My 'broader ecosystem' work with the socio-economic diversity taskforce

Joanna Hughes, socio-economic diversity taskforce working group member, addresses the importance of the group's most recent report on breaking the class barrier at senior levels – as well as wider considerations that affect aspiring solicitors trying to break into the profession.
Joanne, a white woman in business dress, sits at a dinner table with other people in formal wear.
Credit: Catherine Harder Photography

I am part of the 93% of our society that attended state school, and the 63% who come from a non-professional background.

When I joined the legal profession in 1996 as a trainee solicitor, I realised that the statistics were different in law firms.

Even today, the most recent diversity statistics for law firms gathered by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and published in April 2022 show that 58% of lawyers come from a professional background and the largest law firms have an even greater proportion of lawyers from a professional background.

Research by the Bridge Group published in 2020, and used by the taskforce, showed that more than half of partners employed across the 10 participating firms attended an independent school (53%).

A key finding from the report was that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds take a year and a half longer on average to reach partner than their colleagues from higher social groups (despite the fact that a different report by the Bridge Group showed that trainees from lower socio-economic backgrounds were statistically more likely to be in the top decile of performers).

The words of Nik Miller, chief executive of the Bridge Group, at the time the report was published, that “there is much commitment in the law sector to this critical matter, but progress has been too slow for too long” stuck with me.

I didn’t want just talk; I wanted to help to make some progress and I was fortunate that the taskforce thought that I could be of use to their work.

How we started our work on producing the ‘Breaking the Class Barrier’ report

An initial literature review was undertaken alongside meetings with taskforce members during 2021.

This provided the basis to develop five initial thematic areas of focus: data, targets and protected characteristic status, culture, intersectionality and the broader ecosystem.

Members of the working group from the Law Society arranged 10 UK-wide roundtables to canvas views of the legal profession, and I helped lead the large London firms and in-house lawyers roundtable.

However, the bulk of my work for the taskforce was carrying out interviews with social mobility advocates to inform the working group’s thinking on ‘the broader ecosystem’.

The 18 interviewees included educational outreach and mentoring charity founders and CEOs, and academics. The interviewees almost all identified as coming from a low socio-economic background and ranged from 25 years old to late 50s.

78% were White, 11% were Black and 11% British Asian. Interviewees were based in Birmingham, Nottingham, Glasgow, Oxford and London or Greater London.

Conversations beyond progression at a senior level

In all the one-to-one interviews around the UK that I carried out, the importance of careers education and employer outreach was emphasised.

It was not only the CEOs of outreach organisations and academics who emphasised the fact that even though the taskforce was looking at socio-economic diversity at senior levels, the taskforce should also consider what is taught in schools about the legal profession and law firms’ engagement with the solicitor apprenticeship route to qualification.

The point was made that those from low socio-economic backgrounds won’t even get to the point of progressing at senior levels if they are locked out of the profession at entry level due to financial barriers.

Sandra Wallace, co-chair of the taskforce and DLA Piper’s joint managing director, sums it up in the Law Society’s webinar on driving social mobility change in the profession: “It is all well very saying come to work in law, but it is an expensive profession.” 

Solicitor apprenticeships can remove that financial barrier. Sandra also referred to solicitor apprenticeships at the launch event for the report on 30 November.

Inspired to continue to drive change

During my work with the taskforce I decided that I wanted to pivot my career to focus full-time on promoting the solicitor apprenticeship route to qualification as a way to promote socio-economic diversity in the legal profession.

Solicitor apprenticeships emphatically do not have to be about improving socio-economic diversity within the legal profession – they are simply a brilliant alternative route to qualification.

But as the Social Mobility Commission has said many times, apprenticeships are a powerful social mobility tool.

Why we need socio-economic diversity in the legal profession

In the words of the report: “The sector is being looked towards to provide solutions to some of the most pressing economic, environmental and social issues. But these challenges are complex and require innovation driven by diverse perspectives. The current lack of diversity in the sector is having negative consequences on businesses productivity, retention, innovation and license to operate.”

Further information

Read the report: Breaking the Class Barrier: recommendations for building a more socio-economically diverse financial and professional services sector

Read Law Society president Lubna Shuja's response to the report's findings

For advice on how to boost socio-economic diversity across all levels in law firms, read the ‘How to boost social mobility in your law firm’ guide

For more on solicitor apprenticeships, listen to Joanna's LegalTea podcast

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