Even working class Oxbridge graduates fail to prosper, study into socio economic diversity finds

Law Society president calls for urgent action as social mobility taskforce highlights cultural barriers to career progression for less well off

A major study into the backgrounds of senior financial and professional services personnel has identified an urgent need for the legal sector to improve its record promoting socio economic diversity, Law Society of England and Wales president Stephanie Boyce has warned.

Boyce - the first black law society president - was commenting on the Building The Baseline: Breaking the Class Barrier Report published today (11 August) by The City of London Socio-Economic Diversity Taskforce.

It found that 64% of senior leaders are from a family with a professional background, a markedly higher proportion than the general UK population (37%). Employees from a family with a professional background were also 43% more likely to be at a senior level than their working-class colleagues while more than one quarter (26%) of senior employees attended fee-paying schools - three times the national average of 7.5%. 

The law society is a member of the taskforce and Boyce said the report “draws urgent attention to the need for professional services – including the legal sector – to improve their socio-economic diversity". She warned the lack of socio-economic diversity in the sector, which provides 2.3m jobs and contributes £100bn annually in taxes, “threatens the competitiveness and productivity” of the country. 

The study found that nearly four in ten (37%) of respondents from a working-class background felt their background had held them back at work, compared to 18% from a professional background. 

It also revealed that socio-economic background can amplify other inequalities, particularly if related to ethnicity and gender. Working class employees who were also female or an ethnic minority were even less likely to hold senior level positions and less likely to feel included in the workplace.

Just 1% of respondents in senior positions were ethnic minority women from working-class backgrounds, compared to 45% who were male, white and from a professional background. 

“As a child brought up in a single-parent household on a council estate I can understand why people from similar backgrounds may feel left out in the workplace," Boyce said. "Not having the connections others may have had made it more difficult for me to break into and progress in the legal sector.”

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The report highlighted sponsorship as potentially offering significant advantages such as a fast-track career trajectory but noted that working class employees were 17% less likely to have benefited from a senior level sponsor. 

‘Even when a working class person is Oxbridge educated and has the same qualifications and skills, they still do not benefit from sponsorships or are deemed to “fit”, leading to missed advancement opportunities and roles,’ the report stated.

It added: 'There are societal codes that are inherent within company cultures that are often difficult to recognise but greatly impact career progression for working class employees. These codes can be something as simple as style of dress or more pronounced such as regional dialect.’

Taskforce's Legal Representatives

Stephanie BoycePresidentLaw Society of England & Wales
John CollinsChief Legal & Regulatory OfficerSantander
Philip QuirkGeneral CounselMorgan Stanley Investment Management
Peter Scott EMEA Managing PartnerNorton Rose Fulbright

The study also pointed to the poor collection of data within financial and professional services, but noted that the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority has mandated the gathering of diversity data every two years. 

Statistics from the SRA show that 58% of lawyers working in law firms are from a professional background (compared to 37% nationally) and 23% of lawyers attended a fee-paying school.

Taskforce member Peter Scott, managing partner, Europe, Middle East and Asia, at Norton Rose Fulbright, wrote in a LinkedIn post: 'I'd encourage businesses to collect employee data on socio-economic background, set stretching targets and monitor progress towards ensuring a level playing field for all.'

Launched in 2020, the taskforce's strategy committee includes two DLA Piper partners: Lord Mayor of London Vincent Keaveny and joint managing director for UK & Europe Sandra Wallace.

Four of the 30 taskforce members are lawyers and its advisory board is peppered with represenatives from the legal profession (see table).

The survey collected data from 9,362 employees from 49 organisations. Employees in participating organisations were invited to submit anonymous data between November 2021 and March 2022. The survey asked 15 questions to assess a combination of demographic factors (age, gender, ethnicity), tenure, level of seniority, type of schooling attended and questions to assess inclusion.

It is first report of its kind to baseline socio-economic diversity at senior levels across UK financial and professional services. 

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