Five goals you can set this year to improve social mobility in your firm

People in the UK from lower socio-economic backgrounds earn on average between 6-11% less than those from higher backgrounds. How can you make sure your firm is a fair employer to everyone, regardless of background? Is there value in setting diversity targets?
English terrace houses in contrast to Canary Wharf, a major financial district, in the background

According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority's (SRA) 2021 diversity data, 58% of lawyers are from a professional background, compared to 37% nationally. (Professional backgrounds include modern and traditional professional occupations and senior, middle or junior managers or administrators.)

The socio-economic diversity taskforce set a target that 50% of senior leaders in the UK financial and professional services sector must come from a non-professional background by 2030.

How can firms get there? Setting goals will help you:

  • translate awareness into action
  • prioritise and focus your efforts on meaningful change
  • ensure a joined-up approach – by being clear on long-term strategic goals for the whole organisation and specific shorter-term goals for different areas

We list five ambitious yet realistic goals you can set now to improve socio-economic diversity in your firm.

Track your progress using the Social Mobility Commission’s scorecard

1. Build your diversity data response rates

In 2023, law firms were required to report on socio-economic diversity to the SRA.

How many people in your firm shared their background?

The higher your response rate, the clearer a picture you’ll get of what your firm looks like, and where you’ve got gaps that you want to address.

You should aim for at least a 70% response rate.

Explaining why you’re collecting this data is key to boosting how likely people are to respond.

If you only ask one question on socio-economic background, the Social Mobility Commission recommends:

“What was the occupation of your main household earner when you were about aged 14?”

This question is the best measure to assess someone’s socio-economic background. It gets the highest response rates in testing and it applies to people from all ages and countries.

Find out more about collecting data

Once you’ve got your data, look at how many staff members are from each socio-economic background – is there equal or close to equal representation from each group?

Already at 70%? If your firm already has established data:

  • ask extra background questions on school type and qualifying free school meals (and set a target of over 80%)
  • aim for parity across all employee levels
  • set targets for absolute representation

2. Hiring

What percentage of all new hires in your firm come from a less advantaged background?

The national benchmark of people from lower socio-economic backgrounds in the UK workforce is 39%.

Consider the following:

  • conduct an annual review of your selection processes’ impacts on disadvantaged applicants, and redesign as needed
  • brief recruitment agencies on your organisation’s commitment to advancing socio-economic diversity among hires, mentioning your desire for potential over polish
  • remove unnecessary qualifications from criteria, which can create barriers for applicants
  • train hiring managers to disregard loud environments, poor WiFi connectivity or other features during virtual interview
  • support and join legal networks that champion social mobility, such as Sutton Trust’s Pathways to Law, Aspiring Solicitors and PRIME

Our Diversity Access Scheme helps talented aspiring solicitors to pursue their legal education and careers, despite financial or social barriers.

Find out how you can support the scheme

3. Progression

According to the Bridge Group, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds take a year and a half longer on average to reach partner than their colleagues from higher socio-economic backgrounds.

Use your data to check whether certain groups are getting stuck in their career progress.

Does your data have a ‘cliff edge’ effect, where those from lower socio-economic backgrounds suddenly fall off, or a ‘pyramid’ effect, where they slowly drop off the higher the level?

By 2030, 50% of senior leaders from the financial and professional services sector should come from a non-professional background, according to goals set by the socio-economic diversity taskforce.

In the legal sector, it’s currently 41%.

Within the UK workforce, the spread of socio-economic background groups in professional roles is:

Socio-economic backgrounds
  UK workforce  Legal sector
Professional   49% 59%
 Intermediate  23%  18%
 Lower  28% 23%

The Social Mobility Commission recommends aiming for an 5% annual improvement at senior levels.

Discover more on creating an action plan to improve progression

4. Culture and leadership

Do your staff feel that your culture is welcoming? Survey your team and break down the results by socio-economic background.

You should aim for over 70% of staff within each socio-economic background group to feel that the work culture is welcoming to them.

In 2023, Slaughter and May became the first major firm to publicly set social mobility goals.

Do you have a senior partner/executive board member responsible for achieving social mobility goals? This signals leadership commitment and is particularly important if you do not have specialist diversity and inclusion (D&I) staff who sit within or directly report to the executive leadership team.

It’s important to recognise the time and effort of staff supporting diversity goals. It should not be seen as an extra-curricular.

Find tips on recognising D&I efforts 

5. Reporting

The SRA requires law firms to collect and publish diversity data about their staff, including on social mobility.

Firms should make D&I data:

  • easy to find on your website or in annual reports
  • digestible (tell a story through graphics and charts)
  • transparent (even if your numbers are low, include your actions to address this and build trust)

For an example, see Lewis Silkin’s social mobility gap report.