Breaking the class ceiling

If you're from a lower socio-economic background, getting your foot in the door may only be the beginning of your professional challenges. Adam Hattersley examines how this can also affect legal careers in the long term.

When looking at the issue of social mobility, there is a tendency to focus on barriers that prevent those from lower socioeconomic (LSE) backgrounds accessing the legal profession.

An area that appears to have received far less attention is what the longer-term career effects are for those from LSE backgrounds.

The Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) has previously reported that access to the profession is improving, with a survey from the Bridge Group finding more first-generation university attendees were qualifying as solicitors.

Whilst this is, of course, worth celebrating, recent evidence suggests that the greater battles for these individuals are yet to come.

The JLD has recently carried out research via anonymous interviews. The focus of these interviews was to discuss the issue of social mobility within the legal profession.

It was assumed that the majority of comments received from participants would be surrounding the constraints encountered on reaching qualification.

Surprisingly, from preliminary findings, the majority of participants (being solicitors from working-class backgrounds) raised concerns about being made to feel alienated by a firm’s culture once qualified.

Despite the numerous barriers those from LSE backgrounds may face when entering the legal profession, the qualitative data suggests they remain hindered by their background throughout their career.

The interviews found that many of the participants perceived the working culture at city firms to be “elitist” and that they had struggled to adapt to the landscape and subtle customs.

The findings suggested that there was often a feeling by participants of needing to adapt in order to “fit in”, whether that be by changing or losing a regional accent or feigning interest in certain subjects or hobbies.

This feeling of needing to change certain characteristics or personality traits resulted in a feeling of alienation within their peer group, more commonly known as “impostor syndrome”.

Participants commented on feeling less inclined to engage in conversation, socialise and ultimately losing confidence in themselves and their abilities.

Commenting upon the issue Nik Miller, chief executive of the Bridge Group, said:

“Many lawyers from poorer backgrounds struggled to feel comfortable enough at work to show their strengths. A lot of people whom we interview say that what you need to get ahead is confidence and gravitas. Those are contextual qualities. If you’re in a dominant culture that feels deeply unfamiliar, evidencing those qualities is more challenging.”

Evidence on this topic has also suggested that those who qualify from LSE backgrounds are held back in comparison to their middle-class counterparts. Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon.

A 2010 Legal Services Board report found that socio-economic factors were a continuing contributing factor to an individual’s ability to progress within a firm.

The report highlighted that within a survey of magic circle law firm statistics indicated that the 2009 partners were as equally as likely to have been privately educated as partners twenty years earlier (around 70%).

This theory has also been supported in alternative research.

In a recent report compiled using data obtained from several city firms, it was found that trainees from a LSE background were far less likely to progress any further than the level of associate when compared to their more affluent peers and – more shockingly – were in fact more likely to leave the firm altogether.

In an article in The Telegraph from June 2018, a former solicitor and now headteacher, Mouhssin Ismail, outlined how he had left the profession after just four years: “I simply didn’t have the social and cultural capital or connections that the large majority of people in city law firms could boast”.

The profession is at risk of losing out on a significant wealth of talent due to certain working cultures, which can lead to some employees feeling ostracised.

The profession should be collecting the best talent from all walks of life. Until the issues highlighted are addressed, it will continue to suffer unnecessarily.


A version of this article was first published on 1 October 2019 by the Lawyer and is reproduced by kind permission.

Maximise your Law Society membership with My LS