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Lord Neuberger: Top judges should visit non-traditional unis and encourage students to apply for training contracts

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Exclusive: Head of Supreme Court wants to see judiciary out on campus but is against imposing diversity quotas

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The most senior judge in England and Wales has called on his fellow members of the judiciary to help promote diversity by visiting non-Russell Group universities to encourage students to apply for training contracts and pupillages.

But Supreme Court head Lord Neuberger is against using quotas to change the make-up of the legal profession, whose members continue to disproportionately hail from privileged backgrounds.

Speaking at Legal Cheek‘s ‘Why the legal profession needs people who see the world differently’ event — a video of which is here — Neuberger backed the recent enthusiasm shown by many big law firms to reach out to students at universities outside the Russell Group.

But he acknowledged that this was often beyond the means of smaller firms and barristers’ chambers with limited resources.

This is where the judiciary could lend a hand as part of a broader legal profession strategy to “think outside the box” to a greater extent when it comes to graduate recruitment, said Neuberger. He explained:

I think one role for judges who don’t have to worry too much about recruiting is that we should be going out to the universities and the schools where people are not necessarily so aware of the opportunities and are often rather reticent about applying to firms and chambers.

Neuberger went on to praise the contextual recruitment techniques being adopted by City firms including Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells and RPC — all of which were represented at the event — to help them find talented students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.

Commenting on RPC’s related policy of taking at least two candidates each year on its vac scheme who don’t meet the firm’s graduate educational requirements, Neuberger said:

Taking people on vacation schemes who may not be particularly academically successful or would not normally have applied is the sort of thing that firms should be doing. Because we do have to think outside the box and do have to be thinking about going to institutions where people are not motivated and knowledgeable because they are disadvantaged from the first base.

He continued:

We need to get [disadvantaged students] aware of what is going on and more confident about applying — and getting ready for applying. It’s not just applying out of the blue, you have got to be prepared … you have to know how to make yourself attractive and how to perform in interviews.

It is these methods, rather than quotas, that Neuberger — who spent an hour speaking to individual students in the networking session after the event — hopes to see employed over the years ahead to make the legal profession more diverse. On fixed diversity targets, the Supreme Court chief had this to say:

In a sense we have targets — the very fact that we are saying there is insufficient diversity means that we are accepting there is a target because we haven’t reached it. In the sense of having a specific target, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it concentrates the mind; on the other hand it is a bit artificial … the more we start headlining with targets, the more in a way we start compartmentalising people rather than emphasising diversity.

Neuberger proceeded to describe quotas as “patronising and self-defeating”, commenting:

The other problem with targets is that they can quite easily shade into quotas. They have obvious attractions, but in end I think they are patronising and self-defeating. I’m quite comfortable with the way we are proceeding; namely, conscious that we have insufficient women and BME people at the top — both of the legal profession and in the judiciary.

According to the Legal Cheek Careers Firms Most List, in 48 out of 60 top law firms the percentage of partnership positions filled by women is less than 25%, while the Chambers Most List shows 42 out of 50 top barristers’ chambers have less than a quarter female QCs.

The Firms Most List also shows that the partnership of only four out of 60 firms reflect the proportion of ethnic minorities in the British population, with 14% or more ethnic minority partners. Most chambers do not even harvest comprehensive racial diversity data. Meanwhile across the legal profession socio-economic diversity is generally scetchy, but research has found that as many as 40% of young lawyers at top firms and chambers have been privately-educated.

The full video of ‘Why the legal profession needs people who see the world differently’ is here.