By rights, in a profession which proclaims loudly its desire to attract the best and brightest, there should be no social, economic or racial bar on the entrance into the law. So, why is the legal profession dominated by white, middle-aged men? The solutions to these pressing issues seem simple in outline: go out, market to ethnic minorities and eventually the inequalities will disappear. However, there are structural issues with this, and one particular area of difficulty is the initial entry point: trainee recruitment.
It is stating the obvious to say that you can only staff your firm from the pool that is available. At the moment, applicants for training contracts are predominantly white and of a certain socio-economic background. Stock the pool with the diverse social mix that reflects society (people of all ages, people from ethnically and racially diverse backgrounds, all sexual orientations and both genders) and, provided the selection process is fair and neutral, changes in diversity should occur.
How can this be done? Education is the key. The law needs to do more to explain simply and clearly what it does and at the moment it lags behind other professions in reaching out to the widest sections of society. Generations of academically gifted, potential lawyers have not picked law simply because they had no idea that it was an option or the opportunities available. Careers advisers at schools right through to university need to encourage interest in these areas, while mature applicants should be targeted too.
The application process is also fundamental. Graduate recruitment teams at all law firms attempt to combine selecting the best with the desire to create the mix of recruits that is reflective of society. The difficulty in identifying the best applicants is increased by the bluntness of the tools available for picking candidates, plus the fact that even larger firms do not take on substantial numbers of trainees, especially since this creates a lower margin for error in picking recruits.
It is easy to fall into a pattern that indirectly discriminates against applicants by background. The primary tool for identifying candidates for interview or placements is the CV. Most firms ask for these to contain several items of information, including educational history, grades, work experience, and skills, achievements and interests. While the graduate recruitment teams are making efforts to cast the net wide, there is still an element of conservatism in looking at the educational establishments a candidate has attended. The Russell Group of universities is considered to be primary hunting ground for applications.
Law is a business and it is still competing to get the most successful candidates. However, this needs to be considered in light of recently reported research from the Sutton Trust charity. It noted that "the chances of reaching one of these highly selective universities are much greater for those who attend a small number of the country's elite schools, mainly fee-paying". The sensible approach requires a measure of sympathetic appraisal of a candidate's background. Is a series of A and B grades from an inner-city state school worth the same or even more than a full house of A grades from an independent school? For the sake of an interview it is surely worth finding out.
It is the matter of work experience and skills and interests that often causes issues for potential candidates. Work experience is a potentially difficult obstacle for candidates who do not have contacts or family relationships which can be properly exploited to build up necessary CV points. Similarly, those candidates who have achieved something on an extracurricular basis are those who are likely to stand out from the masses. However, this can be discriminatory, since opportunities to develop extra skills or garner achievements - Duke of Edinburgh awards, for example - are more available in the independent and fee-paying educational world.
It is here that the challenge lies: for the legal profession to identify the best rather than the best connected candidates and bring them into the process. The profession is up to the task of looking dispassionately but fairly at its candidates to find the widest possible range of the best available. So, anyone who is interested in the practices or study of law as a profession should give it a chance.
David Carter is a partner in the private equity and buy-outs practice at the law firm AshurstReuse content