Social mobility: it’s a term that is often bandied around the D&I sections of firm prospectuses, but what can actually be done to remedy social restrictions to a career in law? Here's the view from Bristows.
What is social mobility and why is it important for the legal industry?
Rob Powell, associate: To me, social mobility is all about ensuring equality in opportunities. It is striving to ensure no individual is disadvantaged, denied an opportunity or prevented from progressing through their career, by virtue of their socio-economic background or where they happen to live.
The legal industry, like any other, should be reflective and representative of the society in which it exists. Increasing access to the profession ensures a wider range of talent and a diversity of background that can bring great value to the industry. Social mobility is not solely the legal industry’s issue to solve – nor will it be able to solve it alone – but as an industry with time and great resources, there are changes we can effect. It is our duty to ensure the profession is open to all.
What challenges is the industry facing when it comes to social mobility?
Rob: It’s no secret that at present the legal profession, particularly when homing in on the City in particular, is not representative of society as a whole. So working to remedy that is the starting point and fundamentally, it is a pretty big challenge. From a social mobility angle, for example, we know at present that people who have received a private education are significantly overrepresented within the profession.
On a more practical level - bluntly - tight resources are also a big challenge, particularly given the current financial climate following the pandemic. Consciously focusing on improving social mobility, casting the net wider and recruiting from non-traditional areas takes time and resource. However, as we’ve seen over the past few years through the pandemic, firms can be creative and find innovative ways to advance social mobility on limited resources.
All that being said, despite the many challenges, we live in a time in which the profession is probably more open than it has ever been (which isn’t saying much given how traditionally closed it has been!) and we’re heading in the right direction. There are more initiatives and attention on this area than ever before. I’m hopeful we’ll start to see this turn into real action and that we’ll see stats and representation improving over the next five to ten years.
What policies/programmes are in place at Bristows to help those from underrepresented backgrounds?
Alice Esuola-Grant, associate: Bristows has four key values, one of which is friendliness. Our value of friendliness means that as a firm, we are inclusive and embrace individuality. This is demonstrated in our internal policies and external activities.
We have a number of internal policies aimed at promoting inclusion, such as our Equal Opportunities policy, Trans Inclusion policy and Anti-harassment and Bullying policy, which highlights the firm’s zero tolerance approach to harassment, bullying and discrimination. Alongside these policies, we have a D&I awareness programmes for all staff within the firm, focusing on various stands of diversity. As part of this, we host events with external speakers, which are aimed at raising awareness internally. These events, and the various networks which exist at the firm (the Turing Network for our LGBT+ community and its allies, the Women’s Network, and the overarching Inclusion Group) also provide a safe space for people to have conversations about topics related to diversity and inclusion and previous events have centred on topics such as intersectionality.
We believe that it’s important to invest at a grassroots level to see real change in the legal profession, which is why we run a number of initiatives aimed at increasing access. One such initiative is our involvement with the Social Mobility Foundation. Others include involvement with Aspiring Solicitors and the Black Lawyers Matter Mentoring Programme, as well as our annual Joe Sako Summer Workshop, which was launched this year in memory of an amazing colleague who was passionate about social mobility.
Please tell us more about Bristows’ involvement with the Social Mobility Foundation. What programmes does Bristows run as part of this?
Rob: Bristows works with the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF) in a number of ways. We offer a tailored work experience scheme for students via SMF, which provides attendees with an opportunity to get a feel for what life is like in the legal profession.
Katy Gibson, associate: Exactly. We have a full programme that allows us to do this, including introductory sessions to our departments, as well as a number of practical activities. Historically, we’ve included a case study which allows the SMF students to explore legal considerations during the life cycle of a company, from setting it up and finding a location for its base, to inventing a product for it to sell and finally exploring ways that the company could manage disputes. The students would also have opportunities to meet people from around the firm, ask lots of questions and get the chance to visit the Brands Museum.
Rob: Our lawyers can also volunteer to be part of the SMF mentoring scheme whereby they are paired with a student across a six-month programme. This includes mentoring in areas such as CVs, university applications and career queries. These insights can be invaluable for students who don’t otherwise have contacts within the legal profession. We also work with a range of other organisations, from Aspiring Solicitors to PRIME, and are blessed with no shortage of lawyers who are passionate about getting involved and improving social mobility within the profession.
Does Bristows run any other mentoring programmes? If so, who can get involved?
Charlie Purdie, associate: Alongside our work with organisations such as the SMF, Aspiring Solicitors and PRIME, the main mentoring scheme Bristows runs is at a local school – Notre Dame Roman Catholic Girls’ School in Southwark – and anyone can get involved, from trainees to partners.
The mentoring takes the form of group sessions with three or four pupils, starting in year 8 and then continuing until the students leave school at the end of year 11. Mentors visit their mentees once per month to help with the personal and career development of the pupils. Sessions range from CV writing and interview skills to debating sessions on hot topics in the news. According to the head of school, the mentees really enjoy the sessions and get a lot out of them, particularly in terms of building the confidence to talk with business professionals and to get an insight into commercial work.
"Just because someone has received a training contract, qualified at the firm or is a lateral hire, that doesn’t mean they don’t still need support and guidance during their early stages of their career."
Interestingly, at the other end of the spectrum, we have also been involved in a headmaster mentoring scheme, where a partner of the firm mentors a headmaster of a local school. The focus of that scheme tends to be on running a business and managing staff, which can be new aspects of the teaching job to many headmasters.
We also run an internal mentoring scheme, which involves partners and senior associates being paired up with trainees and more junior associates. We find this can really help build the confidence of juniors and allows them to have a more senior contact at the firm, whom they don’t directly work with, to discuss any concerns or to bounce ideas off generally. We’re conscious that just because someone has received a training contract, qualified at the firm or is a lateral hire, that doesn’t mean they don’t still need support and guidance during their early stages of their career.
How did lockdown and the virtual environment affect the firm’s programmes?
Katy: Before lockdown we really enjoyed hosting students for the various work experience sessions we’ve discussed, as it gave students the chance to chat to people from around the firm about law and get a better understanding of what it’s like to work in a law firm.
After it became clear that getting back into the office was a long way off, we started discussions with contacts in Skills and Education teams at other companies and local councils in London to see what other places had been doing around delivering effective work experience sessions via online platforms. We soon got involved with delivering these sessions ourselves, both pre-recorded and live. We started to understand what worked best and it was clear we could still deliver interesting interactive sessions whilst the students worked in groups and with their teachers to discuss the case studies we’d set. We could even remotely answer individual students’ questions on applications for other legal work experience they were seeking.
Although we think the actual office experience is still the best way for students to understand the legal world a bit better, the reach of the online sessions cannot be underestimated. One online session we delivered reached around 500 students across several schools and we would never have been able to have this reach by hosting our usual pre-Covid schemes.
We hope to continue with online sessions in the future to retain this wider reach - to larger numbers of students and to students who are further away, particularly those and students who may not be able to travel to our central London site easily. In turn, we hope that this might help to widen participation in the profession, so that work experience sessions are more easily accessible.
Do you think the increase in virtual/remote interviewing/events etc. has had/will have an effect on accessibility to the profession?
Charlie: This is a difficult question to answer and only time will tell, but it appears that having more options through a mix of in person interviews and events, as well as virtual ones, can only be advantageous for accessibility to the profession.
On the face of it, virtual/remote interviewing will give more people than ever the opportunity to attend an interview, where previously they might not have been able to make it into the office in person. Likewise for access to online events, as Katy mentioned. Being able to reach such a large number of people at once is really fantastic for accessibility to the profession.
However, there is a certain barrier to entry to virtual/remote interviews or online events. Do you have your own laptop at home with good access to the internet to attend the event? Do you have the right kind of environment at home to set aside an hour or more without background distraction or noise for a professional interview? Not everyone has that kind of luxury, and perhaps getting a train to an office for an interview would be more straightforward in those circumstances.
"People are becoming much more aware of - and taking into consideration – ways to be inclusive at work (both within and outside of the office)."
There are many factors that play into accessibility to the profession and, as mentioned, in the end it probably comes down to having more options to increase access. If someone can make it into the office for an interview or a work experience session, then great, but if they can’t for whatever reason, can that interview be held remotely so that person still has the opportunity to apply, or could they join another remote work experience session to gain an understanding of the profession?
We hope, going forward, that lockdown has shown that remote interviews and events can work almost as well as in person ones (sometimes better!), and so there might be opportunities going forward to increase accessibility by allowing for the use of both.
Are there challenges lawyers from underrepresented communities can face disproportionately while working in law?
Alice: It’s always difficult to be part of a minority in a workplace and I think one big challenge for a lot of people who are under-represented is a lack of role models who have a similar background to them. Entering a workplace where very few people look like you, talk like you, went to the same type of school as you or grew up in a similar type of environment to you can make the working environment an intimidating place to be. In particular, for those who might have never worked in or experienced an office environment, it can be difficult to navigate the etiquette and unwritten rules of interaction that govern many legal workplaces.
Outside of day-to-day office life, social activities may be unintentionally exclusive. Rapport with colleagues is often built at social events and feeling that you can’t fully participate in the social life of your office can be isolating. For example, activities that are expensive to participate in (such as ski or golf trips) can prove prohibitively expensive for some people.
People are becoming much more aware of - and taking into consideration – ways to be inclusive at work (both within and outside of the office). Initiatives like the ones we’ve mentioned are a great marker of progress in what continues to be a journey towards increasing access to the profession. So, we’re hopeful for the future.