Social Mobility Commission slams law firms for rich kids bias

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By Alex Aldridge on

Unofficial “poshness test” which champions “talent” keeps riff-raff out of legal profession


Graduate recruitment policies in place at most top law firms massively favour wealthy wannabe students, a report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has claimed.

Basing its findings around the rather limited socio-economic diversity data provided by a selection of 15 elite London law firms, the study highlights the fairly well-known fact that about 40% of trainee solicitors were privately educated. The equivalent figure for the general population is 7%.

The researchers — who were led by Royal Holloway’s Dr Louise Ashley — go on to conclude that this is basically because these firms have a preference for posh kids, which is compounded by a host of factors including lazy Russell Group-dominated recruitment, notions of “talent” that favour public school-educated smoothies and a reluctance to fund more sophisticated hiring practices.

The firms mentioned in the report — which also includes findings taken from the worlds of accountancy and finance — are Allen & Overy, Ashurst, Clifford Chance, Clyde & Co, CMS Cameron McKenna, DLA Piper, Eversheds, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells, King & Wood Mallesons, Linklaters, Norton Rose Fulbright, Pinsent Masons and Slaughter and May.

However, as the table below illustrates, only six of these disclosed socioeconomic diversity stats to the researchers. They were A&0, CC, CMS, HSF, Links and S&M.


The report also included a series of anonymous interviews with lawyers at some of these elite firms. There were some eye-catching quotes, including this one:

My kids go to a private school, they’re very articulate, they’re very confident, they’ve got me and their mum who work professionally and the people they meet are professionals and as they’ve come through the system and they come to apply for jobs, if they want to be lawyers . . . they’ve got ten steps ahead . . they know people whose name they can drop into conversation, the environment they’ve been brought up in so much more lends itself to the criteria that firms are looking for.

With 21% of 2013 trainees at the top 30 UK law firms attending Oxbridge and 58% other Russell Group universities, the report is particularly critical of the legal profession’s narrow graduate recruitment model. This leads to bias, it concludes, stating:

In sum, students at Russell Group universities are on average more likely to have enjoyed educational and economic advantages compared to many students educated elsewhere. These advantages are further reinforced in the recruitment and selection process. In contrast, students educated elsewhere and/or who are from less privileged backgrounds may be disadvantaged because their application. is not actively invited by elite firms and if they do apply, they do not have similar access to coaching and support which might aid their success.

There was also criticism of law firms’ penchant for non-educational attributes such as “the capacity to present a ‘polished’ appearance”, and “the ability to display strong communication and debating skills and act in a confident manner at interview.”

Related to this was the unease expressed by the report at law firms’ “current definitions of talent” — which it was argued could “be closely mapped on to socioeconomic status, including middle-class norms and behaviours”.

On the positive side, the report reserved praise for the contextualised recruitment model — where socioeconomic data is used to contextualise academic performance at school — recently launched by Hogan Lovells, Herbert Smith Freehills, Baker & McKenzie and Ashurst. It also gave the thumbs up to legal apprenticeship programmes of the type being piloted by Mayer Brown.

Social Mobility Commission chairman Alan Milburn, the Labour former MP and minister, said private school kid-dominated law firms were “denying themselves talent, stymying young people’s social mobility and fuelling the social divide that bedevils Britain.” He went on:

Elite firms seem to require applicants to pass a ‘poshness test’ to gain entry. Inevitably that ends up excluding youngsters who have the right sort of grades and abilities but whose parents do not have the right sort of bank balances.

Read the full report here.