Social mobility and COVID-19

We are grateful to YLAL member, Charlotte Simpson, for this original content piece.

Pre-COVID considerations

Diversity and Inclusion, or D&I, is increasingly entering the vocabulary of HR teams from law firms and Chambers as they seek to encourage currently underrepresented groups into legal careers. In 2017, the Social Mobility Commission appeared to positively regard the direction the legal sector was taking, reporting that social mobility for solicitors had significantly improved. 24 of the top 75 employers on the 2019 Social Mobility Employer Index (‘the Index’) were from the legal sector, including the top three.

Despite the apparent success this indicates, research by the BSB in 2017 described the Bar as being commonly perceived as ‘the preserve for the elite’, and more accessible to white men from elite educational backgrounds than others. Whilst this may suggest that the solicitor profession is outstripping the Bar in social mobility terms and generally doing well, many in both professions would argue that far more has to be done.

The number of women entering the profession is currently higher than that of men, but there are far fewer women at partner level in law firms. Moreover, despite 45% of applications to all the employers on the Index coming from the 24 Russell Group universities, 84% of hires at law firms come from those universities.

Elitist Britain reported in 2019 that the senior judiciary remains the most socially exclusive of all professions, with 65% of senior judges independent school educated and 75% attending Oxford or Cambridge. This disproportionality suggests that far more needs to be done to ensure that the talent coming into the legal sector is both high quality and representative. This need is possibly more poignant in the legal aid sector, where matters are often personal and highly emotive.

A career in the legal sector is often associated with voluntary work, long hours and low pay. This low pay is reflective of the far lower budgets compared to commercial alternatives. This, combined with the high level of debt incurred en route to qualification and the amount of unpaid work experience applicants are expected to undertake in order to build up the experience required to successfully apply for jobs, makes the low salary unsustainable.

Many of those who contributed to YLAL’s social mobility report stated that this had often meant that they had to give up on their Legal Aid aspirations and several described the experience as ‘too much’.

Potential implications of COVID-19

With COVID-19 cases on the rise and England now entering a second lockdown, it is clear now more than ever that the future is uncertain. Entering the legal profession at this time is likely to be far more perilous than ever before with employment uncertainty branching across all careers. Lower paid legal positions, such as paralegal and legal secretary roles are particularly at risk. Across all types of firm, redundancies can be seen. For example, in a recent The Lawyer publication, large names such as Withers, Freeths, Dentons and BCLP were some of the many firms reporting redundancy consultations resulting from office closures during the pandemic. Irwin Mitchell reported their redundancy measures to be a direct impact of the shift to digital working, a factor which was drastically accelerated by lockdown.

What does this mean for law students seeking legal positions?

It is well known that the legal market is oversaturated with those seeking legal roles. In January 2019, the Lawyer monthly magazine reported a ratio of 28:1 for those seeking legal roles and legal positions available. With competition for roles prior to COVID-19 at such high levels, it is likely that those trying to enter the legal profession will struggle to compete against experienced individuals who are re-entering the job market following redundancy.

The knock-on implications are unclear, but I would suggest that this may lead to the average age of a trainee rising from the current average of 28, as recent graduates struggle to find experience. This could result in more people giving up on a legal career as the wait for a financially stable career, progression and the stressful process of application cycles could potentially grow. Individuals from under-represented or disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to be more affected than any other group of future lawyers by these concerns, due to the high percentage who have relied on loans and other means to pay for their courses.

The position for those seeking a career at the Bar looks equally bleak. Many chambers have stated that the effect of the pandemic is threatening an end to their chambers. Some of those affected are Charter Chambers, who closed its doors at the end of October and Ely Place Chambers, who stated that the pandemic had compounded their financial state. The closure of chambers has been coupled with several chambers cancelling mini-pupillages (One Essex Court, 7KBW, 3VB and Brick Court to name a few) and Henderson Chambers sharing that they will not be recruiting in 2020 due concerns of the quality of remote interviews affecting performance.

Many major law firms appear to be maintaining intake, however future barristers appear to have fewer options than ever before as a result of the pandemic.

And Legal Aid?

Future legal aid lawyers are likely to be disproportionately impacted by these changes. The sector already suffers from poor pay in comparison to the equivalent commercial positions. The BSB found that the financial cost of entering the barrister profession is a major hurdle for many aspiring lawyers, with those from lower socio-economic backgrounds being particularly affected by the financial considerations. In a year with high redundancies and money concerns being prominent in many minds, it could be that these concerns cause even fewer to choose the career path.

75% of respondents to YLAL’s social mobility survey reported spending over £15,000 on their BPTC. Money concerns and the decline in available places in chambers could lead to a rise in people transferring to the solicitor profession. If this were to happen, it is likely that barristers in Legal Aid are even less likely to be representative of the demographic they support the most, something which raises concerns in terms of their ability to fully understand the needs of their clients.

I am of the opinion that 2020 could be a defining year for social mobility in the legal profession. How firms and chambers react to this challenge, for example by introducing new at home assessment techniques or increasing flexibility for employees, could lead to substantial positive change for practitioners of all backgrounds, but particularly those who are often under-represented.

Increased use of technology will hopefully allow those living outside the ‘legal hotspot’ of London to have increased access to the career options previously restricted to the city and remove some of the stigma attached to working from home. Allowing individuals to work more flexibly is likely to better enable working parents and carers to balance their work-life commitments and hopefully lead to a more accessible and sustainable legal profession. I am confident that the legal sector is up to the challenge and hope this will lead to social mobility being fully integrated into the profession in the future.