Achieving change together – ACT: driving social mobility in our profession
Where you start in life should not determine where you end up. Anyone, regardless of their socio-economic background, should have the opportunity to join and succeed in their rewarding and globally leading profession.
But I know first-hand this isn’t always the case. I was told “you’ll never make it” as I hoped to become a solicitor. I also know I wasn’t alone, with many aspiring solicitors still facing similar barriers.
The most recent diversity statistics for law firms gathered by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) show that socio-economic diversity is still sorely lacking.
58% of lawyers come from a professional background – meaning their parents were in occupations classified as professional rather than intermediate or working class – compared to 37% nationally.
There is much that we still need to do to improve the situation. It is for this reason that I made social mobility a key priority for my presidency of the Law Society.
Our roundtable findings
I represent the solicitor profession on the City of London Taskforce commissioned by the UK government to improve socio-economic diversity at senior levels in financial and professional services. I have been involved in an industry-wide consultation on how government, regulators and sector bodies can incentivise employer action to boost social mobility.
I’m pleased that in partnership with local law societies we ran a total of 10 regional roundtables with members from across England and Wales to gather input for this consultation, including with our social mobility ambassadors, the largest firms and in-house solicitors.
These formed part of a wider series of roundtables held with employers across financial and professional services for the taskforce’s industry-wide consultation.
We spoke to over 170 lawyers, from trainee solicitors to managing partners, and diversity and inclusion (D&I) professionals from 113 organisations.
Here is what Law Society members told us about the consultation’s key themes.
Data: the foundation for action
Building an evidence-base was unanimously seen as a fundamental step in planning for action to improve socio-economic diversity and inclusion in an organisation.
However, many raised the complexity of measuring socio-economic background.
The Social Mobility Commission recommends the key question to ask employees is parental occupation at age 14 as, though imperfect, it’s the best proxy for socio-economic background. The SRA uses this recommended question, alongside two others, to build a fuller picture of staff socio-economic diversity, in its mandatory data reporting for law firms.
It’s important to build employee trust to maximise the number of employees who are willing to share information about their socio-economic background.
Data publication, whether voluntary or mandated, was viewed as crucial to drive transparency and accountability by employers.
Targets: part of a bigger picture
Target-setting generated more debate but there was consensus that targets might be:
- necessary to speed up the pace of change
- a temporary measure to level the playing field which won't be needed long-term
Employers, if they are considering targets, will require lots of support with benchmarking and with making targets representative of all D&I groups and intersectional, across seniority levels.
Robust data collection needs to be in place first, to give a base for setting realistic yet stretching goals. An agreed way to measure socio-economic background that employers were aware of would also be key.
Targets should be just one part of a holistic package of interventions spanning outreach, recruitment, employer culture and inclusion to support retention and progression.
Government action and broader ecosystem
More action is needed to reduce regional inequalities and ensure strong local labour markets and opportunities, addressing infrastructure issues like connectivity and transport in social mobility cold spots.
Participants said they’d like to see:
- increased funding for education at all levels (including restoring Educational Maintenance Allowance and student grants) and for quality careers advice
- schools outreach and mentoring, with skills policy joining up employers and education providers
- greater promotion and funding apprenticeships as well as for the SQE
- more support especially for small firms, including toolkits and guidance
Making socio-economic background a protected characteristic in the Equality Act was the most controversial proposal, with some saying it would help build parity of esteem with other characteristics, but others highlighted it would not be the right measure to achieve change.
Many highlighted that client demands and remaining competitive are also helping move the dial on D&I.
Helping employers boost social mobility
All our findings have been inputted into the consultation, and are currently being analysed and considered. I’m looking forward to the taskforce reporting with recommendations for professional and financial services in November.
On 11 August 2022, the taskforce launched the first report its kind to baseline socio-economic diversity at senior levels in financial and professional services, showing us why urgent and collaborative action is needed.
To support members to take action on social mobility, we are launching a new social mobility hub with information and resources.
Together we can ensure that the solicitor profession reflects the society we serve.