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What are law firms doing about diversity?

Law firms want to see the best training contract applicants regardless of race, gender or background, but there is sometimes the worry that this message doesn’t get across. The TARGETjobs Law team recently visited seven law firms to see what they wanted to tell you about diversity in the workforce. Here’s what we found out.
It is more satisfying to recruit a student with a difficult educational background than it is to pull fish from the same old ponds.

Many of the programmes below (excluding the Law Society's DAS) currently involve school children who won’t be employable for several more years. Avoid writing these schemes off as irrelevant now that you've reached university. In fact, these initiatives give you an insight into different law firms' strategies and culture and, if you’re an aspiring trainee solicitor, may be a talking point at law fairs, open days, networking events and at interview. The feedback we get from students is that it is difficult to differentiate between global law firms; here's your chance to set them apart. 

When we talked to law firms’ representatives to put this piece together, the firms told us that it was much more satisfying to recruit a student with a difficult educational background, from a minor university and a different social class than it is to pull fish from the same old ponds. It’s something to remember when you’re choosing who to apply to.

The Law Society’s Diversity Access Scheme (the DAS)

The DAS has been running for over ten years and aims to address the three key barriers to fair access to a career as a solicitor: finance; professional contacts; and opportunities to gain work experience. Each of the ten DAS awardees is provided with an LPC scholarship, a professional mentor and work experience brokered by the Law Society. In 2015, the Law Society has launched an additional award, the Diversity Access Scheme PLUS (DAS PLUS). This provides a guaranteed training contract at a national law centre in addition to the LPC, placement and mentoring.

Clifford Chance and CV blind interviews

Clifford Chance – as well as Mayer Brown and Macfarlanes – operates a ‘CV blind’ policy at their assessment days. This means that for the final training contract interview, your performance is assessed without the interviewer knowing your academic or personal background. They have also changed the assessment of students’ experiences to rate work taken to cover tuition fees as highly as a formal vacation placement.

Clifford Chance has expanded the range of information related to social mobility that it requests from students and now asks about eligibility for free school meals, parental income and financial support, in addition to the type of school and whether you are the first generation to attend university. It also uses contextual data to help rank students and monitor equal opportunities data to ensure that candidates from lower socio-economic groups are not at a disadvantage.

Diversity across law firms

In 2011, around 20 law firms and the Sutton Trust came together to pledge a commitment to fair and equal access to legal work experience. This is known as the PRIME initiative. Now, more than 80 firms are involved and PRIME is just one example of what’s happening to encourage students from a wide range of backgrounds to seek training contracts with City law firms.

Legal work experience: Allen & Overy and Smart Start

Allen & Overy co-founded PRIME, chaired by A&O’s Senior Partner, David Morley. The initiative aims to provide 2,500 quality work experience places across the country by 2015. PRIME’s members have also created partnerships with in-house legal departments within major organisations – banks and corporates – to offer insight into how their businesses operate, what careers are available, and how they work with law firms.

A&O’s own project, the Smart Start programme, provides valuable work experience and mentoring opportunities to 17-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds, enabling students to realise their potential. In addition to Smart Start and PRIME, Allen & Overy runs workshops with young residents of London’s inner-city boroughs between the ages of 14 and 18 and have established ‘Artbeat’, a community arts educational initiative to forge a closer bond between the firm and its local community, encouraging young people to raise their aspirations.

Linklaters’ pro bono activities in the local community

Linklaters has made diversity strategic as well as altruistic. Last year it set up a ‘diversity action team’ to promote social mobility activities inside the firm and garner support for events and activities. It is probably the most transparent law firm, happy to publish diversity and social mobility data on all students accepting a training contract. In 2015, 28% of the trainees it recruited were the first in their family to go to university.

Linklaters is extremely active in the local community through its various pro bono initiatives – it provides approximately 100 work experience placements per year for a wide range of young people, including those not in employment, education or training (NEET) and, in partnership with The Access Project, over 30 Linklaters volunteers are helping motivated students from disadvantaged backgrounds get into top universities through one-to-one tutorials.

Bird & Bird and its skills-focused Pioneer Programme

Bird & Bird launched its Pioneer Programme in 2012 with the active support of senior partners and the firm’s board. It aims to build relationships with students from underprivileged backgrounds over a four-year period from year 10 onwards and involves one week’s work experience at Bird & Bird, three half-day workshops, mentoring and an additional programme for ‘pioneer alumni’ after they leave school.

The Pioneer Programme helps students learn more about business and legal careers, but its greater benefit lies in helping bright students develop the skills that all employers look for and giving them the self-confidence and belief that raises their aspirations about educational opportunities and careers that they may not have felt were open to them.

Norton Rose Fulbright – opening up access to the legal profession

Norton Rose Fulbright, another founding member of PRIME, supports a number of initiatives to open up access to the legal profession. It partners with Durham University and Ashington Learning Partnership on the Impress programme providing 12–14 year olds with access to legal work experience.

The firm also works with the Legal Sector Skills Council on ‘Get In Get On’, an innovative programme to help 16–19 year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds learn more about work as a lawyer. This is a one-month scheme, which is completed entirely online. There are eight short skills and development modules using film and other media to support learning and all students receive e-career mentoring with a volunteer from the firm.

Shearman & Sterling on working in schools

Shearman & Sterling runs two interesting projects with local schools: a mentoring and work experience programme with Walworth Academy and a Business, Employability and Enterprise (BEE) programme with Wellington Primary School.

Volunteers from the London office mentor sixth form students at Walworth Academy to help them prepare for life after school and the firm also runs a one-week intensive work experience programme. The BEE programme is a series of six workshops to help primary school pupils learn more about money issues, the world of work and enterprise, delivered by volunteers from the firm. These programmes are complemented by termly legal clinics for teachers and parents to give professional advice on issues such as housing, debt, employment and benefits.

Simmons & Simmons and the Young Talent Programme

Simmons & Simmons’ Young Talent Programme (YTP) is part of the firm’s strategy regarding fair access and social inclusion. The aim of the programme is to improve the chances of success for state-school students from low income or disadvantaged backgrounds. Twelve students are selected for the YTP each year and in five years’ time; there will be 84 students at various stages of the programme.

The programme involves at least one-week’s work experience at the firm, a paid internship, on-going mentoring and support to achieve their career goals. Lawyers in the firm volunteer to take part and a small number of key clients are also partnering in the programme.

Diversity in law?

Each of the law firms that the TARGETjobs Law team visited for this article had buy-in from senior partners for their work, and they are trying to make the genuine statement that they understand talent resides in many other universities outside the Russell Group and in many other social classes and ethnic groups.

Law firms want to set the bar high, to only take on the brightest and the best – and to be seen as elite recruiters. At the same time, they need to convince the brightest students who don’t normally hear messages of encouragement from large recruiters (or hear anything at all from large recruiters) that they are serious about raising aspirations and being open to all.

To put this together, the TARGETjobs Law team interviewed Laura Yeates from Clifford Chance; Laura Houston from Bird & Bird; Caroline Lindner and Sacha De Klerk from Norton Rose Fulbright; Sharon Jacobs from Linklaters; Victoria Bradley and Katie Meer from Shearman & Sterling; Andy Renouf from Simmons & Simmons and Sarah Cockburn from Allen & Overy. Thank you to those firms for sharing this information.