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The legal profession’s ‘domination’ of best employer rankings hits parody levels as City law firms recast as social mobility champions

For those in the legal profession, its record on casting its net beyond the privileged has long been an embarrassment… which is why it was a surprise to see a new ranking of the UK’s 50 most socially mobile employers include no less than 16 law firms.

The index published this week by the Social Mobility Foundation, a UK charity championing low-income children, and the Government-backed Social Mobility Commission, featured Berwin Leighton Paisner as the top-ranked law firm, placed at number eight.

Other firms that have made the list include Baker McKenzie, Pinsent Masons, Burges Salmon, Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells, Simmons & Simmons, Eversheds Sutherland, Brodies, Holman Fenwick Willan, DLA Piper, and Stephenson Harwood. The top-ranked employer overall was Grant Thornton with KPMG in second place.

The ranking, which was produced in partnership with the City of London Corporation, comprised 32% legal firms, a remarkable figure given that the legal industry employs a little over 1% of the UK workforce. Self-selection apparently played a major role in the heavy legal representation with submissions being used in the research process.

The index judged UK companies on seven criteria: working with young people; non-graduate routes into work; attracting talent beyond graduates of top universities; removing barriers that can affect those from lower socio-economic groups in the employment process; analysing the diversity of the workforce; strategies to help those from lower socio-economic backgrounds progress; and internal and external advocacy.

Major law firms are widely acknowledged to have made genuine efforts to address social diversity in recent years with a variety of initiatives, not least the 2011 launch of PRIME, the widely-adopted scheme to widen work experience in the law to less privileged children.

Nevertheless, levels of social inclusion are conceded to remain poor in large law firms. A 2016 report by the Sutton Trust, the educational charity focused on social mobility, found that nearly half of the Magic Circle’s UK-educated partnership had attended independent schools. The report also found 78% of barristers had Oxbridge qualifications.

Lee Elliot Major, the chief executive of The Sutton Trust, told Legal Business: ‘It’s a good thing that we are discussing social mobility in a way that we wouldn’t have been five years ago. The devil is always in the details so you have to treat these rankings carefully. In many ways the legal sector has led the way in terms of social diversity. The Sutton Trust launched Pathways to Law nearly a decade ago. What we could do more of is evaluating the impact of some of these initiatives – we are currently reviewing our programme. In big corporates there is well-meaning policy but it is not very strategic and not particularly well evaluated.’

David Johnston, chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation, said that ‘no one firm has cracked the issue’ but added that the top 50 firms ‘should be congratulated both for having prioritised social mobility and for being prepared to have their processes and practices independently scrutinised’.

However, some in the profession have noticed the recent phenomena of major law firms achieving credibility-defying prominence in aspirational employer rankings, performances that apparently reflect the number of initiatives and intensity of marketing efforts more than progress on the ground.

For example, a poll of the Top 50 employers for women published earlier this year included, nine law firms at a time when the profession’s track record in retaining female staff is coming under mounting fire. Despite pledges in recent years to engage senior female lawyers, promotion rounds this year have often fallen well behind the levels needed to get the female constituency of partnerships above the 20/25% level they have been stuck at for years.

Likewise, discreet questions have been raised over lack of retention and culture clashes emerging from City law firms’ experiments with diversity consultants and ‘CV blind’ recruitment amid claims that the profession is focused on box-ticking over genuine change.

The Sunday Times’ closely-watched Best Companies to Work For Report in 2017 included 10 law firms though, in contrast to most comparable employer rankings, it featured a stark absence of large City firms in favour of smaller legal practices, suggesting that other factors than marketing muscle were at play in this case.

And while the legal profession is acknowledged to have a relatively good record on gay and lesbian rights, the last annual ranking of gay-friendly employers from Stonewall stretched the point by having half of its top 10 taken up by law firms, and 17 out of 100 in total.

Whatever your view on the thorny social issues facing the legal profession, the question remains how many more aspirational garlands, accolades and rankings the legal profession can collect before all credibility is gone. The wider point is whether such rankings are promoting worthy efforts or proving counter-productive in conjuring the illusion of progress.