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Law firms run Oxbridge recruitment targets as high as 50% of trainees, says diversity chief

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A senior Law Society figure claims unofficial bias in favour of elitism remains rife among City and large commercial firms

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Many City law firms unofficially insist that up to half their trainees are recruited from Oxbridge, a leading diversity campaigner has claimed.

Solicitor Caroline Newman — the chairwoman of the Law Society’s recently launched ethnic minority lawyers division — told Legal Cheek that many of the large commercial practices remain resistant to widening their recruitment pools.

As a former Square Mile lawyer herself, Newman claims to speak from personal experience.

Newman said that when she qualified in the late 1990s at what was then City practice SJ Berwin, a senior staff member conceded that the firm’s hierarchy insisted that 40% of recruits must be drawn from those two most ancient of universities.

“There was an unofficial quota that stipulated 40% of the trainees would come from Oxbridge,” related Newman. “I was told that by the human resources department, which said that the message had been passed down by the senior partners.”

Newman (pictured below) went on to suggest that not only does that bias persist to this day across the spectrum of commercial law firms, it was in some cases worse.

“I understand that similar quotas are in place at other City firms — indeed, in some cases the percentage is higher. It is not by accident that they end up with so many Oxbridge recruits.”

Newman — who is also a former Law Society council member — left private practice several years ago. She now runs the London-based legal sector training and coaching business, Lawdacity.

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The lawyer also told Legal Cheek of her personal diversity horror story. Having qualified at SJ Berwin — which is now the Sino-Australian-Anglo international giant King & Wood Mallesons — Newman practised in the firm’s corporate department, advising a range of blue chip clients. At the time, she was one of only two black lawyers at the firm.

“I was walking down the corridor one day, minding my own business,” she recalled to Legal Cheek, “and one of the very senior partners approached me and said: ‘Why are you here? You’re a bit of a black sheep around this place. You don’t belong here.’”

Bearing in mind the incident happened at the turn of the 21st and not the 20th century, Newman was understandably shocked.

“I felt like someone had put a dagger in my heart,’ she said “Being only one of two black people in a sea of white faces, you are already in a place where you feel alien. You wonder about the future — could you possibly be on the partnership track? There’s all the other politics going on among the associates — who’s getting good quality work? Who’s staying and who might be going?

“And in the mix of all that I was black and female — and an older qualifier as well. So to have a partner say that — it really was like a dagger in my heart.”

Newman said that day changed her legal career.

“I had a chat with my friends, and many encouraged me to report the incident officially and potentially to sue. I thought carefully about it. In that sort of environment you’ve got to think about your future career — you don’t want to be blacklisted.”

But instead of initiating a discrimination action, Newman raised the issue at her appraisal.

“Quite a few of the senior partners turned up and the head of HR was there to deal with it. Their line was that the partner that had made the comment didn’t mean it, it was just his way, it was a joke. The usual.”

Instead of falling out with a firm that she otherwise enjoyed working for, Newman encouraged the senior partners to introduce a diversity policy. “It was very much ahead of the game in the early 2000s, and ultimately, the head of HR was grateful for my help.”

Stephen Kon, the current senior partner at King & Wood Mallesons, explained the measures the firm has taken since:

“Discrimination has never been accepted by the firm. We appointed Caroline to drive the diversity agenda of the firm in recognition that having a diverse culture was, and remains, the right thing for our business.

“As a firm we are culturally very diverse, and have proactively driven the diversity and inclusion agenda over the past decade. For example 25% of our board is female and we are actively involved in all the major diversity forums and initiatives including Stonewall Diversity Champions, InterLaw Firm Disability Forum, Law Society Diversity Forum, PRIME, Brokerage Citylink and Interlaw Diversity Forum.

“We believe our clients benefit from the rich diversity of our business, both across Europe and the Middle East, and across our Chinese, Hong Kong and Australian practices. Our diversity and inclusion manager works with the partnership to ensure our workplace is inclusive to all and completely free of any discrimination.”

Reacting to allegations that his firm and others in the City retain a bias towards Oxbridge in trainee recruitment, Kon said:

“Our only policy is to recruit the very best talent, irrespective of university or background. Each application is reviewed on its own merits. To give an example, the 62 candidates joining us on vacation scheme this year represent 27 universities between them and 30% of the candidates are from a BME background.”

Newman herself is clearly unafraid of a challenge. Her route to a training contract was itself unconventional. Having bagged a law degree from Westminster University and an LLM from the LSE, she went on to a Legal Practice Course place at the Store Street branch of the then College of Law.

She was also at the time a trustee of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

“One of our projects was to invite the great and the good to Wormwood Scrubs to eat with the prisoners,” she recalled. “They all arrived in limos with their drivers.”

One of that glittering crowd was Greg Dyke, who was then chief executive of Pearson Television, which was based in Tottenham Court Road, just a stone’s throw from the college.

“I spotted Dyke as we were leaving the prison, asked for a lift and jumped into his huge car. I told him I was a law student and he asked what type of law I wanted to do. I said media law — because he was in the media. I didn’t know anything about media law. If Dyke had been involved in property, I would have said property law. I just wanted to qualify.

“By the time I’d finished chewing his ear when he dropped me off he gave me the contact details of his head of legal. He said she would help me out with possible training contract referrals. And they are not stupid — they wouldn’t put forward a two-legged donkey, because that wouldn’t reflect well on them.”

Newman contacted Pearson’s general counsel, who arranged three interviews at law firms instructed at the time by the company, including SJ Berwin.

“I was offered training contracts at all three. When I was at law school friends used to say to me you’re black, you’re female, you’re older than 25 — there’s no way you’ll ever get a training contract in the City. But whenever anyone tells me that I can’t do something, I just say watch me.”

And that is Newman’s wider message to law students and young ethnic minority lawyers. “Wherever there is a sliver of an opportunity, take it. I didn’t know where that conversation with Greg Dyke was going to lead, but I had the courage and gumption to go for it.”

However, Newman is not so naïve as to assume that gumption alone is going to create greater diversity in the legal profession.

“You need mentors — indeed, you need more than mentors, you need sponsors — people at City law firms actively pulling for ethnic minority lawyers.”

Caroline Newman will be speaking at the Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division evening seminar at the Law Society on the evening of Wednesday 29 April.