How law firms are working to boost social mobility in legal

Posted on Thursday, June 13, 2024 by Hannah Hassack

Businesses have a huge role in Social Mobility

Social mobility is about empowering everyone, regardless of their socio-economic background, to fulfil their potential. When we talk about social mobility, we talk about equal opportunities. Everyone deserves to thrive regardless of where they were born, their financial status, their education, their ethnicity, and so on. But for this to happen, to improve social mobility in the UK and to give more people a fair go, we need to equalise the playing field.

Decision-makers, employers and the institutions of our society need to fully embrace Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) and help all communities access the education and career opportunities they deserve They need to not just pay lip service to it, but build DEI into their day-to-day operations - from how they engage with schools and young people, to hiring processes, through to how they're allocating managerial and leadership roles. 

When it comes to equitable employment opportunities – which Social Mobility Day campaigns to reinforce – employers have a responsibility to reach beyond the low-hanging fruit (that is the candidates who have had advantages) and empower people from all socio-economic backgrounds. As a recruitment consultancy, our role in this is clear.

The role of recruitment in Social Mobility

If there’s one goal driving Ryder Reid forward, it’s helping everyone, from all walks of life, to fulfil their career potential – and this means recruiting from a diverse talent pool. To facilitate this, we embrace DEI daily and actively in the minutiae of the way we work with clients and candidates, and right from the early stages of our talent search. We have market-leading processes in place which enable us to reach young people who haven’t had fair access to education, disadvantaged communities, and ethnic minorities who have been previously overlooked due to the bias many groups still face.

We’re committed to this not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it brings great rewards to our clients, our candidates and our own business. And to all businesses! The benefits of leading inclusive organisations are ample. As well as proving to boost productivity and creativity, Flair HR reported that diverse teams make better decisions 87% of the time, capture new markets 70% of the time, and have 25% higher chance of attaining above-average profitability*. All employers should take heed of these figures, as they compound what we know – that the future of business is diverse.

Diversity wins top talent

The same report found that younger generations prefer diverse companies to buy from and work for, and that the majority see a diverse team as a key employee benefit. This really shows how high on the agenda DEI is for modern candidates and for the people coming up who will one day lead our organisations.

This is a trend I’ve observed in my work with candidates. DEI is clearly a growing priority amongst them, and one we champion at Ryder Reid. We encourage clients and hiring managers to embrace this positive change, too, because if leadership teams and decision-makers aren’t focusing on DEI in their planning and consistently addressing it, they will quickly lag behind.

Diversity and inclusion is a cycle and one which businesses have a responsibility to influence - but it can’t start just with a social post or a hashtag, it has to start operationally. DEI needs to come from the inside out. The more managers and leaders who act with DEI at the forefront of their decision-making, and then talk about it online, the more diverse candidates they will appeal to, the more diverse their teams will become, the more people and communities are empowered, the greater the social mobility, and so on.

Social Mobility in the Legal Sector

When it comes to a career in legal, there are several barriers to disadvantaged and minority groups progressing in the sector. Unequal access to experiential opportunities (like work experience and internships), limited availability of role models, and recruitment biases all work against disadvantaged groups. It's also a long-standing perception that the legal industry is elitist and exclusive, which can put people off from the outset. Although this is perhaps a somewhat outdated and historical view, the facts show that it’s not unfounded. For example, the substantial cost of studying to become a solicitor or barrister automatically excludes many aspiring lawyers from the get-go. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) found that a high number of lawyers have had private schooling, while just 17% come from a disadvantaged socio-economic background.*

There's a way to go before there is diverse representation in law firms too. Although great progress has been made in recent years, reportedly Black and Asian lawyers are still underrepresented (18% of lawyers classified BAME compared to 78% White), while only 5% of lawyers declare a disability and 3.5% openly identify as LGBTQ+. The industry also struggles to shake off gender bias, with female lawyers claiming just 35% of Partner roles* - although there is now an equal weighting of female lawyers in the UK, which is a great example of positive change in the sector.

These stats are indicative of systemic bias which will take ongoing efforts to dismantle - and great work is happening to do just that. The legal industry and its leaders are doing fantastic things to change the tide, to demolish long-standing barriers, and to foster more diverse cultures.

A move to revolutionise DEI and social mobility in the legal sector
In a revolutionary change, law firms big and small are recognising that students from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t have the necessary funds for further education or access to the extracurricular activities crucial for developing non-academic skills. To address this imbalance, some have eliminated school results from their selection criteria, implemented blind CV assessments, and revised their university grade requirements to create a fairer recruitment process.

In recent years there’s been a wave of innovative initiatives like PRIME, City Solicitors Horizon, and the Social Mobility Business Partnership who work to improve access to, and socio-economic diversity within, the legal profession. They offer free education, work experience, workshops, mentoring, networking events and opportunities to develop the  skills needed to access a career in law. These initiatives make crucial progress in opening up possibilities for aspiring lawyers. (We are especially passionate about this at Ryder Reid and are proud to work with Future Frontiers, an education charity who help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds fulfil their potential!) Meanwhile, to promote greater diversity, organisations like The Women Solicitors Network, The Disabled Lawyers Network and The Black Solicitors Network have been set-up to empower minority groups, raise awareness of barriers, and ultimately achieve equality in the legal profession.

Alongside these powerful collective initiatives, law firms are also looking within at their own structures and teams. They are building out DEI and social responsibility pillars. They are hiring people specifically to drive these priorities forward. Many are establishing more flexible working patterns, which opens them up to employ people who can’t stick to rigid working patterns. Meanwhile, the majority now have their own LGBTQ+ networks too, hosting events and providing support for LGBTQ+ employees. In short, change is happening.

These are just some examples of how the legal sector is galvanising their communities to drive DEI forward and ignite social change. Change isn't easy, though, and it can be hard for law firms to break old moulds even when the determination is there. Especially for large organisations built on years and years of historical, rigid processes.

So where do they start?

Five ways law firms can lean advance their social mobility

Change starts with people, and this is true for businesses looking to diversify. The people you hire, promote and progress are the heart and lungs of your venture and they are the paramount factor in your firm’s future, including who you appeal to, how you move forward, and the impact you have on the world around you. So, for those law firms wanting to move towards social mobility, to cut through old processes to be more inclusive, diverse and agile – it all starts with the people you recruit.

Here are five steps to ensuring diverse and inclusive recruitment, and crucially to reaching people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.

  1. Make DEI a priority for hiring managers.

    It’s important that your hiring manager or recruitment ally is really thinking about diversity when advertising a role, short-listing and making the offer. Check have they accessed untapped corners of the job-search world? Have they appealed to a diverse mix of candidates? Have they ranked the cultural diversity right up there with skills and experience? Is the job ad written in an inclusive way - i.e. avoiding jargon and literary exclusion? Has your company got a diversity statement on its careers page? Simply establishing DEI as a priority for the role (and all future roles) helps align the thinking of the hiring team to social mobility and equal opportunities, and the rest can build from there.

  2. Diversity attracts diversity.

    It’s been found - perhaps unsurprisingly given the appetite for it - that companies who post about DEI in their online content are more likely to receive applications from diverse candidates. So employers wanting to appeal to diverse communities and attract a wider pool of talent do well to proactively communicate how their business embraces DEI. Many law firms we work with recognise the importance of showing diversity in their marketing materials to better reflect the profession, and because people are more likely to aspire to a role if they can see themselves represented there. So make sure your website, social and other comms gives a good overview of everyone in your workplace - not just the leadership team - and clearly demonstrates how your company embraces DEI. This is something candidates are increasingly looking for, and they’ll turn away if it’s not there.

  3. Embrace flexible working.

    Some law firms are working to foster more diverse cultures by maintaining their flexible and home working policies – even in the face of pressures to ‘go back to the old days’ and erase the progress that has been made on this over the last few years, since the rise of hybrid-working. Holding onto these policies supports working parents as well as those with other domestic priorities, including religious practices, care responsibilities and health needs, and thus opens the door for more people to pursue a career in law.

  4. Leverage apprenticeship schemes.

    Many law firms look to create more diverse cultures by offering apprenticeships to people from underrepresented backgrounds, and this has become an increasingly popular route into the profession since it was trailblazed in 2016 (when the government announced a new apprenticeship scheme allowing young people to sign up straight from school). Last month we spoke to Rob Powell, Director of Pro Bono, Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability at Weil about the role of apprenticeships in empowering young people from all backgrounds. He explained that the majority of higher apprenticeships have been taken up by people from more advantaged backgrounds who have the means to attend university if they wish, and so firms still have work to do in appealing to underrepresented communities with their apprenticeship schemes.

  5. Work with a recruitment ally

    Inclusive recruitment takes thought, hard work and expertise, and busy law firms don’t always have the capacity to spend the time needed to do a really good job on finding great people from across socio-economic backgrounds. Getting an expert recruitment consultancy on board, who already has all the tools and expertise to do this, can be highly valuable. A good recruitment ally will have robust DEI hiring processes, and will get you the input you need to take big steps in the direction of social mobility.

If you’re a law firm looking to recruit from a wider pool of talent, appeal to people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, and build stronger DEI into your hiring processes – give us a call. We’ve got the tools and expertise to support you to build out your teams with diversity and inclusion at the forefront, to improve the social mobility of your organisation, and to boost your social impact as a business.

Written by CJ Iruoma Obi, Executive Search Consultant at Ryder Reid specialising in placing Social Impact, Sustainability, DEI, and Business Services professionals in U.S and International Law firms. CJ joined Ryder Reid in 2023, having worked in permanent recruitment for over 12 years. He has a real passion for Social Value advisory work, supporting a number of organisations across different sectors with their responsible business initiatives.

References:

https://flair.hr/en/blog/workplace-diversity-statistics/

https://www.sra.org.uk/sra/equality-diversity/diversity-profession/diverse-legal-profession/

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