Balancing the legal profession

Keely Lockhart asks if law firms are doing enough to promote social diversity

When it comes to trainee recruitment, top firms once cast their nets into a shallow pool of Oxbridge graduates. However, in recent years, the legal profession has supposedly woken up to the fact that not all the best lawyers go to what they deem to be the best universities. Access to one of the highest paid, most challenging, and well-respected careers is slowly being prised open with the help of the government, lobby groups, and, most importantly, lawyers.

Simply the best?

Recently, news broke that Clifford Chance was using a "CV blind" policy in its trainee selection process. As the name would suggest, Clifford Chance has been recruiting students onto the firm's vacation scheme - the traditional route to a training contract - based on a short essay, rather than a traditional CV or cover letter. That way, assessors can select the best candidates based on their ability rather than being influenced by their educational background. Clifford Chance's policy also extends to the final interview stage for training contracts, where interviewers will only have access to the candidate's name.

While it appears that Clifford Chance is really attempting to broaden its pool of trainee talent, Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at UCL Richard Moorhead appeared intrigued as to why the policy had been quietly introduced some time ago and not made a big deal of until now. Writing in his blog Lawyer Watch he speculated: "I am guessing this was to see how they feel about the quality of recruits a couple of years in without committing to the scheme prematurely."

He goes on to say that magic circle firms like Clifford Chance, which have built their reputations on Oxbridge heraldry, "may wish not to advertise too forcefully that they are not just recruiting from 'the best' universities", for fear of hypocrisy.

However, it can't be denied that Clifford Chance's CV blind approach has made some positive impact on their recruiting pool. The firm claims that, since the policy has been in place, it has increased its intake of trainees from universities other than Oxford and Cambridge by more than a third.

No bias here

Despite this apparent success, the remaining magic circle firms announced they would not be following in Clifford Chance's "CV blind" footsteps. Speaking to Lawyer2B, Allen & Overy senior graduate recruitment manager Sarah Cockburn said: "We won't be implementing blind CV interviewing. We regularly conduct analysis of our application process and we do not see any bias at all in our selection process at any point."

Meanwhile, we spoke to Chris White, ex-lawyer and chief executive of Aspiring Solicitors - an organisation committed to increasing diversity throughout the legal profession - about what he thought of Clifford Chance's recruitment tactic. "It's important to note that opting not to pursue a CV blind option doesn't mean a law firm is not committed to diversity," he told The Gateway. "The other magic circle law firms who have decided not to pursue the CV blind option are all committed to achieving diversity."

The pillar of our society

Alan Milburn, Chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has previously praised the legal sector for being at the forefront of driving activity aimed at changing access to professional jobs. Yet he has also said the rate at which the legal profession is increasing social mobility needs to "significantly accelerate". Privately-educated Oxbridge graduates still dominate - according to the latest study from the Law Society, over a third of trainees in 2012 had been educated at a fee-paying school. "Law is the pillar of our society," says Chris. "It's crucial that the legal profession represents a true cross-section of the best people that our society has to offer."

The legal profession is under an immense amount of pressure to improve social mobility, and while there's nothing wrong with a bit of tough love, there is a clear danger that if the profession becomes too obsessed with not hiring trainees from Oxbridge, it will purposely ignore the talented candidates who have worked hard to gain their place at one of those prestigious institutions, for fear of appearing biased. Maybe, after all, Clifford Chance has found the best route to a more balanced legal profession.

photo: philip_sheldrake/Flickr