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Can you talk yourself into a City law firm?

Research by Louise Ashley suggests it's not what you say but how you say it that's likely to land you a job wuth Britain's leading law firms. Ed Fennel reports.

The singer Cheryl Cole was dropped from the US version of the television talent show The X Factor because, according to some reports, Americans could not understand her Geordie accent. It prompted a debate in Britain about whether the way someone speaks still matters when it comes to getting a job.

Dr Louise Ashley, a Research Fellow at Cass, concluded in her paper Making a Difference? The Use (and Abuse) of Diversity Management at the UK's Elite Law Firms that accent and social manners remain absolutely crucial in securing a traineeship with a City law firm. One anecdote from the report sums up the difficulty of reconciling social class, professional expectations and diversity. A partner at one of the elite London law firms said: "There was one guy who came to interviews who was a real Essex barrow boy. He had a very good CV (and) was a clever chap, but we just felt that there's no way we could employ him. I just thought, putting him in front of a client... you just couldn't do it." This was despite the fact that the firm, at least notionally, was committed to diversity. The partner added: "If you're really pursuing a diversity policy you shouldn't see him as rough round the edges. You should just see him as different." But difference of this kind can create unbridgeable chasms. It is 95 years since George Bernard Shaw wrote in an introduction to his play Pygmalion: "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him," but the basic rule still applies. How this plays out in the legal profession always attracts attention, perhaps because the law is the stereotypical middle-class career and, historically, has offered an opportunity for those with social and economic aspirations.

In January 2010 Alan Milburn, a former Labour Cabinet minister and Chairman of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, wrote in the introduction to the panel's final report, Unleashing Aspiration: "Many professions are still unrepresentative of the modern society they serve. And most alarmingly of all there is strong evidence… that the UK's professions have become more, not less, socially exclusive over time." Pat McFadden, the Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills at the time, said in response to the report: "Although effectively the legal profession employs more than 250,000 people it is, in some ways, less socially mobile than it used to be." The Milburn Report prompted well-intended initiatives by government and professional bodies including the Law Society, which drew up a Diversity and Inclusion Charter that has now been signed by hundreds of firms, including all the big names in the City of London. But what do these firms do about social inclusion? And, in particular, what progress is being made in relation to social class? That was the question that Dr Ashley wanted to address. "The intention of this research was to assess the value of diversity strategies as a means to widen access to the corporate legal profession," she says. "As such, it had two core objectives. The first involved an analysis of diversity policy adopted by leading corporate law firms, in order to understand how diversity and equality are written about and the type of strategy the sector deems important in order to secure key goals. The second involved an analysis of how these policies are experienced and understood in the organisational setting." Dr Ashley found that firms had moved on significantly in the past two decades. All-male, all-white cohorts have been transformed into mixed groups with equal numbers of males and females and, in most cases, a significant proportion of non-white faces and a number of non-British entrants. However, while their physical attributes may be different, these bright young recruits will almost invariably dress, speak and act according to the same middle-class code. Dr Ashley concluded: "The strong consensus in this and other research was that middle-class ethnic minority candidates with the right education - and the right accent - would not necessarily experience discrimination. Their upbringing, background and education had almost certainly already equipped them with the same set of cultural practices as their white (middle-class) peers." But what about those graduates who have come from council estates and bog-standard comprehensive schools and have the accents and social mannerisms that might be associated with that background? Overwhelmingly they meet discrimination, despite the fact that, in public, the firms concerned espouse a commitment to diversity and are even involved in diversity programmes with local schools and communities. In short there is a disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality. According to Dr Ashley's research, diversity issues and outreach activities in law firms are usually hived off to a self-contained department that has little impact or bearing on the way the firm conducts its recruitment.

The result, says her report, is that "diversity strategies are implemented alongside a range of competing policies that seem perfectly designed to perpetuate existing forms of discrimination against non-traditional and less privileged candidates". She reports: "A specific example of the contradiction between good intentions and actual practice can be found at Firm D. This firm was closely involved with Global Graduates (an independent organisation that helps students from under-represented communities to attend university and enter professional careers in the City) and provided mini-internships for students. It had also established its own programme to sponsor a small group of less privileged students at school, helping them to develop the skills required for a career in an elite law firm. However, while the firm had recognised the difficulties faced by non-traditional (law) students it was simultaneously engaged in an active strategy to recruit more of its new graduates from elite universities, particularly Oxbridge." Elite firms, it seems, do not want to take the risk of stepping outside the comfort zone of their established - and seemingly successful - recruitment criteria (or maybe their gut instinct). An explanation frequently voiced in the City is that a high level of legal knowledge is a given; but gaps in education, knowledge, savoir faire and social rapport with clients could be fatal. When these firms do step outside the norm it can have an unwelcome impact on their success. Dr Ashley reports: "Firm E is an established City firm which had experienced a dip in both its reputation and profits during the previous ten years. These problems were related to several issues but, again, the quality of its staff was regarded as one factor. A subsequent policy to recruit graduates almost exclusively from Oxbridge had been highly successful. As one partner said, 'We did suffer in terms of recruitment... and we were losing out to rival firms. We changed our strategy and that's helped with quality. We're just a much smarter firm now'." Dr Ashley concludes that recruiting only those with middle-class manners and mores - in other words, those who "fit in" and become "one of us" - cannot be reconciled to their claims to be committed to diversity.

So what can be done?
Dr Ashley posits that maybe surgery to the education system might be the only true solution. "A radical approach to diversity might only originate in a holistic agenda which tackles not only the barriers to equality which exist within the legal sector, but also the far deeper structural issues which lie at the heart of the UK's economy and society," she says. "This radical approach would include a more active focus on differential access to educational advantage from an early age, a factor which continues to limit the life chances of less privileged people just as effectively as the value judgements made by managers within elite organisations, if not more so." Meanwhile, however, she recommends the approach adopted by the Sutton Trust and the College of Law in their Pathways to Law programme - a £1.5 million project founded in 2007 and delivered by the universities of Leeds, Manchester, Southampton and Warwick and the London School of Economics. Its aim is to inspire and support academically able students from non-privileged backgrounds who are interested in a career in law. It focuses explicitly on group-based disadvantage. "Critically, it is a strategy based on social class that may not have gained ground without the development of a diversity discourse within the legal sector," Dr Ashley says. Development of two-year and part-time degrees and a significant investment in apprenticeships might start to open up the legal profession to a wider social demographic. How long it will be before this has any impact on the elite law firms described by Dr Ashley remains to be seen.

Edward Fennell is a columnist for The Times LAW.

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