As a first generation university student who hopes to become a solicitor, I am acutely aware that the journey will not be easy. The journey towards succeeding in the legal sector for state school students and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds is made a lot harder by social mobility barriers.
The legal profession has made steps to improving social mobility: The Social Mobility Employer Index 2020 shows that 25 UK law firms made the list of the top 75 employers.
However, this same report shows that there is an unwillingness to recruit outside of Russell Group universities: 84% of law firms’ graduate intakes were from the Russell Group. This is a problem. A report by the Sutton Trust (‘Access to Advantage’) showed that independent school pupils are twice as likely to take a place at a Russell Group institution than their non-selective school peers. This means it is harder for non-selective state school students to get jobs at law firms compared to independent school students.
I find it easy to be disheartened by these statistics. I spoke to two very successful lawyers at Hogan Lovells and a motivated law student at the University of Liverpool about it; they gave me advice on seeking out opportunities, overcoming imposter syndrome (which is common amongst those from low SE backgrounds), and practical tips when considering a career in the legal sector.
From one student to another
Alice Goodwin, like me, comes from a state school background and recognises that her biggest challenge in deciding on law as a future career was motivating herself and having the confidence to seek out opportunities.
One of the key barriers for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds is securing a training contract. These training contracts are highly competitive and will often favour those with relevant work experience, which tends to be easier to obtain for independent school students. This is partly because their families are more likely to be able to financially support them while they undertake unpaid work experience and partly because they are more likely to have contacts from a professional background.
However, Alice managed to obtain some useful work experience despite coming from a northern state school background. She completed work experience at a regional law firm and found it helped demystify the profession and that the solicitors were all a lot more relatable than she expected. Additionally, she volunteered at the Vauxhall Law Clinic, which gives pro-bono advice on health benefits. She managed to obtain this through an advertisement at her university for which she applied independently and was successful at interview.
Alice’s experience shows that there are relevant opportunities out there, you just have to actively seek them and find the one that is right for you. Not all opportunities have to be focussed around London either. Alice emphasises that these opportunities won’t find you though, you have to find them!
Personal journeys into law
Nicholas Cheffings is now a Senior Counsel in the real estate disputes team at Hogan Lovells and until recently was partner and Chair of the firm globally. He is also Chair of PRIME, a social mobility charity established by leading law firms, and a Trustee and past Chair of social mobility charity Making the Leap. Despite this success, he didn’t always start out knowing where he would end up.
Nicholas came from a rural farming town in north east Lincolnshire and went to a grammar school. He decided to take a different path to most people he knew at age 15 and became the first in his extended family to go to university. He studied Law at the University of Leicester, paid for by the state. He says that at the time, he had what he has since come to realise was a misguided view of City law firms, so went in-house to the legal department of a company until he had an opportunity to go into private practice.
Nicholas’ journey shows it is possible to be successful despite the barriers you face, if you seek out the opportunities to do so. It also shows that your career path may not always be obvious. One thing is clear though: you must seek these opportunities yourself. Nicholas did not know anyone in the law and received no guidance on how to pursue a legal career at school or university, but he knew he wanted to do something different to other people he knew. It was down to him to find out what that was and then to try to make it happen.
Christopher Hutton also came from a similar background. He attended a state school and hadn’t considered law until a lawyer came to speak at a careers event in year 9. He was nervous about not being from a professional background, but managed to secure some work experience at the Crown Prosecution Service, which helped demystify the law. At the time, it was very costly to apply to Oxbridge (especially for travel costs) and so he had to think very carefully about whether it was affordable to apply.
Christopher is now a partner in Hogan Lovells’ competition group and in charge of trainee recruitment for the firm in the UK.
To me, outreach and visibility are so important and these success stories show me what I can achieve. My message is don’t be deterred if you, like Christopher, feel nervous about your background; you deserve to succeed as much as anyone else.
Not all the barriers placed on those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are external, sometimes they can be subconsciously self-imposed.
Christopher told me of the ‘imposter syndrome’ he felt during his training contract. For the first two months he felt so far out of his depth, surrounded by people who spoke differently, dressed differently and acted differently to him. Describing this ‘imposter’ feeling he said that he was scared of not fitting in and ended up isolating himself. However, he assured me that he did find his feet and although it’s something that never completely goes away, the more you believe in yourself, the easier it becomes.
Nicholas also says not to assume that you’re the only person who feels inadequate; most people feel like this a lot of time and always tend to assume that nobody else does. Accept and recognise that it is normal to feel this, and if people don’t, they are the minority.
I have also felt imposter syndrome during my university experience, both academically feeling like everyone knows more than I do and socially feeling like everyone knows how to behave.
I think it’s really important for people from these backgrounds to speak about these feelings as it helps others to know that they aren’t alone and can stop them isolating themselves.
This phrase often sparks fear in many aspiring lawyers but I asked Nicholas and Christopher what it actually means.
Nicholas observed that clients don’t want an eight page legal document, they want an eight line practical summary. Whilst good grades and legal skills are a given, it is examples of client care and an understanding of the clients’ objectives which give candidates the edge. For example, working a summer in Tesco stacking shelves can give you really good time management skills. Instead of thinking you aren’t good enough, you need to positively frame the experiences you do have by reference to the transferable skills you gained.
Christopher gives a practical tip for helping with commercial awareness: read any business stories in any newspaper and think about how the law might be involved. It will tend to be involved more than you might first think. This helps with interview mindsets and critical analysis skills.
Practical Tips for students
Both Nicholas and Chris gave me their top practical tips for students thinking about a career in law:
- Speak to as many lawyers as you can. There are lots of opportunities to do this at law fairs and university events. There are even more opportunities to do this now that Coronavirus has made events virtual therefore enabling a wider audience. It can also be a good idea to reach out to lawyers on LinkedIn, ask to connect with them and add a note to explain why you are interested in specifically speaking to them about their career.
- Don’t underestimate yourself. If you are at university and are willing to push yourself, you have the ability to become a lawyer.
- Start researching and Googling early on and try to get on schemes for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, such as Aspiring Solicitors or Rare Recruitment.
- Be willing to ask for help. Directly ask how to get into law. If you never ask, you don’t get. Look for a mentor that can guide you.
- Be positive about the experiences you have. Recognise and celebrate the things you have achieved and frame them in a positive way.
So what can law firms do to improve social mobility?
Nicholas tells me that PRIME have made contextual recruitment available to all of their law firm partners. This takes applicants’ situations into account, like what other students at their school usually achieve and whether they are actually outperforming that standard. This will help because, as Christopher says, people whose parents are lawyers will often have a much more polished response to questions such as, ‘what is the role of the law?’. On the other hand, someone from a non-professional background may not have this inbuilt knowledge and could miss certain aspects, which is where contextual recruitment is important.
In addition, law firms accept that they have social mobility issues and that this will help them to tackle them. They need and want to speak to people who have lived that experience. They also need to remember that they employ not just lawyers but also HR and IT and other support staff, and they have to think about social mobility there as well.
Nicholas also states law firms should encourage apprenticeships for people better suited to them.
Overall, it is clear that outreach and visibility are so important in tackling social mobility within the legal sector.
More needs to be done to ensure that people from all backgrounds are given the opportunity to progress into the legal sector if they show the talent and drive to do so. This doesn’t mean the top law firms shouldn’t hire the best legal talent. This means challenging the idea that the best legal talent always comes from the top universities and certain backgrounds, and recognising that opportunities are not equally available to the best legal talent.
I hope that the changes for social mobility in law come sooner rather than later. However, my message to students in similar situations is don’t stop trying. You will face barriers but you deserve to be there as much as the Oxbridge, independent school graduates. In the workplace, something that is valued above all else is hard work and determination: you will get there and you’ll get there knowing that you worked hard for it.
About the Author: Harriet Crossingham
Harriet was a Mentee and Summer Intern at Insight Outreach and continues to volunteer as a Marketing Manager at the charity. Whilst studying History at UCL, she has also set up her own tutoring resource website, Hat Helps, and works as a virtual assistant.
We are also grateful for the contributions of:
Nicholas Cheffings, Christopher Hutton and Alice Goodwin