Must the push for accessibility mean a lowering of academic standards?

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True social mobility in the legal profession means dumbing down the law.

At least that’s what a lot of lawyers think, whether privately or openly.

A common area of concern is academic credentials. Many legal HR departments still filter the numerous CVs they receive from potential trainees by ditching any that do not boast at least AAB grades at A-level.

By taking this approach, critics argue that firms are favouring the privileged few, largely excluding those who do not have the benefit of a private or public school education. This, they say, results in a profession that remains firmly elitist.

But the fact is that academic qualifications count for an awful lot. And given that law remains a pretty academic pursuit, it doesn’t seem like a bad path for law firms to follow if they want to recruit the best.

So if it works, why are a few law firms risking the charge of dumbing down by broadening their recruitment criteria?

Pushing social mobility

Some say these firms are bowing to external pressure to at least appear to respect modern notions of equality, even if it’s something of a meeting-the-quota tick-box exercise.

Others think they are genuinely buying into the idea that greater diversity means a stronger, more agile business that can better meet the very varied and commercial (for that, perhaps read ‘non-academic’) needs of today’s legal clients.

One leading UK firm, for instance, identifies graduates with a less than glowing academic record for places on their summer placement scheme – from which 40 per cent of trainees are chosen.

Another global firm has a Social Mobility Focus Group. This includes various schemes such as working with partner schools and offering summer vacation scheme places to students from groups such as the Social Mobility Foundation, which supports the journey of high-achieving young people from low-income backgrounds into the top universities and professions.

Elsewhere, initiatives such as PRIME have brought together law firms in a joint commitment to provide quality work experience for students from less privileged backgrounds. It aims to secure 2,500 such places across UK law firms by 2015.

Such schemes have been successful enough to gain credit in former MP Alan Milburn’s recent report, ‘Fair Access to Professional Careers’. The report, published in May, concludes that law firms are still too ‘socially exclusive’, but also commends the legal profession for taking genuine steps to support social mobility. It urges other professions to follow suit.

Facing the future

Recommendations to accelerate such progress may, however, be problematic for law firms. For a start, filtering CVs via academic qualifications is easy. Shortlisting candidates on the basis of non-academic criteria takes time and resources  – which many graduate recruitment departments just don’t have in these cash-strapped times.

In addition, there is perhaps a more pressing underlying problem. It may well be that law firms need to overhaul their assumptions of what makes a great lawyer. Academic achievement alone is unlikely to be enough to ensure success in the next generation, which must be as brilliant at developing business as it is doling out legal expertise.

But while the education system still focuses primarily on academic achievement, it is hard for firms to act any differently. If the system doesn’t provide any clear means of demonstrating non-academic potential, what’s a recruiter to do?

This isn’t to reinforce a popular argument that it’s all the education system’s fault. But social mobility in the legal profession goes far beyond the efforts of this or that law firm. It will require the combined effort of schools, universities and law firms to create a model that truly supports what the profession needs from future generations. CP

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