Law firms excel in UK social mobility index but still mostly recruit from top universities

BCLP, Browne Jacobson, HSF and Baker McKenzie named top 10 employers by the Social Mobility Foundation
Petticoat Lane Market - a traditional clothing market in East London

London's East End Shutterstock; By CK Travels

The legal profession has dominated the Social Mobility Foundation’s 2020 UK Employer Index, with more than a third of the top 75 made up of law firms.

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, Browne Jacobson, Herbert Smith Freehills and Baker McKenzie all made the top 10, with BCLP placing highest in fourth spot. Seven law firms made the top 20 in total, also including Linklaters, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Hogan Lovells. The index ranks employers by their efforts to boost social mobility, such as how they find, recruit and advance the careers of employees from different social backgrounds. 

Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility Foundation, said: “It is welcome that more and more UK businesses are stepping up to the social mobility plate. Their efforts are changing lives for tens of thousands of our country’s young people. But more must be done. As the Covid-19 crisis continues and the UK descends into a sharp recession, avoiding a jobs catastrophe for young people must become a priority for all large employers.”

Despite the legal sector having a bigger presence in the index than any other industry, there is still a tendency among firms to recruit graduates only from specific universities, with 84% of this year’s intake having attended a Russell Group university – a grouping of 24 'world-class, research-intensive universities'. 

BCLP, which has finished in the top 10 every year since the index was launched in 2017, highlighted the importance of its social inclusion and ethnicity group, which focuses on activities such as schools outreach, work experience and opportunities for school leavers to improve social mobility at the firm

Tim Smith, a partner at BCLP and co-chair of the firm’s social inclusion group, said: “This year more than ever, it is vital that organisations remain true to their commitments to improving social mobility in the workplace and ensuring access to opportunity for everyone regardless of social background and socio-economic factors. Whilst the medium- and long-term impacts of the pandemic are yet to be seen there is already concerning evidence which points to an increase in class inequality, a negative impact on youth employment, and a widening career aspiration gap in the minds of young people.”

HSF, which jumped to seventh this year from 19th in the 2019 index, highlighted its efforts over the past 12 months, including supporting more than 400 young people through work experience programmes in London and Belfast, and providing open days to support students from low-income backgrounds.

Alison Brown, executive partner at HSF, said: “Climbing the rankings is a fantastic acknowledgement of the progress made to date – but there remains more to do. Social mobility continues to be a strategic priority for us.”

Linklaters, which slipped from 9th place to 11th in this year’s index, was the highest ranking Magic Circle firm. It said that social mobility remains one of its top global priorities within its broader diversity and inclusion strategy, such as using contextual recruitment to ensure applicants from a wide variety of social backgrounds are considered for jobs.

Nathalie Hobbs, Linklaters’ regional managing partner for Asia and executive champion for social mobility, said: “We are extremely proud of the progress we have made thus far to promote social mobility across our global offices. However, it is important to recognise that there is still much more work to be done. We remain resolute in our commitment to increasing the social diversity of our firm and ensuring that a career in law is open to all, regardless of an individual’s background.”

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