Firms will stagnate without social diversity

To widen the net we have to start with people who have not even decided to study law at university, Kirstine Cooper writes

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Jun 07, 2017
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'Firms make better decisions where there are a range of perspectives at the table'

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Our occasional series of opinions from leading in-house corporate lawyers continues with a call for the legal profession to widen its recruitment net

All are equal before the law, but sadly all are not yet equal within the law.
Although there is still a long way to go, our profession has taken great strides in recognising and overcoming some of the barriers lawyers face owing to their gender, race, disability or age. But we have much more to do when it comes to considering diversity of social background.

The Social Mobility Commission’s 2016 state of the nation report found that privately educated people still dominated the legal profession.

Private education is not the be all and end all, but it is a useful proxy for social mobility. In 2015, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) found that 30 per cent of law firm partners attended an independent school. The figures are higher for “magic circle” firms. At one of the elite practices, reported the SRA, almost half of the partners were privately educated. And exactly the same proportion of their trainee solicitors had been to private schools, suggesting that partners are recruiting in their own image.

Unless something changes, the cycle will continue and another generation of talent will be locked out.

This matters. Organisations arrive at better decisions and have higher performance where there are a range of perspectives at the table. Quite simply, we will have better in-house lawyers, partners, QCs and judges when they are recruited from a wider talent pool, which in turn will benefit the organisations they lead.

At my company, one of our key policies is “leaving legacy”, and we strive to be a good ancestor. If we really want to see a diverse set of general counsel and legal leaders then we have to start with people who have not even decided to study law at university. This requires a long-term mindset as the fruits will not be seen for a generation.

My company recently worked with the Legal Social Mobility Partnership to enable 30 students from London, Manchester and Birmingham to learn skills from our people. We also support the “smart start” scheme from the magic circle firm Allen & Overy, which targets bright and ambitious young people from non-privileged backgrounds and offers high quality work experience in the world of business and law. This year, we hosted the first smart start day to take place outside of London.

These activities need to take place right across the legal profession. General counsel will typically spend time in private practice before going in-house, so it is important that both private practice and companies recruit from a socially diverse pool.

As a general counsel, I can use purchaser power and our panel relationships to nudge firms along. But we must all recognise and act on the knowledge that it is in the long term interests of our profession to attract the best, regardless of social background.

Kirstine Cooper is the group general counsel and company secretary at Aviva, a multi-national insurance company based in London; she is a member of the Chief Legal Officer’s network at Winmark, the C-Suite networks organisation. Contact the chief executive for more information at john.jeffcock@winmarkglobal.com.

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