City grad recruiters slam academic’s claim that law firm diversity schemes are just for show

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Dr Louise Ashley says schemes offer only ‘illusion of change’, but new entry level hiring practices tell a different story

City law firms’ efforts to become more diverse and inclusive are “a form of ‘reputation laundering’, offering only the illusion of change”, a university academic has claimed, much to the annoyance of legal graduate recruiters. They say the academic’s assertions are outdated and fail to take into account what’s happening at grass roots level.

Dr Louise Ashley, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, who has spent more than ten years researching issues around equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in ‘elite’ professions, writes in a recent article:

“I believe that City firms’ efforts to become more diverse and inclusive, and to deliver more equal representation at the top, have not worked because they were never meant to. Instead, they are a form of ‘reputation laundering’, offering only the illusion of change in order to protect their privileges and rewards.”

Dr Ashley came to this conclusion following more than 400 interviews with City workers over a ten-year period, around a third of them lawyers, for her book, Highly Discriminating: Why the City isn’t Fair and Diversity Doesn’t Work.

But many have issues with her take.

A number of graduate recruitment experts told Legal Cheek that they believed the comments were outdated, failing to take into account new graduate hiring policies that have come in over the last five years. Far more diverse trainee intakes are now the norm at elite London law firms, with students from minority backgrounds and non-Russell Group universities seen much more widely, but it will take time for those trainees to progress through their respective organisations into more senior roles. While that process may require a change to some elements of organisational culture within firms, to assume those more diverse trainees won’t progress to senior roles and shake up demographics further up the ladder is unduly pessimistic, say graduate recruitment insiders.

Further, they point to the rise of solicitor apprenticeships. Magic circle duo Linklaters and Allen & Overy now both offer a route to school-leavers to go direct into City law without incurring university debt. Between them the pair are offering around 12 school-leavers per year a way in through this route. Again, why assume these future lawyers won’t reach the top, recruiters ask.

Chair of the City of London Law Society Colin Passmore also hit back at Dr Ashley’s article, writing on LinkedIn that he had been left “surprised and more than a little disappointed” at the comments. The former City partner urged her to “reflect on her conclusions and perhaps celebrate the fact that some significant and genuine initiatives are well under way that are meant to — and will — effect lasting change”.

Dr Ashley, who briefly worked in business development for a City law firm, argues that the “class-based recruitment strategies” she has observed over the last decade sustain “the impression of status and prestige” and help “justify the high fees they charge, and the exceptional profits they generate”.

She adds that the “war for talent” among firms to attract graduates from the UK’s most elite universities is “largely phoney”, continuing: “in reality, the skills the firms need are available from a much wider cohort of graduates — but it has helped convince both City firms and clients of these employees’ exceptional worth”.

Dr Ashley cites a Black corporate lawyer she spoke to in the early 2010s as telling her: “Their dream scenario is to try and find a nice, uncontroversial way to try and ‘do diversity’ without having to change much of anything else.” But most people would agree that City law firm recruitment has changed significantly since then.

Meanwhile, another law firm partner she spoke to at an unspecified time is quoted as saying his firm preferred to appoint “polished” candidates from elite universities. “From a business perspective you can’t afford to have people in meetings who will not look good to the clients, [even if] some might be very, very bright,” he said.

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Over the years City law firms have ramped up their diversity efforts by implementing targets for the retention of senior female and minority ethnic employees, as well as initiating mentoring schemes and making time spent towards EDI activities count towards lawyers’ billing targets.

They have done well largely on the gender front, with many firms exceeding targets for female partners in recent years. But the latest statistics released by the solicitors’ regulator show that big law firms are lagging behind when it comes to diversity at the top, with just 8% of partners being Black, Asian or from another ethnic minority background.

Speaking to Legal Cheek on what more City law firms can do to bring about real change in the profession, Dr Ashley said: “fundamental systemic and structural change is difficult because practices that can be quite dysfunctional in relation to talent (and indeed wellbeing) are ‘locked-in’ as a result of interactions between highly competitive firms”.

“One obvious example is very long hours which makes the retention of talented people (often, though not always, women) more difficult but persists because no firm feels able to fundamentally change this culture and structure unless their immediate competitors do, since leaders believe this could undermine their competitive position and profitability,” she continued. “An added dimension to this amongst City law firms is that over the past few decades, profitability became a sign of status in and of itself. Status is in turn important to City law firms (and their clients) and since long hours help drive profitability, there is additional resistance to change.”

Dr Ashley told Legal Cheek that Passmore’s post was “predominantly about gender inequalities in the law — my book and the article on which his comments I think were based is about social class, largely in finance. It is important to underline that demographics, cultures and structures do vary within and between sectors and firms — and I discuss how and why in much more detail in my book.”

“However, when it comes to reputation laundering, it is very important to underline that while that is not the intention, it can be an effect,” she said. “As a general point, it is brilliant that firms are doing such good work to open access and that is absolutely to be celebrated. There is a question about whether these new entrants will be able to progress their careers at a speed similar to more privileged peers and whether they will enjoy the same retention rates. We will need more time to know on that one, but evidence suggests there could be some challenges there.”

She continued: “In my book on this subject, I argue that the City often welcomes diversity, on the condition that those who are ‘different’ become more or less the same as the people already there. There is then significant pressure on new entrants from diverse backgrounds to assimilate to dominant norms and, while experiences clearly vary, that can be exhausting and distracting. On that basis, there is a danger that diverse new entrants offer reputational capital to some firms, but at some personal cost. It is vital to point out this is not deliberate, and that my critique is never aimed at individuals, or the people doing the difficult and important work in pursuit of diversity within firms. It is always aimed at the institutions and practices that get in the way, as dysfunctional practices can get locked in despite any deliberate intention or conscious will. Understanding how and why that happens is critical to understanding how to drive change.”

Dr Ashely acknowledged “these are not always comfortable conversations” but “sometimes we need the less comfortable conversations to move the needle”.

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There is an element of truth in what Dr Ashley is saying but I think ultimately she is wrong. City firms definitely do push D&I for the PR benefits but it is undeniable that the profession is fairer and more open to diversity than it was even 10 years ago. The number of ethnic minority and state-school educated graduates has increased exponentially and will likely continue at a high rate. Also, two things can be true at once. City firms may push diversity for PR benefits but many firms and partners also believe in their slogans more or less.

In an elite profession where profit is king there will always be an element of inequality when hunting for the best graduates. But to deny that progress has been made is incorrect and unhelpful and in my opinion does a disservice to graduates, who will be put off by rhetoric that doesn’t in fact reflect reality.


MC Associate

For what it’s worth, there are still remarkably few senior associates of colour at my firm. And too often their voices are shouted over by the white partners / senior associates wearing gilets and with houses in the country etc etc…


Not an associate

That comment says more about your prejudices than anything else.


Confused RG

Why is non-RG seen as a badge of diversity?



Well! It’s simply acknowledging that Russell group students aren’t the only ones capable.


might be better




Lol the irony


functional brain

I mean, if you took an average of the University of Warwick and compared it to Nottingham Trent, I’m sure we could predict who would be more competent.



The one that went to Oxford, Cambridge, UCL or KCL presumably. Or are you just talking about makeweight fodder picks?



City firms in my experience hire overwhelming privately educated trainees with hobbies such as horse riding and shooting. This was my experience-the diversity criteria mainly for PR. Perhaps fairer than 10 years ago but the way one speaks rather than skill is still considered important. Compared with the IT sector for instance, with people from different backgrounds and accents, City law is 50 years behind.



This is absolutely the case. There is an inherent advantage to being privileged in your upbringing where you are more at ease in communicating the right way.

In every intake there will be several trainees who aren’t very bright but carry themselves in a way that appeals to the common demographic in the group of decision makers (grad rec + partners involved in recruitment). On the other hand there may be some very bright young people from less privileged backgrounds who unfortunately aren’t yet used to talking and presenting themselves in the way you’re required to in a corporate environment; something that can absolutely be learned within the first few weeks of your TC.


Ex grad rec

“the City often welcomes diversity, on the condition that those who are ‘different’ become more or less the same as the people already there” – such an interesting point. Comments like “diamond in the rough” and “not polished” are very common in internal grad rec feedback. Diverse candidates are often seen as needing to be polished up compared to their white/ middle class counterparts to be seen as “professional” enough for a city firm.



You can’t have someone saying ‘ye know’ and ‘innit’ every 5 seconds, regardless of ethnicity.


Fanner of the Flames

Sooo… the city should change their standards downwards to accommodate..?


Future trainee

Lets BFFR, Dr Ashley has told no lies! It’s the system, practice and institution that uphold poor diversity numbers because their focus is always on prestige and profit. But if we check the no. of Black lawyers post qualification you will see that many leave the profession or go in-house for a myriad of reasons. DEI is only important to these firms at the entry level because its an easy and cheap marketing strategy… wonder why there is only 1% of Black lawyers at partnership level in UK law firms.



Maybe bc only 3% of the population is black?



What’s your point? 3% is still not reflected at partnership/management level meaning there is still room for improvement.


Demographics v2

18% in 2021 census…


Not an associate

Self-reporting a being from an ethnic minority – 18%. Black population – 3%, maybe 4%. Do try to keep up.



Big gender diversity imabalance in new entrants into the profession. Most D&I experts don’t speak about it. Funny that…



think there’s a strong element of goodhart’s law (when a metric becomes a target it ceases to be a good metric) – lots of wealthy ppl from singapore etc in top firms intakes



I’m hungry for some chips



I’ve known Black trainees with the same A Levels and uni degrees as their White counterparts spend 7+ years paralegalling while looking for training contracts.

There are still city firms in London without a single Black partner, and that embarrassing disparity is even worse down the road within the chambers of Temple and Gray’s Inn.

All within a city that is the most ethnically diverse in Europe, if not the world. It’s not as if they can’t find non-White applicants, right?



The common theme that somehow the recruitment of London firms should represent London’s ethnicity profile rather than England’s is utterly inane given they recruit on a national basis. These are jobs in the country’s best law firms not stacking shelves in the local Tesco. But of course this sort of commenter knows exactly what they are doing as using distorted comparators helps them claim discrimination where none or next to none exists.



I’ve worked in the industry for over 20 years and while there has been some change, progress has been incremental – and mostly in the gender domain. There remain fundamental structural inequalities embedded in the profession which is slowing the progress of well meaning and in some instances passionately led D&I programmes. The industry needs to face into why that is and as Dr Ashley says, sometimes we need the less comfortable conversations to move the needle.


Not an associate

The education system spews out imbalance in outcomes for students. The private sector cannot be expected to correct for that. But in truth the imbalance, or the vast majority of it, is not really one of ethnicity, it is one of socio-economic background. So those pushing ethnicity percentages are really advocating discrimination against white working class applicants, especially male applicants.



Let’s accept that law firms like Oxbridge graduates. There are many Oxbridge colleges that now take 70% of their undergraduates from the state sector.

There is also the introduction of new Oxbridge ‘foundation’ degrees that will allow students from disadvantaged backgrounds to progress on to complete undergraduate degrees there. Are these facts examples of ‘discrimination’ against working class students?

Can a law firm’s HR department tell on paper if an applicant is ‘working class’? In contrast, most students from an ethnic minority background are recognisable as such by their names, and most certainly when answering diversity and monitoring questions.

It is infinitely easier for a law firm to discriminate against ethnic minority applicants than ‘working class’ ones.


Brexity Lawyer

I feel like this researcher lives in a different world. I work in the City as a corporate lawyer, and every single one of my colleagues is almost comically left-wing. You would struggle to find a single person who openly talks about supporting Brexit or limiting migration, or who has critical views about things such as transgender ideology. And this goes all the way up to the partners, who are mostly Islington-dwelling social liberals. It’s interesting how diversity of every kind is important, apart from ideological diversity.



Hiring privately educated persons of colour does not equate to D&I. Law firms need to push to recruit socially diverse candidates.



When it comes to sex and race, the received wisdom is that the makeup of intakes should reflect broader society.

Nobody ever suggests the same should be true of socioeconomic background.

Why is that? Given a majority of fee earners in city firms are already women and minority ethnic backgrounds are over represented?

Is it really a triumph for diversity that city firms and full of rich Singaporeans and posh white women, but they have almost no black men from lower socioeconomic backgrounds?



When are we going to end this virtue signalling diversity bollocks and just get back to picking the best qualified who will bring the most cash?


Grad Wreck

I’m grad recruiter and can see that people in the firm and the legal sector are really trying to make a difference.

The real issue though is that law firms meet people after they’ve been through all the inequalities of society and the education system. To question why law firms don’t hire people with CCC at A-Level and a 2.2 degree (rather than someone with AAA and a 1st) miss the point. The question should be why state schools and some universities are not providing the same level of education as private schools. But we all know the answer to this.

That’s for politicians to solve, not law firms.

Law firms end up being the ones who reject candidates and to have the flack. Maybe we should question what happened in the 20 years before a candidate made an application and who was responsible for that.



I agree. Class is the biggest factor. But let’s be honest here, a working class Black person and White person are going to be treated differently. What we really need is recruiters who are able to appreciate the differences of background, and understand the strength of difference. Perhaps we need external D&I professionals helping the recruiters in the actual selection process of candidates. Just an idea. And yes, law firms still need to do a lot of work. As for the Bar, let’s just say they’re a joke and are Neanderthals compared to the Homosapien solicitor. There is much work to be done, but at least we’re trying. The Bar is not!


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