The sheepish evasion now emanating from the once-lauded social mobility project PRIME is an abject lesson in what ethically ails the modern profession. Flashy initiatives, heavily promoted and then… nothing. Because the truth is that large commercial law firms confronted with all manner of social dilemmas have developed an increasingly unhealthy reflex response of reaching for gestures to give the facsimile of action with at best minimal focus on tangible results.
As you can see in Thomas Alan’s piece this month, the lack of rigour and quantifiable results emerging from PRIME, the most celebrated response to a social affairs issue to ever emerge from the commercial UK profession, is an ominous sign for an industry that purports to be getting more progressive.
It is a case study in how not to address social mobility and inclusion.
The first thing researchers and campaigners stress is that any initiative must be tracked and measured, firstly to ascertain if the input delivers a useful output in a practical sense and in a wider context to put a focus on results over box-ticking.
Furthermore, for some time there have been some odd claims reaching our journalists of questionable practices from the inclusion consultants that have emerged to help law firms to get those boxes marked.
Now the media – including Legal Business and this columnist – must share some responsibility. Journalists have short-term memories and often go rushing off to the next story, announcement or trend, forgetting to go back to what was once breathlessly dubbed a breakthrough. Such sloppiness by industry observers has fed a culture in law that raises gesture over result, certainly on social mobility but also a host of other issues.
Neither is this column a shrill argument for commercial businesses to spend half their time solving social ills. Mobility is a particularly hard dilemma for the legal industry since it is a career based on large amounts of structured high-quality education and this nation does a poor job of providing such education to the less privileged. While there are plenty of industries that have no excuse for their closed-shop practices, there is no easy way for law firms to compensate for the impact of poor education for much of the country.
There is also much to admire about hard-headed businesses that are honest about their focus on making money. After all, it is the truth and a focus on making money has a powerful redistributive impact via the tax system.
But when an industry is increasingly prone to claiming progressive agendas and priorities that are demonstrably untrue it diminishes that industry. Such behaviour also further breeds cynicism among younger staff that law firms so frequently fret about losing at conferences. Likewise, the pretence that law is a more level playing field than it plainly is because it suits attempts to rebrand the industry as modern and progressive has been unedifying (the Bar being a particular offender on this count).
This columnist has met many in the industry at senior levels who genuinely care about such inclusion – perhaps 20% of a large contact base – but they remain the exception. It’s time for the profession to either do better or be more honest.
Read more in our focus piece: ‘Whatever happened to PRIME?’ (£)