Elite law firms pass over qualified candidates whose accents are “smart” enough, new study finds
Some elite London law firms are passing over well-qualified, white working-class job applicants in favour of middle-class graduates from elite universities who they think they are better for their image, new research says. The firms studied had successfully recruited ethnic minority candidates as part of diversity programmes, but rejected able working-class students because their appearance or accent was not thought ‘smart’ enough.
Dr Louise Ashley of the Centre for Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School, which is part of City University London, interviewed 130 staff at five prominent London law firms, many of them in senior roles. Her findings are detailed in the Work, Employment and Society journal due to be published this week by the British Sociology Association and SAGE.
Dr Ashley said that though the firms were publicly committed to diversity in the workplace almost all of their lawyers came from more privileged backgrounds. More than 90 per cent of lawyers who took part in the research at the five firms had fathers who had been managers or senior officials, and at two of the firms more than 70 per cent of lawyers were privately educated.
The elite firms told her that they didn’t recruit students from less prestigious universities because they believed they were less academically gifted. However, Dr Ashley found that the firms turned down candidates who looked or sounded working-class in order to preserve the upmarket brand, even when they were well qualified.
A partner at one of the five case study firms told Dr Ashley: “There was one guy who came to interviews who was a real Essex barrow boy, and he had a very good CV, he 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.
“I do know though that if you’re really pursuing a diversity policy you shouldn’t see him as rough round the edges, I should just see him as different.”
Another firm had changed its strategy from recruiting among a range of universities to hiring almost exclusively from Oxbridge. A partner in the firm told Dr Ashley: “We did suffer in terms of recruitment – 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 discussed a third firm which had put into place a programme of helping students at comprehensive schools in order to prepare them for working at leading law firms as part of its diversity programme.
One of the firm’s senior associates told her: “There’s no point promoting diversity to the extent that it encourages people to become lawyers who are not lawyers. Image is everything in the law – it’s all we’ve got, our product. What’s the point of bringing these people along who are not lawyers to bring your diversity figures up? You’re only going to end up firing them.”
Commenting on her research, Dr Ashley said: “Until relatively recently law firms have tended to focus on ethnicity rather than social inclusion in their recruitment and they have made some progress in this respect.
“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, at entry level at least.
“However, focusing on ethnicity enables law firms to boast excellent or at the very least improved diversity outcomes despite the fact that they have continued to recruit using precisely the same types of class privilege that have always been in operation.”
“As it is, on either a personal or collective basis, individuals within the profession have little incentive to introduce a more progressive approach which would genuinely recognise and reward difference on the basis of social class, since the inclusion of lawyers who are visibly working-class, or have regional accents, is perceived to threaten both their brand and their bottom-line.
“By not taking well-qualified people with working-class accents and by overlooking candidates with good degrees from new universities, law firms are arguably missing out on the skills and experience different people can bring.
“They are contributing to the situation outlined in the Milburn Report to government last year which said that the professions have exemplified the old notion that a limited pool of talent was enough to get by on.
“This is recognised as a problem by some progressive firms particularly those outside the legal sector, with some acknowledging that their most successful leaders include individuals who would not have gained access to the profession today on the basis of their academic qualifications.
“A genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion as both a commercial and ethical imperative would mean that many more law firms go much further in opening their doors to a wider pool of talent.”
For more information contact:
Chris Johnson, Press Officer, Cass Business School
ph: +44 (0)20 7040 5210, email@example.com