On Friday 11th July 2015 I was pleased to be Halebury’s delegate to a conference “Opening Doors and Removing Glass Ceilings – Widening Participation in the Legal Professions” at The City Law School, London. It was well attended and I found it heartening to see these issues being taken so very seriously by senior members of the English legal professions.

The conference was very wide ranging, covering all the English legal professions (barristers, solicitors, legal executives) and judges, looking at the barriers faced by people from poorer backgrounds, by black and minority ethic people, and by women, and examining ways forward. As one attendee pointed out, there was a lack of focus at the conference on LGBT and disabled people, which was a pity.

Speakers included academics, civil servants, law firm partners and associates, barristers, public sector lawyers and judges. A glaring omission from the list of speakers: there were no private sector in-house lawyers presenting at the conference, which I thought rather odd.

Some snippets:

    1.Bright kids from poorer backgrounds fall behind not-bright kids from higher income backgrounds very early in life and individuals from higher social groups are still twice as likely to go to university than those from lower social groups.

    2.The notion of “talent” advantages middle class candidates.

    3.We all have unconscious biases, whether we like to admit it or not.

    4.The way forward with these issues is to measure what is happening (capture enough data), support those from lower social classes, confront biases and grow as individuals.

    5.A fantastic charity called IntoUniversity works in poorer, deprived areas with kids who aspire to university; it continues to help them once they start at university as the drop out rate is very high from such kids.

    6.City University has a wonderful outreach programme with 200 London schools, including the opportunity for kids to spend a whole “taster week” experiencing being a City student. They give school pupils impartial careers advice that, said the speaker, Danielle Russo, “really isn’t there at all in schools”.

    7.One speaker, Louise Ashley, raised a few home truths: we have a real difficulty with difference, women lawyers are working according to a male model of success and lawyers from a working class origin must present as middle class in order to succeed.

    8.She described three categories of problem: “tame”, “critical” and “wicked”. Widening participation and success in the legal professions is a “wicked” problem, meaning a problem with multiple systemic issues, of incredibly long duration and with no elegant, but instead very clumsy, solutions.

    9.Men coming up through a law firm are ten times more likely to make partner and the gender pay gap in private practice is 30% and in-house 28%.

    10.Sophie Bragg, an associate with Michcon de Reya, has set up Women In Law London with other female lawyers to get together, share ideas, and work collaboratively with law firms to find solutions.

    11.The causes of lack of diversity at the top in law firms are unclear; the well worn excuse that women have kids is out of date; law firms need to look critically at their promotion policies to identify bias.

    12.Firms in the top quartile with better gender diversity were 15% more profitable than the average.

    13.Richard Chere of Addleshaws described his law firm’s commitment to PRIME (www.primecommitment.org), an alliance of law firms and legal departments across the UK who have made a commitment to broaden access to the legal profession. It’s existence was new to me and I welcome it so much!

    14.I was so pleased to learn about the work of Clifford Chance from Sarah Langton. The firm has seven initiatives – pre-university experience, relationships with local schools, physical and virtual reach outs, financial hardship help, challenges to traditional selection processes, alternate channels to access and bespoke coaching.

    15.Most striking, however, is that Clifford Chance’s trainee interviews are done CV blind. Interviewers only have the applicant’s name. Interviews have a structured format to ensure consistency in approach, and a points awarding system. This has had a big impact and their number of trainee offers are up to 1 in 3 for non-selective state school graduates as opposed to 1 in 5 before these reforms were brought in. Still not great but a huge improvement!

    16.I was impressed by Cordella Bart Stewart’s suggestion to abolish the two year training contract. So many young black law and LPC graduates find it impossible to get training contracts and end up as low status and low paid paralegals. I believe some other jurisdictions don’t have the training contract stage. The big law firms would still, surely, do a two year rotation around the firm’s department to its new joiners.

    17.The High Court Judge, Laura Cox, made a wonderful speech about the need for the judiciary to reflect the diversity of the British public as a whole. She is very keen to see more women applicants, from solicitors as well as barristers.

In conclusion, I was delighted to see how so much is being done to find solutions to this “wicked” problem but saddened to reflect to myself that progress in the 30 years since I qualified as a solicitor, whilst real and observable, is painfully slow.