Contextual recruitment hits magic circle: firms to consider students’ economic background and personal circumstances

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Training contract hunters’ achievements to be “contextualised”


The five magic circle firms — Linklaters, Slaughter and May, Clifford Chance, Allen & Overy and Freshfields — have jumped on board the latest legal profession diversity craze, announcing today that they have signed up to a contextual recruitment programme.

Norton Rose Fulbright, Macfarlanes and Travers Smith have also joined the scheme, which sees training contract hunters’ achievements “contextualised” in relation to their peers. It will be introduced at the firms next month.

The firms follow fellow City players Ashurst, the London office of Baker & McKenzie, Anglo-Australian giant Herbert Smith Freehills and scheme pioneer Hogan Lovells on the initiative.

Running the contextual recruitment system is London-based diversity specialist agency Rare Recruitment, which describes the technology as a “ground breaking” tool that “will improve graduate social mobility in the City”.

Rare — which claims the programme is the first of its kind in the UK — says the technique “hardwires social mobility metrics into the firms’ existing graduate recruitment databases”.

Rare’s system uses data from two databases: one contains exam results of 3,500 English secondary schools and sixth form colleges; the other contains 2.5 million UK postcodes. It then combines this information to place wannabe lawyers’ accomplishments in context.

Announcing this morning that Linklaters — which recruits some 110 trainess annually, the most of any firm in the country — had joined the programme, graduate recruitment partner Simon Branigan said:

In selecting some of the brightest minds in the market, we do of course look at academic achievement, but we also deeply value impressive, non-academic achievements.

Branigan went on to explain the attraction of the Rare programme to his firm:

Contextualising an individual’s accomplishments means we can truly understand the situation in which those academic and personal successes have been achieved and how their performance compares to their peers from similar backgrounds, with similar life opportunities; by understanding this we ensure that we are employing intelligent, well rounded individuals from broad walks of life, who will bring different experiences and perspectives to our business.

Baker & McKenzie and Hogan Lovells joined the scheme last May, while Ashurst and Herbert Smith Freehills jumped on board a month later.

In July the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found that Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance and Slaughter and May each hired around 40% of their trainees from fee-paying schools.


Herbert Smith Freehills and Ashurst latest to jump on contextual recruiting bandwagon [Legal Cheek]

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



What about the international students?


Not Amused

What matters really is the metrics used. Put the sales patter aside and this seems to me to be the system currently used by Cambridge University.

Now, anecdotal of course, but I have had a mentee from a deprived background who wasn’t picked up by this system. It all gets a bit ‘computer says no’. But poor born kids who are in social housing can live in postcodes which the system considers ‘affluent’ because on average those postcodes are (we don’t actually put all our poor people in one place – for good reason).

Similarly the school metric while superficially attractive, doesn’t work with either academies (which count as ‘new’ and so have no past to be analysed) and sixth form colleges (where privately educated kids can often be sent to game the system). Nor does it help poor born kids who life in the catchment area of a ‘not bad school’ (the metric really only highlights the worst schools).

Any attempt to centralise the system or to automate it is invariably going to miss kids. I think we would make more progress if individuals are empowered to make decisions rather than machines or systems telling them they can’t (in Oxford individual academics and colleges can make decisions, in Cambridge the central admission system won’t let you). I know we live in a world in which social mobility is in appalling decline. The temptation is to praise any attempt to improve it, but I worry that we fool ourselves that we have done something when we haven’t.

I also worry deeply that the case for improving social mobility is really a case for improving state schools and improving state school numbers at our leading universities. Anything that looks like trying to solve that problem afterwards looks like stable doors territory and does risk benefitting some rich born kids whose parents play the system and conversely unfairly disadvantaging rich born kids who are honest victims who never chose to be born rich.

I suppose a summary would be – this problem is more complex than a metric based software tool can handle.


a shadowy figure

also students from deprived backgrounds on scholarships to private schools


Quo Vadis

Student 1: Parents earning £25k, living in a council house in Islington, decent school: grades BBC at A level.

Student 2: Parents earning £60k, living in a decent house in Hackney, good school (hidden history of anorexia and depression, home life very unpleasant, bullied throughout school): grades ABB at A-level.

You try and decide from this information which student deserves the job. You then try and make the same decision without the information in the brackets – which recruiters would almost certainly not have access to. You can’t make a fair decision, and neither can the magical algorithms flogged by recruitment consultants.



I often wonder how this will actually work in practice, particularly considering that due to my background I’m the kind of student I imagine the firms will be targeting.

However, despite my parents being of a low income, and my family living in a very rough council estate, my postcode is shared with some of the most affluent areas of the city which I live in.

Equally, while I attended a poor performing school for GCSEs and did well, which I’m sure will show up on the system, I then used my good GCSEs to get into a strong state sixth form. This however was a 2 hour commute each day, which in my opinion shows an element of commitment, yet I’d imagine according to this computer I’ll be viewed as someone who went to a good sixth form and simply did well.

I do appreciate firms attempting to increase social mobility, it’s a very noble cause. And I also have no quarms which competing against others more ‘privileged’ than me, but I do feel that this system which they’ve introduced isn’t going to benefit me and many others like it should.


Not Amused

I agree with this and many other comments above and below – nor do I disagree with Quo Vardis.

I only write to say that social mobility is a noble cause, but it is not just a noble cause. It is meritocracy and meritocracy has both a moral and an economic argument to support it. The simple fact is that both businesses and the nation do better when recruitment is wholly meritocratic.

For the poster upset and who clearly feels the firm is being overly criticised – I understand your feelings. Please know that decent people who support social mobility really should (I try to) speak out against ill-motivated people who instead of caring about social mobility, just use it as an issue to insult and bully employers. I think this system will fail because of the reasons it currently fails Cambridge. I would rather the law firms used their power to improve access by poor kids to our top unis – but you are right to upbraid me if it ever seems that I am attacking someone who is at least trying. More people need to try, this is a national problem – and those who like to pretend this problem is either created by or can be solved by employers are just unhelpful.



having seen anorexia up close, I can say that the last thing one does is hire the anorexic.



I am puzzled by the negativity on Legal Cheek about this new approach. it seems firms can’t win. Accused of not looking beyond grades or favouring sons and daughters of clients and when an inititiave that plainly tries to address educational inequality comes along, that’s a craze/bandwagon. This is not a cheeky or lighthearted article. It pours scorn on a measured and objective approach to a big issue. Plenty of the comments seem to assume that decisions about interviews will be taken by computers and from what I have read of this system, this plainly isn’t the case. All we are talking about here is having more information with which to make a decision about who to invite to interview. Already a difficult decision, granted but at least we can feel some comfort that firms are thinking more about the context in which a student has achieved their grades. As one of the posters above notes (although with a very negative spin) some universities have been using similar systems for some time and of course, it isn’t perfect, it may well miss people (as university places are scarce, as are training contracts, far scarcer than the numbers chasing them). But at least we start to address the issue: that there is more to take into account with A level grades than the grades themselves. We cannot shirk responsibility for addressing social mobility by blaming the school system. I don’t disagree that this is at the heart of the issue but it should not be an excuse for inaction.



It’s great that firms genuinely want to improve social mobility, but I think that the point really is that this is like getting the plumber in after the pipes have all leaked into the foundations and your house has collapsed. Social mobility is nigh on non-existent in this country (with exceptions), and that is because of the enormous gap between opportunities for poor and rich children.

Basically, it shouldn’t be necessary to do this. Yes, a person who goes from poverty and an appalling school to any Russell Group university is much more impressive than someone from Eton going to Oxford. But they should have probably gone to Oxford too, with that kind of ability. Things like this have the dual problem that they A) do not address the root of the problem and B) are bereft of human judgment and so may well make bad decisions without having all of the facts.



So we should just do nothing?



I don’t think anyone suggested doing nothing! Hopefully this system will work well. I am skeptical that it will make an enormous difference, but if it does then that will be brilliant and hopefully there will be a much greater range of backgrounds represented in MC trainees. Links already do a relatively good job of recruiting diverse groups. Hopefully that will continue. It’s just worth making the point that these schemes are a small plaster stuck over a festering gangrenous wound.



Already heard of more privileged applicants using the postcode of their second home or accommodation their parents have as a property investment to manipulate this system.

Take into account it doesn’t flag up some of the most vulnerable (homeless/in foster care/kids absent from school due to bullying), international students, or people who move around a lot due to parents jobs or family issues, and this becomes a highly unreliable system that cannot be applied to all candidates fairly.

I do not believe this will be more effective than someone who is informed enough, reading a form and making judgments based on a wider set of indicators than postcode and school attended.



It does also measure some of these things. It measures postcode (at the time you took your exams), checks your GCSE and A level results against your school average and your school average against your local authority and national performance for the year – important as school performance varies over time (pulled from a national database so it can’t be manipulated by candidates). It uses standard measurements such as asking (which is checkable) whether you have spent time in care, care for a dependant, work over a certain number of hours during term time, whether your parents went to university in the uk. I could go on. The total picture of all this information together is a much more rounded view of a candidate. Surely people can see this? A human being, trained in assessing the information then uses it, alongside whatever other methods a firm uses to assess candidates and their potential ability – their application form, ability tests (if they choose to employ them) and makes a decision about whether to invite to interview based on the balance of all the information.



Unless the system has changed in recent months, it does not pick up a number of the areas you have highlighted. It is also dependent on people disclosing a lot of this information in the first place (or even knowing the detail), something that they candidates have a right not to disclose should they choose not to.

I would be interested to see how these indicators are “checkable” as you have suggested? I can’t see HR departments nor reference checking companies having the time nor inclination to verify these highly personal details.



Surely a more cost effective way of truly testing the calibre of applicants is to make the home address, school and University anonymous for every applicant therefore everyone is on an equal playing field regardless of the applicant’s background? No one should be penalised for their background, whether that person is rich or poor!


Not Amused

– address we could make anonymous, but it would hinder the ability to spot disadvantaged kids
– school we could make anonymous, but it would hinder the ability to spot disadvantaged kids
– university we can’t make anonymous, because the institution attended is directly related to the proportional value of the grade achieved

The playing field isn’t equal. Not least of all because the state school system is broadly failing. If you have a running race, a 500m dash and half of the contestants haven’t got shoes, and they lose, then you really haven’t established who was the fastest runner. We need to make sure all candidates have shoes without discriminating against candidates born with shoes.



Universities also can’t be anonymous because the applications themselves will reveal which university a student went to.

Modules vary from university to university, and it’s also unrealistic to expect students not to answer questions about their extracurricular activities by saying that they were a part of xyz committee at abc university.



The point is that someone who got 2 As and a B at Eton is a markedly unimpressive candidate, while someone who got the same grades at a failing inner city comprehensive is very impressive indeed. Just imagine what the inner city person could achieve with the full resources of magic circle training and resources thrown behind them!

So these things do need to be considered somewhat. The question is just what weighting should be given to various factors and how it is implemented fairly and consistently.


Quo Vadis

We’re dealing with numbers. We are looking for a reliable, easily quantifiable weighting to give to disadvantaged candidates on the basis of their disadvantage. But the critical flaw in this plan is twofold. We cannot reliably quantify the relative advantages or disadvantages during someone’s life, at least without a truly invasive level of questioning. Neither can we say with confidence how someone would achieve if they were in a more advantaged or disadvantaged position. That boy from Eton with AAB – if he had been to some inner-city dump, would he have got AAB? BBC? CCD? We can understand very well the idea of someone being held back by circumstance. But would an inner-city boy with grades of BBC really get, say, AAB if he went to Eton? Perhaps BBC represents the very peak of his abilities. Trying to correct for societal unfairness is a job for government. Law firms are ill-placed to attempt it and should avoid falling prey to ‘diversity’ shysters peddling pseudoscience and algorithms.


Not Amused

I don’t find myself disagreeing with you.

The problem of state schools in the UK is colossal. But no one wishes to acknowledge or address that.

The burden it places on employers – who are damned if they do and damned if they don’t is ridiculous and unhelpful.

I think the practical, short term solution, while we wait for a politician with a backbone to sort this out, is to empower universities. All universities (not just Oxford, Cambridge and York – and a few others in certain subjects) need to return to actually interviewing candidates – and that means the actual academics interviewing the candidates, not just administrative staff.

The over reliance on A levels needs to go. Grades and predicted grades should be a guideline to help individual academics make individual choices. At the same time state schools (and others) need to stop putting bright poor born kids off from applying to the best unis. Certain politically minded people need to stop lying and pretending that university attended does not matter. We need to use the physical resource of the universities and their academic staff to correct and in some cases just check whether the bright poor born kid with AAB is or isn’t as good as the bright rich born kid with AAA.

Let them interview as I did, multiple times, over 3 days. Bring back the old admissions exam. Then let employers recruit freely from the best candidates post uni. Stop applying political pressure to them to solve this problem – they are totally ill equipped. Remove work experience as a selection tool. Remove ‘outside interests’. Encourage employers just to interview people from the range of academic ability and let them decide on an individual basis.

You are right in there being too much meddling. Too many ‘easy’ solutions. Not enough honesty.


Quo Vadis

On reflection, I would withdraw my last sentence – the language was intemperate. I certainly don’t think there is any ill-intent or dishonesty as to what the recruitment consultancies do, and I wouldn’t want that to be the interpretation – if anything, I think they believe quite fervently that these initiatives are a good thing. But I disagree – equally strongly, and for the reasons stated above.


I, for one, welcome these efforts.

In the past, employers would carry on as if the playing field were perfectly level when the truth is that some candidates have to overcome considerably more hardship than others, just to get the same grades. They should be be given credit for it.



Meritocracy is not born from a computer system.
My concern is who or what does the ‘equalising’? How can rely on these mysterious entities to accurately assess which candidates are most deserving? How is ‘most deserving’ defined?
This is a superficial means of producing equality. It will inevitably result in the very poorest but the very best candidates being pushed out from the recruitment race as candidates lie about the hardships they’ve faced.



It seems a bit narrow-minded to assume that everyone from a socioeconomically disadvantaged background has “street smarts”…


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