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Law’s ‘class ceiling’ – Government report finds one law firm hires 60% of trainees from Oxbridge

A government report into barriers of entry in the professions has criticised the ‘class ceiling’ at law firms and other professional service outfits which it says are blocking working-class people from elite firms.

A report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found that around 40% of job offers made by elite City law firms in 2014 were to graduates who had been educated at a fee-paying schools – though this did compare favourably with accountancy firms where 70% of offers went to those that had been educated at either a fee-paying or selective state school.

Alan Milburn, chair of the commission, said the research ‘shows that young people with working-class backgrounds are being systematically locked out of top jobs’.

In some top law firms, trainees are five times more likely to have attended a fee-paying school than the population as a whole. Milburn said ‘elite firms seem to require applicants to pass a “poshness test” to gain entry’ while ‘excluding youngsters who have the right sort of grades and abilities but whose parents do not have the right sort of bank balances’.

The research, A qualitative evaluation of non-educational barriers to the elite professions, found that less than 5% of job offers at some City professional service firms go to students who were in receipt of free school meals, which are handed to children whose parents receive benefits or have an annual income of less than £16,190.

Based on a series of interviews as well as case studies and data, the report found that law firms systematically exclude working-class students from jobs by narrowly focusing their employment strategy around Oxbridge, with one firm hiring 60% of its trainees from those two universities alone.

The report found bias in the screening round of law firm recruitment, with around 50% of applicants from Russell Group universities eliminated during pre-selection, compared to 75% of those from other universities. By the end of the process, 70% of all jobs were to Russell Group candidates.

Slaughter and May was found to have the most elitist partnership in the City of those that provided data, with 47% of its partners and 39% of its trainees having attended private school, followed by Herbert Smith Freehills with 44% of partners having been privately schooled and Allen & Overy with 43%.

City head of corporate at Herbert Smith Freehills, Scott Cochrane, who attended a state school in Dumbarton, told Legal Business: ‘Any institution in the City looking to recruit the very best graduates will be looking to the Russell Group of universities as a starting point. Whether you take a view that the Russell Group is socially exclusive cannot be the principle concern for us as an employer. We see it as a group of universities made up as the smartest kids.’

Cochrane added: ‘Do enough kids from the sort of school I went to have the opportunity to attend a Russell Group university? Probably not, but that’s a matter for the educational authorities and the government. Clearly my firm has not systematically discriminated against me.’

The report found a high number of students opted out of applying for a job in professional services due to ‘activities conducted during campus visits that may reinforce elite firms’ image of exclusivity’. To change, the report recommended that City firms ‘interrogate their own notions of talent’, ring-fence a minimum number of opportunities for non-traditional students and improved transparency.

However, the report said that attitudes at City law firms considered altering the recruitment process to improve social diversity ‘expensive, difficult and high risk’.

‘For many firms, making the significant changes to recruitment and selection processes which would genuinely open access is not then currently a commercial priority. Whilst efforts to improve social inclusion are often presented by firms in relation to the business case for talent, most of our participants considered that given high volumes of suitable applicants, this business case is not currently compelling.’