Earlier this year, we ran a Diversity Matters event focusing on social mobility. Although ULaw Tutor Katie Reid could not attend the event, we wanted to sit down with her to discuss social mobility further. Katie founded the iBelong club, which aims to diversify the legal sector.
iBelong's mission statement is 'empowering students from non-traditional backgrounds to study and enter the profession with confidence’.
The aims of the club are:
- To combat ‘outsiderdom’ and create a community that acknowledges background and difference and promotes confidence.
- To acknowledge, temper and normalise the heavy burden placed on those students whose family see them going to university as a way out of poverty or towards a better life.
- To tackle disenfranchisement from one’s community, combat that hostility and potential isolation that comes from what may be perceived as ‘betterment’.
- To provide practical advice, mentoring and contacts from other persons from a similar background as a substitute for what other students may be able to get from their parents or extended families/contacts.
- To hold up a mirror to the profession so that students can see themselves within it.
- Acknowledgement that students will at some point suffer prejudice and offer practical advice on dealing with it and taking ownership of it in a non-damaging way.
- To build a network upon which they can rely in the future.
I was inspired to start the iBelong Club after my own experience in the legal profession and being frustrated by the slow pace of change in society. Many initiatives seem aimed at financial support which is great but I felt the need to look at the issues as a whole. The University of Law was kind enough to provide me with a platform.
More generally, there is a need to talk about the narratives around social mobility and their impact. The World Economic Forum’s Global Social Mobility Index 2020 defines social mobility as ‘An individual’s social and economic attainment relative to their social economic background’.
I am from a low socio-economic group. People from low socio-economic groups have less opportunity to access material goods, educational opportunities, healthy environments and economic wealth. These are the resources necessary to enable social mobility. People at the lowest end of the scale often have the fewest resources to attain mobility.
Couple this with a prevailing narrative that mobility can be achieved through hard work alone and that people at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum can ‘attain’ mobility based on their merit. Conversely, those who don’t will be judged on their lack of merit. This idea can have a negative impact on confidence as it paints an unrealistic picture of the benefits of resource.
Unfortunately, societal inequality in the UK means we do not live in a society based on merit. People from lower socio-economic groups struggle to get into universities and elite professions. Some 23% of solicitors, 35% of barristers and 53% of QCs went to fee-paying schools as opposed to 7% of the population. Some 48% of solicitors have parents educated to degree level or above, 90% in large firms and 86% in medium sized firms. Of those from a low socio-economic group who make it into the profession, solicitors who feel the need to be part of the dominant grouping are 42% more likely to leave their job in the first 12 months. Should they stay, on average, it takes them 18 months longer to make it into a partnership position. If there is no sense of belonging, there may be a sense of isolation and shame and this needs to be tackled.
iBelong aims to talk about these issues and bring everybody into the conversation. We acknowledge the struggles of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds of all intersectionality. We aim to offer role remodelling and practical support to try to level the playing field throughout University and empower students to enter the profession with confidence.
This has also been a personal journey for me. I left the profession two years ago, after having my second child. This change gave me a rare and valuable opportunity to reflect upon my time at University and as a solicitor. One of the things I realised was that I hid my background when I should have celebrated it. I set up iBelong to try to tackle these issues.
iBelong is for everyone who cares about the legal profession being representative of every section and inter-section within our society. We aim to talk about the issues which relate to under-represented groups both in higher education and in the legal profession. You can join by going to the Student Union website, choosing opportunities, then iBelong and signing up to the mailing list.
The Law Society’s position on this is that “Law firms rely on the quality of their people and win business by reflecting the clients and communities they serve”.
Every student and lawyer, no matter what socio-economic background they come from, brings a unique way of solving problems. These strategies are shaped by our personalities, experiences and culture. Diversifying the talent pool to include every socio-economic group prevents uniformity in law and promotes new business opportunities and creativity. A profession made up of very similar people, with very similar life experience and culture will struggle to tackle change dynamically and creatively. The legal profession’s commercial survival is based on its ability to be relevant in society and solve problems innovatively.
The best thing a student can do to support social mobility is to make themselves aware of the issues.
If you are a student who has been afforded a little more opportunity on account of your background, then talk about it, be honest and don’t be embarrassed. It doesn’t diminish what you have achieved but it may give some comfort to someone who is struggling. If you are a student who has not had as much opportunity as others, be proud that you got to where you are and take advantage of what the University has to offer. Come to talks that encourage you, seek a mentor, go to the academic workshops and apply to firms that will acknowledge your success and embrace your background.
Above all vote with your feet. Emerging talent is a firm’s biggest asset. Research firms carefully and apply to firms who are working to improve social mobility. The Social Mobility Foundation keeps a list of the top 75 UK employers for social mobility; law firms made up 30% of the listed employers in 2020. Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner was the top-ranking law firm, Browne Jacobson LLP 5th, Herbert Smith Freehills LLP 7th, Baker McKenzie 10th and Linklaters LLP in 11th.
Things are changing. Ty Jones, DWF Director of Corporate Social Responsibility and Engagement said: “For too long, social background has impacted an individual's likelihood of working in the legal sector. As a leading social mobility employer, we are taking steps to dismantle the barriers to accessing and progressing within the profession”. Students can help drive this forward.
There are hundreds of charities and organisations working to improve social mobility across lots of sectors. We have already considered the Social Mobility Foundation. I also find the Sutton Trust’s resources really helpful. It has practical, easy to implement advice free on its website for businesses and individuals who want further information on social mobility.
The Sutton Trust also has some very useful information for employers around improving social mobility in the workplace, starting with monitoring. Social class is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. As such it has long been overlooked. Socio-economic status or ‘class’ is difficult to define but there are a number of good markers which may be used. These are all set out in the helpful, easy to implement guidance.
There are also useful resources specifically for the legal profession. The Solicitors Regulation Authority has its own toolkit, The Law Society has lots of resources and has recruited and trained a number of social mobility ambassadors. There are also charities, not for profit organisations and private companies seeking to make a difference, such as Aspiring Solicitors and Rare Recruitment.
This generation of students is fundamental in improving diversity. Socio-economic inequality is rising in the UK right now and this has been accentuated by the Covid-19 pandemic which is going to have a legacy down the generations. As Inequality grows, socioeconomic diversity and all the related intersectionality in education and in the workplace will decrease. Social mobility will decline and fewer solicitors will be from diverse backgrounds. This generation of students must demand change as this is fundamental to the success of the profession.
All students should know that a legal career is attainable but it will be harder for some students than others. Some will come with advantages that others do not have. Under the current system hard work alone cannot change that and to fail to acknowledge that is disempowering.
What I will say is that things are changing. Organisations like Prime and many others, as listed here by LawCareers.net, are succeeding in bringing diversity into the profession. I’d encourage potential students to contact these fantastic organisations and make themselves aware of everything the University offers.
Our next event in the series, Diversity Matters – Ethnic Diversity, is on October 14th at 6pm. For further information and to register your attendance for this free-of-charge event, please check your student email.