School background of trainee solicitors

Classroom 2

We surveyed law firms to ask how many of their trainees went to fee-paying schools and how many to state school. The results will surprise you.

This year we asked the 116 law firms in the Student Guide – representing the more competitive 50% of the market – to tell us what type of school their trainees went to. Lately, law firms have been shouting about their devotion to social justice in the justice profession, so we thought we’d find out who’s actually walking the walk. 45 firms responded, covering a broad cross-section of the market and giving us enough numbers to crunch.

Schools and university backgrounds

Back in December, 18 leading firms declared an alliance to combat the poshness bias in the legal profession. Nine of these firms responded to our request for data on how many of their trainees were privately educated. Seven of these nine ranged between 52% and 75% privately educated, meaning their hiring of privately educated graduates exceeds what even Oxford (43%) and Cambridge (39%) are releasing into the job market. Only two of these 18 firms declared figures that reflect the broader Russell Group’s population of privately schooled students: at Macfarlanes 65% went to state schools and at Pinsent Masons 67.5%. It’s probable that these 18 firms are acting because they have recognised their part in perpetuating the bias. And we’re likely to see more of them following trendsetter Macfarlanes in its CV-blind recruitment programme, which assesses an applicant on their merits as a lawyer first, before considering their on-paper achievements.

Although it appears many of these 18 firms might not be the warriors for justice they claim they are, their hiring patterns aren’t unusual for the market. To understand the market we’ve grouped firms by the rates of state-schooled hires into five categories:

     Law firms with… % of firms surveyed
  ... more private-schooled candidates than the rate Oxford University supplies into the job market (>43% private)         58%
  ... more private-schooled candidates than Oxford and Cambridge (>39%) 65%
  ... more private-schooled candidates than the Russell Group average (>25%) 87%
  ... more private-schooled candidates than the average at all UK universities (>11%) 99%
  ... more private-schooled candidates than the UK population as a whole (>7%) 100%


We know that firms hire from certain types of university with either a strict or vague quota in mind. This breakdown above indicates that the legal market as a whole is targeting a greater proportion of private-schooled trainees than the rates the leading universities are supplying to the market. The conclusion, then, is that the legal market as a whole is biased towards the privately educated.

Since only 45 firms supplied the data (or were willing to fess-up), we don’t think it’s fair to name the lower performers since they did have the goodwill to provide figures – and are unlikely to be the true lowest performers. But some firms should be recognised for hiring in line with – or more progressively than – the population emerging from the Russell Group. These firms are Dentons, Macfarlanes, Curtis Mallet-Prevost, Peters & Peters, Vinson & Elkins, Gordons, Pinsent Masons, Michelmores, Shoosmiths, Wilsons, Hodge Jones & Allen, Bond Dickinson, Trethowans, Leigh Day, Walker Morris, Freeths, and Mills & Reeve. Note that most of these firms are either national or regional, or associated with human rights work (Leigh Day and Hodge Jones & Allen). And without discrediting Vinson & Elkins’, Curtis’or Peters & Peters’ efforts, their trainee intakes are small so not indicative of any bias or policy.


If you're a state-educated student, then don't be too alarmed by these figures. Law firms' tendency to hire privately-schooled trainees is not likely to be the result of intentional bias. Rather, it stems from the over-representation of privately-educated individuals in the top echelons of top universities. If you went to a state school and want to be a solicitor, then you can proceed with confidence. 


This feature was first published in February 2016