healthier balance. Women now account for just over half of all trainees joining City firms and this trend is set to continue as now nearly 65 per cent of students studying law in the UK are female. Trainees from ethnic minority backgrounds typically make up 15 to 20 per cent of trainee populations and this is significantly higher than the proportion of ethnic minorities that make up the UK population.

Whilst this is a great position for trainees and graduate recruiters, the challenge facing firms is maintaining this balance at all levels within the profession. More and more legal practices are looking hard at their flexible working and career development policies to ensure that all lawyers get the necessary support and training to take their career where they want to go.

So, it seems that it is at entry level that the biggest impact on diversity can be made and that is why graduate recruitment teams are constantly seeking new ways to reach the widest pool of talent possible. Graduate recruiters know that people choose universities and courses for a huge variety of reasons; some students choose to study near their home for personal and financial reasons, others choose the quality of the course or opportunities to study abroad. To make sure they reach as many people as possible, firms now visit a huge number of campuses on the university milkround; Allen & Overy, one of the City's largest legal practices, plans to visit 39 campuses in the 2006/07 recruitment year and accepted applications from 90 different universities across the world for the 2005/06 recruitment season.

Gender, ethnicity and educational background are just the tip of the iceberg though. What if no one in your family works in the City or knows any lawyers? What if you have to work to fund your studies and can't get involved in lots of extra-curricular activities? What if you didn't go to a private school? None of these things are actually a barrier to becoming a City solicitor, but as long as the stereotypes exist, people will think they are. Firms are keen to meet students and develop links to push home the message that if you have the skills and aptitude to do the job then your family background or schooling is irrelevant.

A number of major City firms have tried to achieve this by hosting events such as the GTI Legal Chances day where students from ethnic minority backgrounds meet lawyers who can act as role models and give a real insight into what working at a City firm means. Many lawyers are also involved in mentoring schemes where students work with a solicitor who can offer advice and encouragement. Graduate recruiters also spend a lot of time on campus running skills sessions from commercial awareness to interview skills.

But firms can only recruit those who are already at, or have been to, university. As a result there is now a focus on early engagement with school students, raising the aspirations of people just like you who may have never considered university or a legal career. At this year's Target 10,000 events, thousands of year 12 students received invaluable advice on applying to top universities. They also had the chance to meet 10 of the City's top law firms to find out more about the opportunities university can open up. And the CRAC Legal Eagles event brought together students from schools across London who worked with graduate recruiters and trainees from City firms to dispel the myths around a legal career.

The events mentioned above are just a very small example of what law firms are doing to increase diversity amongst their people, but we'd like to challenge you to help with this. If you have ever thought that you'd be interested in law but it just isn't for someone like you, or been put off by stereotypes, then take the time to come and meet us at some of our events and find out for yourselves if your first impressions are right. You'll probably be surprised at what you find.

Paula Quinton-Jones is the graduate recruitment officer at Allen & Overy LLP

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