Weekly take: Transparency key to Slaughter and May’s diversity drive
The firm’s plan to recruit more lawyers from ‘lower’ socio-economic backgrounds is welcome, but details will be crucial
It’s easy to forget that just 7% of UK school pupils are privately educated.
After all, privately educated people occupy a disproportionately large percentage of roles within some of the country’s most prestigious professions.
So, it came as a welcome surprise when UK law firm Slaughter and May – part of the so-called ‘magic circle’ of elite UK firms – announced this week that it plans to hire more people from (to quote the firm itself) “lower socio-economic backgrounds” (LSEB) and who are “less advantaged”.
It is reportedly the first major firm to set out a specific social mobility target. So, before I go on, I applaud it for setting out a plan.
However, Slaughter and May has not outlined (or responded to Managing IP’s question about) exactly what constitutes an LSEB person.
It can probably be safe to assume this won’t include privately educated people. So, focusing on the ‘disadvantaged’ in society is likely to draw attention to the influence that the ‘advantaged’ currently enjoy.
When considering the influence that privately educated people have, Westminster – home of the UK’s lower and upper houses of parliament – provides one of the starkest examples.
A 2019 report by social mobility charity the Sutton Trust and government advisory body the Social Mobility Commission found that 29% of members of Parliament were privately educated, four times higher than the general electorate that they represent.
The House of Lords, the upper house, is even less representative – 57% of its members were educated privately.
As many readers will be all too aware, the legal profession isn’t much better. Intellectual property, in particular patent law and its association with science and engineering, has its own challenges.
According to the latest diversity data from the Solicitors Regulation Authority, 22% of all solicitors attended a fee-paying school (as of June 2023).
This percentage climbs as the law firms get larger (and one would assume more prestigious and higher paying).
The SRA’s data found that 29% of lawyers in firms with 50 or more partners attended an independent or fee-paying school, compared to 16% in one-partner firms.
When it comes to prestige, Slaughter and May has an almost legendary reputation.
It reportedly has an on-site dining room complete with personalised napkin rings for its 100 or so partners.
It is highly secretive too. Unlike many of its counterparts, the firm is not registered with Companies House, a UK government agency that maintains a register of companies and where firms traditionally post their profit and loss accounts.
The firm does not tend to report the average earnings of its partners either, leaving an air of mystery surrounding their true earnings.
Lambs to the slaughter?
So, plans to increase its intake of less advantaged and LSEB staff will doubtless attract intrigue.
According to an action plan published on Sunday, July 23, the firm wants to increase the percentage of LSEB lawyers to 15%. At the moment, just 10% of lawyers at the firm fit into this category.
We’ve seen many firms commit to gender targets, so an expansion into a specific policy on recruiting from less well-off backgrounds is welcome.
But it will come with challenges and any statistics that emanate from this exercise – particularly if trumpeted by the firm – will be subject to scrutiny.
One of the biggest early challenges will be defining an LSEB person.
As mentioned, it would be safe to assume that LSEB people would not be privately educated. But that surely can’t be the only requirement.
Perhaps it means graduates from outside the ‘top’ universities. You can, of course, attend a leading university and be from a disadvantaged background, but that’s a slightly different issue with its own challenges.
Put simply, a potential candidate could be a non-privately educated, non-elite university graduate and still be relatively comfortably off.
It wouldn’t make sense for those people to be defined as LSEB, so I would hope that wouldn’t happen.
But there could be other factors at play too.
Is private financial status, or the earnings of someone’s parents, taken into account? A potential new recruit could have not attended private school yet still have significant resources.
By contrast, some schools offer scholarships to disadvantaged pupils, and curtailing recruitment from private institutions could see those people slip through the net.
The firm does offer some insight into its plans.
The action plan says it will run targeted recruitment to meet students it “might not usually come across”, work closely with a “range” of universities (does that show that the focus has primarily been on Oxford, Cambridge, and the like?), and run a first-year work experience scheme aimed at LSEB students and ethnic minorities.
I would recommend a completely upfront approach to this process.
The firm, while respecting individuals’ anonymity, should be clear about the type of recruits it is seeking, and the aspects it is considering when thinking about LSEB.
Firms are understandably keen to act when it comes to diversity, but they must avoid trying to make statistics look better than reality.
Many readers will remember the reports that emanated after major law firms began to publish their gender pay gaps without including partners’ earnings (of whom the majority tend to be men).
Some firms were forced to re-publish their pay gap data but with partners included. Unsurprisingly, a different picture began to emerge.
So, while Slaughter and May’s pledge is a welcome start, as with all diversity-related activity, the devil will be in the detail.