Law firms can do more to encourage social mobility, says Law Society
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The Law Society

Professional jobs are on the up, but the lack of diversity is stalling progression in professional services, says the Law Society of England and Wales which points to hybrid and flexible working as a way to change the status quo in the legal sector. 

The Social Mobility Commission’s state of the nation report 2021 found that since 2012, 75% of the UK’s job growth has been in professional jobs. In 2020, 49% of UK jobs were professional, while less than 30% were blue-collar jobs.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said: “We are pleased to see that professional jobs have expanded over the last decade, creating opportunities throughout the professional services sectors.

“Whether this expansion improves relative social mobility in the UK depends on who gets these jobs. At present, it looks like you still have a much greater chance of getting a professional job if you are from a professional background.

“We all have a part to play by ensuring that we are actively reaching out to those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and removing the barriers to entry and progression.

“We recognise more needs to be done to monitor socio-economic diversity across the profession too, including who gets access to the higher-level apprenticeships in the sector, and who gets on and reaches the senior levels of the profession.”

According to the commission’s report, professional workers are more likely to come from privileged, rather than working-class backgrounds in England and Wales.

In England, 62% of those in professional jobs are from privileged backgrounds, compared to 39% from working-class backgrounds.

Meanwhile, in Wales, 53.7% of those from professional backgrounds end up in professional jobs, compared to 35.7% of those from working-class backgrounds.

In addition, in 2019 those in professional jobs who had working-class backgrounds earned around £6,000 less than their privileged counterparts.

“The pandemic has widened socio-economic inequalities in education and employment, but has also created potential opportunities for firms and organisations to reach out to students and candidates in geographical areas that have historically had low social mobility,” Boyce added. 

“We look forward to engaging with the wider legal and professional services sector to help drive social mobility in the coming year via our participation in the new Social Mobility Taskforce for professional services.”

Data released from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) last year showed that more than one in five solicitors attended fee-paying schools, compared to just 7% of the general population.

There is a difference between partners and solicitors who attended a fee-paying school. Some 23% of partners have attended an independent or fee-paying school, compared to 19% of solicitors. It's also notable that firms containing more than 50 partners have the highest proportion of lawyers that attended private school (32%).

Firms that primarily undertake work for corporate clients have the lowest proportion of state-educated lawyers (46%). By comparison, nearly four-fifths (79%) of lawyers in firms doing mainly criminal work are state-educated.

The SRA also found that 15% of lawyers had a parent who worked in one of the traditional professions (such as accountancy and legal) and 26% had a parent who worked in one of the modern professions, such as teaching. 

Unveiled last November, more than one-third of entries to the Social Mobility Foundation’s top 75 UK employers for social mobility are law firms.

The highest-ranking firm in the 2020 list was Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, in fourth place, followed by Browne Jacobson and Herbert Smith Freehills, fifth and seventh respectively, and Baker Mckenzie taking the top ten spot.

Among the host of other firms making the list are the magic circle's Linklaters (11th), Freshfields (19th), Slaughter and May (25th), Allen & Overy (28th), as well as Hogan Lovells (20th), Mayer Brown (66th), Simmons & Simmons (57th), and Lewis Silkin (59th).