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I note, having read a recent copy of the Lawyer2B, that in the latest bid to promote social mobility, all of the magic circle firms along with many other city firms are introducing the ‘Contextual Recruitment System’ (CRS) into their graduate recruitment programmes.
The CRS compares the economic and social circumstances of applicants. It uses information from two databases: one contains the exam results of 3,500 English secondary schools and sixth form colleges and the other contains 2.5 million UK postcodes. It then fuses this information and candidates’ responses together to produce ‘contextual data’ on every single candidate.
Law firms have been working on the area of social mobility for some time now but compared with most industries, the profession has clearly been lagging behind and many feel that law firms are losing out on some candidates who have lots of potential. A June 2015 report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found that within law, banking and accountancy, social background is still an important factor when searching for entry-level jobs at elite firms.
Linklaters graduate recruitment partner Simon Branigan has said: “As graduate recruitment partner I sit through our wash-ups after interview, and I feel we are already quite sophisticated at looking at a candidate’s full background,” Branigan said. “Having 4 As at A Level and going to a tough comprehensive will not necessarily push someone through, but it is one thing to take into account. The concern we have had is that excellent people weren’t getting through the process because they don’t possess some of the life experiences that people from a more privileged background get. The contextual recruitment system will help us look at substance rather than polish.”
When I first heard about the CRS, I was admittedly cynical. I thought it sounded rather contrived – these matters should be decided on a case by case basis rather than computerising it. And if lawyers tend to come from a toff background then so be it- life is generally unfair. When I was young, I wanted to be a vet. It was never going to happen – I just wasn’t clever enough. Then, in my teenage years I decided I wanted to be a newsreader on the TV. When I informed my mother of this she wasted no time in telling me I didn’t have the looks. (Incidentally, I then told a friend in outrage what my mother had said, to which she replied: “Don’t let her put you off, there are some complete mingers on the telly these days.”) That was the end of that short lived dream. My point is, I wasn’t able to follow my dreams because I didn’t fit the criteria.
However, the situation regarding social mobility is far removed from the situations I have just described regarding my junior career aspirations. Some really bright people are not getting the opportunity to enter the legal profession because of the perceived and sometimes actual snobbery surrounding the legal profession, which is unacceptable. Discrimination on this level happens much of the time and often subconsciously.
To give you an example, in order to get a training contract with most of the national law firms, candidates have to fill out an application form. Along with their grades (which are almost always better if the candidate had been privately educated or if the state school is based in an affluent ‘middle class’ area), law firms will often pose questions along the lines of: “Tell us about the biggest challenge you have faced outside your education,” or: “Describe a time you have had to change your approach to a project when it became clear the original plan wasn’t working.” Having marked 100s of these applications myself when I worked for a top 30 law firm, many candidates will then tell you about a scenario when they were in Africa, India or some other faraway land where they were helping out on some clean water project, rebuilding communities or teaching English and then give you a very impressive account of how they saved the community, school etc. with their quick thinking, clear communication and their strong leadership skills. Whilst without wishing to detract from these achievements, many of these candidates had their trips funded by wealthy parents. Candidates from less well healed families cannot compete on this level as they haven’t been given the opportunity to have life experiences like this and consequently potentially miss out on a training contract.
I don’t know how well the CRS will work in practice but it’s hopefully a step in the right direction. It will be interesting to see if it is rolled out to the larger firms in the regions, such as Bristol where I work. However, I fear that unless there is a genuine willingness for partners to buy into a more diverse workforce and wish to take on a ‘new breed,’ then partners will continue to have an unconscious bias and select people ‘like them.’ Big cultural changes such as this require sponsorship from the top.