What is social mobility and what more can junior lawyers do to help?

Prisca Wharton, associate at CMS, looks at social mobility in the legal profession.

Social mobility is not only high on the agenda for the Junior Lawyers Division it is also an issue close to my heart as the invisible barriers to entering the legal profession persist for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

In 2017, the Sutton Trust found that the UK is one of the worst of the thirty-seven countries in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) for income mobility - the ability of people to access professions outside of their class background and earn more than their parents.

In the UK, only one in eight children from low-income backgrounds goes on to have a high-earning career.

It’s high time we really think about what ‘social mobility’ means and how we can make more progress in this area, although it is worth noting that 14 of the top 50 places in the recent UK social mobility awards were taken by law firms. So progress is being made, albeit slowly.

We need to look at the ways in which potential entrants to the legal profession are at a disadvantage to other students and how this can be improved to ensure that the playing field is levelled out. This will improve not only diversity but also the talent pool.

Unfortunately, the disadvantages start from someone’s first day at school. There are things which you might not even think about day to day if you yourself are not from a poorer background.

For example, two pupils may go to the same school together and share the same friends and do the same homework, but one will go home to a house without WIFI as their family can’t afford such a luxury on their household budget.

This is just one example of the financial exclusion someone might face on a day-to-day basis that makes it harder for them to do their homework and attain the best grades needed for a career in law. Why should that pupil have less chance at a career in law than the other?

Of course the student who does not have the internet at home or whose family struggles to put food on the table will have a steeper struggle to enter into a profession as competitive as the legal profession.

Grades are unfortunately not always then an accurate reflection of a person’s ability or aptitude for the profession and this is something which firms must look at and adjust accordingly. Candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds will often miss out on the grades required due to their personal circumstances.

It continues from there. The transport to the vacation scheme/training contract interviews, the clothes for those interviews, the ability to undertake work experience without pay. It is time we collectively stop and think about the unspoken things that affect students from lower income backgrounds. The change cannot happen without awareness.

We need to encourage firms to look at ways to improve. This might be, for example, by following in the footsteps of firms which are partnering with local universities with mentoring schemes aimed at supporting students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

It’s key to remember that the educational disadvantages which tie in with someone’s socio-economic background start early.

One thing which I have personally found really worthwhile is going in to local schools to talk about careers in law and everything that involves, right up to making CVs stand out without having the financial resources to afford unpaid internships or trips abroad.

Find out whether your firm run something similar and, if not, perhaps contact your local schools direct or show your initiative and suggest that your firm gets involved in a project like this to build on its ties with the community.

If you work at a firm perhaps you could encourage that firm to start a scheme where one placement each year is based on the best submission on a legal ‘hot topic’ from someone from a poorer background or raise awareness of programmes or foundations which exist to help students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

It is worth mentioning at this point ‘the social mobility pledge’ launched by Parliament to commit employers to supporting social mobility through initiatives such as CV-blind and contextual recruiting methods as well as outreach work and apprenticeship schemes.

I am happy to say that my firm, CMS, is one of the nineteen law firms signed up to such a pledge – why not ask your firm to sign up? Change starts with you. Use your voice to help others.

These initiatives might just do something to help the next generation who can’t afford their school lunches to have a shot at the legal profession if that is where their ambitions and their talents lie. Let’s not exclude our best because of financial restraints.


Prisca Wharton is an associate at CMS and a Law Society Council member, representing trainee solicitors and LPC students.

This article was first published on 7 January 2019 by Lawyer2b and is reproduced by kind permission.

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