BRAIN TRAINING

BRAIN TRAINING

Opening paths to social mobility

In 2021, Browne Jacobson topped the Social Mobility Foundation’s Employer’s Index – the first law firm to do so. To arrive there, explain Caroline Green, senior partner, and Tom Lyas, head of resourcing, the firm had to accept the need for fundamental changes to recruitment norms – developing a long-term social mobility framework along the way

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on us all, but potentially the most far-reaching damage has been inflicted on the life chances of our children and young people. A recent survey by the Social Mobility Commission found that over half the public (56%) believes the pandemic has increased social inequality, and an increasing number of people ­– from 31% in 2019 to 42% in 2021 – think employers should have to take action to improve social mobility, with 58% of ethnic minorities of the opinion that employers should take responsibility in this area.

Tough questions are now (rightly) being asked of employers around what pro-active steps they’re taking to ‘level the playing field’ of opportunity. Adding to those challenges facing legal businesses, a group of General Counsels at some of Europe’s biggest employers recently signalled that they will expect law firm partners to report on social mobility metrics alongside other diversity and inclusion statistics.

For employers already battling the ramifications of the pandemic, the impact of Brexit on their supply chains, and workforce retention issues, having to stretch limited resources to address social mobility may seem a project for the back burner, but we believe that this short-term approach could impact the very viability of those businesses. At the most basic level, it cannot be right, as expressed by Dame Martina Milburn, former chair of the Social Mobility Commission in the State of the Nation 2018–19 report, that “being born privileged in Britain means that you are likely to remain privileged. Being born disadvantaged, however, means that you will have to overcome a series of barriers to ensure that you and your children are not stuck in the same trap”.

But there are also good business reasons why closing the privilege gap in your organisation can be beneficial. McKinsey reports that ethnically and culturally diverse companies are 36% more likely to be profitable than the least diverse. Of course, it will take time for this to manifest in our business, but we’re already seeing improved innovation as a result of greater diversity.

At the most basic level, it cannot be right, as expressed by Dame Martina Milburn, former chair of the Social Mobility Commission in the State of the Nation 2018–19 report, that “being born privileged in Britain means that you are likely to remain privileged. Being born disadvantaged, however, means that you will have to overcome a series of barriers to ensure that you and your children are not stuck in the same trap”.

Browne Jacobson was ranked first in the Social Mobility Foundation’s Employers’ Index in 2021 – the first law firm to top the Index. It’s fair to say our journey towards this position started many years ago. Social mobility is in our DNA, and we’re proud that 83.3% of our employees attended a UK state school and 46% were from the first generation of their family to attend university. However, in the past five years, we have stepped up the measures we take to break down barriers to entering the industry and increase access. The actions we’ve taken have not been easy and, at times, we’ve made decisions that others in the industry would question, but our data shows that we’ve made a real difference to our workforce.

Getting started

One of the most significant steps we took was to remove the need for applicants to our training contracts to have achieved the industry-standard ABB grades at A-level and a 2:1 degree from a Russell Group University. This was no marketing gimmick – there was simply no reliable data which demonstrated that someone with these grades would out-perform (in role) someone with, for example, a 2:2 or BCC at A-level. We were also able to test this first-hand by discovering that some of our most successful solicitors had not achieved the high academic grades we were setting for new starters – so we stripped out the requirement.

It’s important to stress that we didn’t just change the application criteria and then secretly screen out those with 2:2s. We openly encouraged applications from candidates with any grade and reviewed broader criteria, including non-academic achievements – we firmly believe that qualifications are not the only measure of ability and we’ve seen this time and again with our new recruits.

In our latest trainee cohort, 75% of our offers have gone to students who, prior to 2016, would have been ineligible to apply. The first junior lawyers recruited under the changed process have gone on to qualify as solicitors and are as bright and able as those who met our previous application requirements. Of these students, over 70% achieved an ‘exceptional’ rating in their end-of-year review.

Another measure was to adopt RARE contextualised recruitment, looking at whether candidates achieved better-than-expected grades from their individual educational establishments. We don’t see a student’s grades, but instead see a ‘Performance Score’, where the student’s academic achievement is put into the context of their background and the expectations of their school or college. A student with a high ‘Performance Score’ will be entered into our application process and at no point in the process are we aware of achieved grades.

In our latest trainee cohort, 75% of our offers have gone to students who, prior to 2016, would have been ineligible to apply. The first junior lawyers recruited under the changed process have gone on to qualify as solicitors and are as bright and able as those who met our previous application requirements. Of these students, over 70% achieved an ‘exceptional’ rating in their end-of-year review.

Although we don’t equate social mobility with race and ethnicity, one of the benefits of our new approach has been significantly improved diversity. In 2016, our junior lawyer population contained just 7% Black, Asian or minority ethnic individuals. Since the changes, the figure now sits at 42%.

A fairer deal

We also changed our university attraction strategy to be more inclusive. We run our events virtually, meaning our outreach capability has vastly improved. Between 2016 and 2019, we delivered annual events for up to 15 UK universities. From 2019 to 2020, we ran events accessed by over 13,000 students from 96 different UK universities, an increase from 10% to almost 65% of the universities in the UK. In 2020–21, our outreach expanded even further, with an incredible 25,105 students accessing our events, 62% of whom were from low socio-economic backgrounds.

These changes have allowed us to access a more diverse student talent pool across a range of universities. In 2016, less than 10% of offers were made to students from non-Russell Group universities. Today, that figure is 65%.

Another area where employers can make a real difference is through offering work experience to those students who would not otherwise be able to secure such opportunities. The Social Mobility Commission found that one of the potential explanations for “the long shadow of deprivation” could be “sons from richer families having better social networks or being better able to move out to areas with higher-paying jobs”. We were only too aware of this, as some 85% of our available work experience placements were secured by students with connections to the firm, either through family members or connections with clients.

This simply wasn’t fair and, in 2019, we launched our FAIRE initiative – standing for ‘Fairer Access into Real Experience’ – with a lasting commitment that a minimum of 50% of available work experience placements would be offered to those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Participation in the scheme would not be based on academic grades – instead, it would be aimed at students who don’t have access to connections, networks, financial support or stronger educational qualifications. It would be a real opportunity to gain invaluable experience working alongside our staff.

And then the pandemic struck, and we were unable to offer our work experience programme to anyone …

Reaching out

We decided to run and host FAIRE virtually, offering work experience and legal career insight events in collaboration with recruitment enterprise business Young Professionals. Our virtual FAIRE events, which took place in April and October 2021, had 11,340 attendees, with 62% of attendees from lower socio-economic postcodes. The events weren’t an ‘attraction’ tool for our firm, but instead promoted a range of legal careers, helping the legal industry to become more diverse and accessible – and the feedback has been incredible.

We’ve reinvented our physical FAIRE experience. We now work with schools in UK social mobility ‘cold spots’ to identify the students who would benefit most from a place on the programme – those with the most barriers to overcome. The programme is a paid experience, removing worries about whether or not candidates with financial constraints can ‘afford’ to undertake the programme.

We’ve learned a lot from our virtual programmes and, as we return to some form of normality, we’ve reinvented our physical FAIRE experience. We now work with schools in UK social mobility ‘cold spots’ to identify the students who would benefit most from a place on the programme – those with the most barriers to overcome. The programme is a paid experience, removing worries about whether or not candidates with financial constraints can ‘afford’ to undertake the programme.

And finally, there is no selection process for the participants to navigate – they are simply identified by their schools and receive a place on the programme, getting the opportunity to build their experience, contacts and confidence – and perhaps gain access to a career many people may have told them was out of reach “for someone with your background”. We hope our FAIRE programmes will change the way law firms look at developing future talent and grow an industry-wide culture of inclusivity.

We are passionate about finding innovative ways to engage with the legal profession’s future talent and playing our part to offer equal opportunities. Talent from lower socio-economic and minority backgrounds is still hugely underrepresented. We’ve been trying to break down the barriers to accessing a professional career and ensure everyone – whatever their background – can access the career they want. The steps we have taken have broad application in both the legal profession and beyond. Try them and you may just find that you see a change in your bottom line.