Herbert Smith Freehills and Ashurst latest to jump on contextual recruiting bandwagon

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Both City law firms adopt diversity tool after informally assessing recruits using the metrics system for last year


Two more City law firms have jumped on the “contextual recruitment” bandwagon in what is now looking like the beginning of a craze as global players vie to be seen as socially diverse employers.

Anglo-Australian mega-practice Herbert Smith Freehills and top-UK-15 firm Ashurst announced today they would adopt a state-of-the-art recruitment tool known as the contextual recruitment system.

In doing so, they follow the London office of global giant Baker & McKenzie and transatlantic heavyweight Hogan Lovells. Those two announced a fortnight ago that they would be the first English legal practices to take the full plunge with the system.

According to its developers, the recruitment tool — offered by London-based diversity specialist business Rare — “hardwires social mobility metrics into firms’ existing graduate recruitment applicant tracking systems”.

That, said Rare, enables “recruiters to quickly, quantitatively and consistently measure the social mobility characteristics of all applicants and thus identify those stand-out candidates regardless of their background”.

Announcing his firm’s move, Herbies’ head of resourcing, Peter Chater, explained that the practice had been informally using contextual data on for the last year.

“In that time, it’s really proved its value,” he said. “We’re excited about having it available for all candidates for the next recruitment season.”

Ashurst also said it had been trialling the system since last year. Emma Young, the firm’s global head of graduates, said that of 11 recent hires, “seven had contextual data markers of one sort or another… the data helped us to see how totally exceptional certain applicants were – and helped us make sure we did not miss them”.

Ashurst’s graduate recruitment partner, Hammad Akhtar, added:

“We’re really seeing a difference in terms of who is coming through to interview. We’re seeing people that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”


Two City firms launch sci-fi recruitment tool in bid to boost diversity [Legal Cheek]


Not Amused

I don’t think this is inherently bad. But I think we have to question whether a computer algorithm is the right tool to do this job.

Firstly, using computer algorithms to assess human beings has been a colossal failure since the first days of computer dating. Secondly, the algorithm is only as good as the people writing it and a small software company is unlikely to have complete knowledge of the realities of the UK. Thirdly the algorithm can only compute the data it is given, on a CV we are talking name of school and little else (unless there is use of names/surnames which I think is morally wrong).

On the third point, that is really open to abuse. The country was almost governed by an extremely privileged multi-millionaire who to a machine would look like an inner city state school kid. Further, once this is known it can easily be manipulated.

What is never mentioned is just how much Labour’s ill thought out age discrimination act negatively impacted recruitment. The Act had no guidance notes, so most recruiters took age data off CVs completely. Unfortunately that means recruiters can no longer compensate for grade inflation (that includes public grade inflation like the introduction of A* at GCSE and then A’level). People who perhaps missed out on A*s by being a year or two younger were severely disadvantaged. Someone a decade out of work competing against a new entrant found their grades devalued and themselves less employable.

This is the pragmatic response to bad state teaching (I would like the idealistic response of just improving state education). Being the pragmatic response it also requires a degree of honesty – it’s probably better done by hand. It’s probably better done in secret. I would have more confidence in a HR department where the humans are given a lists of UK schools with an honest assessment. That would be better for the kids. But it would leave each employer vulnerable to bad press. I understand the appeal of Rare, but in practice I fear its results.

I also fear the fact that any step to compensate for bad teaching merely justifies bad teaching and allows it to continue. Where is the impetus to improve state teaching in the UK? Why does the party of the teachers unions seem to only pressure for employers to compensate and never for teaching to improve?



For once I agree with NA. Well on certain points anyway.

I have a lot of concerns with the way this is implemented (one of which is how much Rare are charging for the service). I understand it is trying to make a subjective process more objective, but I can think of lots of different scenarios where one person will wrongly benefit from such a process, while another just misses out on being “flagged up”. There is a danger that it becomes a bit of a postcode lottery.



And meanwhile, the best firms will carry on assigning real HR people to read through every single application and take them holistically. HSF already have a ridiculous application process involving test after test after test, taken after having submitted the typical lengthy application form. One has to pass all of these tests before being looked at by a human. Some of us gave up and spent our time on the marginally less tedious MC applications. It seems a natural next step to have a robot filter for social mobility.

No doubt with this new initiative the heart is in the right place, but ultimately it is all smoke and mirrors compared to actually having a group of people whose job it is to go through every single application form and make these assessments themselves, perhaps also having been given the metric by which this machine will make its assessment. Realistically, people cannot be accurately assessed by algorithms, and there is no reason that HR cannot be instructed to take social background into consideration when assessing the achievement of an applicant.



It would also be considerably cheaper to employ someone to fully screen the forms and carefully consider them than it would to use this system!



If you are looking fo go getters who’ve already climbed that mountain rather than entitled asshats, this sounds like a plan.

Why do people think that doing more of the same is going to make any difference?



Because a huge difference has already been made by the current methods. The profession has increased enormously in its openness over the last ten years thanks to a change in culture and an army of recruiters who take serious amounts of time assessing people in a realistic way.

My scepticism is not about the aim of this system, it is about its effectiveness. We all (well, most of us) want the best candidates *regardless of background*. The firms that want to be doing this already are without a robot.



Unfortunately social mobility is a relatively new concept to most law firms.

Even for those who started thinking about it in 2009, they probably only have 1-2 trainee intakes that are influenced by any recruitment initiatives that focused on improving social mobility.

For instance, PRIME only started in 2011, meaning the first people involved in PRIME work experience have only just graduated or could still be studying.

Things take time – especially when we are in a sector where it takes 2-3 years for someone to be recruited, another 2 years to qualify and then possibly another 10-15 years for many to make partner.


Not Amused

That’s not true. The idea of social mobility is simply meritocracy: the best people for the job. That arose in the 1980s thanks to Margaret Thatcher. Pre-80s it was non-meritocratic, old school, safe pair of hands recruitment. Big bang forced all of the City to compete or die and competition requires meritocracy.

So everyone converted to the idea of meritocratic appointment at roughly the same time (or they went bust). What has happened since 1980 (and was happening then too) is that the state’s own mechanisms for producing meritocratic candidates has fallen apart.

Since 1997 we have seen the effective collapse of the state schooling system as a means of producing high value meritocratically appointable candidates. This has destroyed social mobility. The pressures of competition and the need for meritocracy have not gone away. No matter how much the most deluded socialist wants to pretend it ain’t so – even the Bar would go bust if it had voluntarily adopted pre-80’s non-merit based recruitment.

The sad fact is that the private schools are producing the best candidates: both for our top universities and for our employers. The number of UK kids in private education is higher than it has ever been; and that really is what we call a ‘middle class migration’ away from state schooling. Every year since 1997 this has gotten worse. In the absence of state intervention (or any political response to this problem by ANY party), several independent social enterprises or charities have arisen to correct the problem. The subject of this article is another such attempt (I’ve explained my view on it above). PRIME is one such example, but it wasn’t the first. I support several myself, but they are stop-gaps, they are not the solution. Private charity cannot fulfil the role of the state.

From 97 onwards there was a concerted political effort to lie about these facts. Oxbridge in particular (see Laura Spence) came under specific attack. But this has now broadened out. Rather than anyone admit that year on year the state is failing to produce meritocratic candidates we are all instead encouraged to compensate for the failings of the state. This is particularly galling given that in the past the state used to produce highly meritocratic candidates – at certain points in the 60s and 70s it looked as though private schools might die out by being out competed. If you want to see genuine social mobility in law you have to look at the people aged 50+ and there you really do find the state having it’s highest ever representation in law (although I would still want more).

So the idea of social mobility is not new. What is new is the idea of compensating for the state’s failure to produce meritocratic candidates. The problem is, and I hate this truth, but it is true, in 30 years time state representation in law is likely to be almost non-existent. No private measures can compensate fully for state failure and the state school education system is both in free fall and controlled by a powerful self interested lobby with no interest in change.


Quo Vadis

The other elephant in the room is that intelligence (and thus success) is largely heritable. The children of people who are successful enough to afford private schooling are likely to be successful themselves. We should encourage bright working-class children to aspire to the best universities and the best jobs. However, we should not assume that a predominance of privately-educated students in the best universities or highest-paying graduate jobs will be down to simple prejudice or unfairness. It may be down to talent – and gerrymandering our admissions criteria to select 93% of candidates from state schools may force recruiters to look for talent which simply doesn’t exist. And I say this as the chippiest of chippy state school-educated Northerners one could ever imagine.

Another reason I am nervous of introducing ‘affirmative action’ into the recruiting process is that recruiters simply do not have enough information available to them to make an accurate summary of a candidate’s ‘privilege’. On my last application form, I am asked to list my age, my school, and my ethnicity. I am young, English, and I was educated at a selective state school. Oh no! No diversity points for me. What they don’t know (because they don’t ask) is that I had a serious illness throughout my youth and I was later a carer for my sister. And why should they? Why should have to tell someone recruiting me for a job about such intimate personal details?

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. If we really want to find the brightest and best, we must put our good intentions aside and recruit on aptitude alone.



Ok the “concept” isn’t new but it being a key agenda point for recruiters is. That might be due to the reasons you have mentioned, but I suspect it goes beyond that.

There have been initiatives pre 2009 (CSET/Sutton Trust etc), but everything changed gear in 2009 and then again in 2012 off the back of the Milburn report.
The effects of this change in gear and the attitudes/processes/initiatives around it are still yet to be seen, let alone evaluated.


Not Amused

I shy away from any argument that intelligence is genetic, because frankly I don’t think we really know what intelligence is, so for me it is a step too far. What I do know is that in our current state – we certainly have not yet found all of the intelligent people and put them to good, meritocratic use. Nor have we managed to achieve a level competitive playing field – so it is likely there is a lot of undiagnosed intelligence out there still.

But I do in essence agree with you. Often the private schools are out there hovering up the best talent. Eton sends lots to Oxbridge. But what how many of the scholarship boys go compared to fee paying? How many scholarship boys totally mess up compared to the same percentage of fee paying?

As I’ve also mentioned, we also tend to lump all private schools together, we say “private schools send too many to Oxbridge” to make us feel better. We do not say “Harrow sends hardly any and looks a bit like a failure, whereas St Pauls sends bucket loads so why can’t the state schools copy St Pauls?”.

I firmly believe that the most important thing for the country is to improve state schools. I once said I would vote for Hitler if he promised me grammar schools. I really felt Nigel Farage was trolling me at the last election … but I still want them back. I want better state schooling,. aspirational state schooling, honest advice about universities and much less ideology. I want a country that says ‘I’ll produce an Eton in every town’ rather than a country that says ‘I’ll pretend Eton is evil and brainwash my kids into accepting second rate’.

We spend per head more than South Korea – we get nothing like their results.



I agree with returning to grammar schools, though am biased having been to one and done very well out of it. We should look to the Dutch education system, where the idea of private schools is ludicrous (the Dutch royal family go to state schools) and where they have a tiered system.

However, the vital thing is that the ‘other’ tier is not seen as a ‘power’ tier but rather as a technical or vocational education. Different but not worse. In order to sell grammar schools as a policy, it is necessary to convince people that it will not be a matter of ‘good’ schools for kids who pass a test at 11 and ‘shit’ schools for those who don’t. We all know that middle class kids always got into grammar schools at a far higher rate thanks to private tuition for the 11+, and still do. That is not a reason to not have them, but a few things need to be considered:

1) High quality, though perhaps differently focused, education for schools that are not grammar schools.

2) Selection criteria that, so far as possible, reward innate intelligence over previous education/private tuition.

3) Opportunities to move between the streams for late bloomers and the like.


Quo Vadis

We must remember that we are comparing our PISA scores with those of countries which routinely fake statistics (China) or force students to have ludicrous workloads and no quality of life (South Korea). Education in Britain is good for the majority of children – but fails those at the very top. The last outposts of excellence for high-achieving students (grammar schools, public schools) are dwindling away, and those which remain are being sought out ever more avariciously by middle class parents. I happen to think that selective schools are a terrible idea – I remember quite vividly the comprehensive down the road from my school which was perpetually in special measures. It’s an awful thing to send someone to a sink school at the age of 11 for ‘failing’ a silly verbal reasoning test. But like it or not, the grammar and public schools provided (and still provide) a wonderful education for high-achieving kids, and I agree that we ought to be wary of getting rid of them without a little thought.


Not Amused

I am afraid that education is failing across whole swathes of the country. If you look at Oxbridge state school admissions and you took out the areas with Grammar schools (most noteably Northern Ireland, but also Kent, Bucks, Warwks, Essex and Herts etc.) then you would see a truly abysmal attendance rate.

Comprehensive education has failed and rather than admit it, we poor untold millions of wasted money in to it.

I agree with you on technical colleges. The education system Britain designed for Germany post war is actually the one we should have and should implement ourselves …


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