· Features

Social mobility: too little, too late?

There’s no denying there has been a lot of noise in recent years about social mobility and the actions organisations are taking to open up their sector to individuals from all warps of society.

But is this all talk and no action, or are the tables beginning to turn? Whilst I suspect that many of the pledges we hear about are no more than PR exercises, there does appear to be movement in the right direction, and particularly in the legal profession. But is it too late for meaningful change? That is perhaps the real question all professions ought to be asking themselves.

Ex-Labour minister Alan Milburn has, in recent weeks, brought the social mobility debate to the forefront of the political agenda once again. He has rightly acknowledged that professions such as the law really must do more to widen their intake to include individuals from a diverse background. And whilst the legal sector has made "real efforts" to widen its intake, the higher up you look, the more socially exclusive it seems to be. So what's the solution?

Interestingly, and perhaps timely with Millburn's report, together with international law firm King & Spalding, we hosted a panel discussion recently to address the issue of social mobility to try to establish whether it simply is too late to make change, and if not what needs to be done. Comprising some of the UKs most senior General Counsel, barristers, private practice partners, and education experts, the consensus amongst participants was that the profession must do more to target younger people for whom law might not be within their sphere of reference. And despite the advances being made to promote access to candidates from less traditional backgrounds, this needs to happen at a much younger age than is currently the case.

Whether targeting children at GCSE level or before is most beneficial, it is clear that action is not only needed, but vital, if the profession is to become truly reflective of the diverse nature of the UK and consequently the clients it serves at home and abroad. In fact, the chair person of the event, Suzanne Rab - partner at leading international law firm, King & Spalding - has firsthand experience of coming from a background where access to careers in law was far from easy. She shared her views on what the legal profession might do to promote greater social inclusion.

Suzanne studied at a state school and later attended Oxford University - receiving scholarships and grants to enable her to do so - and eventually joined international law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer as an associate. From there, Rab climbed up the career ladder both in private practice and working within one of the Big Four accountancy firms before joining King & Spalding in its London office to spearhead its on-the-ground European antitrust practice. An obvious first step, she says, is for firms to open their doors to the younger generation - something King & Spalding does through various initiatives, including vacation schemes allowing students to experience what it is like to work in a law firm or facilitating mock-interview sessions to help young people prepare for career interviews: "One step is to try to give younger people who come from more diverse or less 'traditional' backgrounds an opportunity to get a taste of what it is like to work in a law firm, so that they can at least begin to consider whether it might be within their potential. There is value in this - having relevant experience and insight into the legal profession is a necessary first step in deciding whether to pursue a particular career path at all and then being considered for a role."

This is a valid suggestion, but this alone won't change things drastically. However tackling the culture that is perhaps prevalent in many firms (of hiring people from a defined socio-economic background) is key according to Rab: "The harder part is tackling a culture that may be pre-disposed to people from more traditional backgrounds or 'people like us'. Whilst some firms have shown a willingness to adjust their recruitment policies - to screen for innate intellectual capabilities as well as paper academics - eroding this culture requires those in senior positions to speak out on the issue and to be advocates of change in what they say and do."

Rab also suggests that the profession could be incentivised to become more diversified if social mobility issues were an inherent part of a client's selection and retention process: "Perhaps one factor that could contribute to eroding this culture would be if a firm's social mobility policies and practices were more prominent when clients were seeking to establish a law firm's credentials when making hiring or panel selection decisions. We are increasingly asked in RFPs about our track record on CSR and diversity in other areas such as gender representation, so already issues beyond technical legal skills and experience can be a competitive differentiator. Ultimately, if firms can prove that having a more socially diverse workforce can increase revenues and the firm's performance, this can only contribute to elevating this issue among the more sceptical".

There's no denying that all professions - not just the law - need to push harder to ensure access is available to anyone. But in answer to our debate I truly believe that it is not too late to address social mobility, but the longer we leave things, the harder it will be. Let's stop talking and take action.

Justin Kopelowitz is director of DMJ Legal a specialist legal recruitment consultancy