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Social mobility in law

Social mobility, or lack thereof, is a concern within many professions, including law. But what exactly is social mobility and how does it shape the legal world? Below we look at the relationship between social mobility and law, the socioeconomic factors which influence it, and discuss how we can improve diversity in the legal sector.  

By Grant Longstaff. Published 12 June 2024.

Understanding social mobility

What is social mobility?

The Social Mobility Commission (SMC), an independent statutory body within the UK, defines social mobility as “the link between a person’s occupation or income and the occupation or income of their parents”. There are many socioeconomic factors which play a part in social mobility, including wealth, income, social class, health and education. Being a first generation university student, for instance, is one example of upwards social mobility.

The SMC’s purpose is to “create a United Kingdom where the circumstances of birth do not determine outcomes in life”. Social mobility is also closely linked to inequality, which can similarly impact an individual’s access to opportunities.

Social mobility in law aims to ensure individuals from all backgrounds have equal opportunities to enter the legal profession, but more work is needed to challenge and remove the barriers many individuals still face.

History of social mobility in law

Theres no denying that, historically, the legal sector has often been seen as an exclusive club for individuals with a privileged upbringing. The training was expensive, and an individual would likely need to have the right connections to break in. For many, a legal career was simply not an option.

However, there has been a shift in the legal world, and a more diverse workforce has started to emerge. Access to legal education has increased and barriers to legal careers are being challenged and stripped away. That said, it doesn’t mean there isn’t more work to be done.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the regulator of solicitors in England and Wales, collect diversity data from the firms it regulates. In it’s most recent report it found the number of lawyers from intermediate and lower socioeconomic backgrounds has increased slightly from 29% in 2021 to 31%. Even so, 57% of lawyers still come from a professional background. In addition, 21% of lawyers attended an independent/fee paying school, almost three times higher than the national average of 7.5%.

The picture for barristers is also stark, with The SMC reporting that 71% of barristers in leading roles attended independent/fee paying schools. Furthermore, the Bar Standards Board, the regulator of barristers in England and Wales, reported that “a disproportionately high number of barristers attended a UK independent school”.

There are some encouraging signs in regards to diversity, for example the SRA reported 19% of lawyers are from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background which is up from 15% in 2019.

That said, these figures and comments are clear indicators that more needs to be done to address social mobility in the legal sector and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds still face a number of challenges which hinder their career progression.

Social mobility initiatives in law

The legal world has recognised there is still work to be done, and as a result there are a number of strategies and initiatives which have been implemented in order to improve social mobility in the sector.

One of the barriers for many who wish to access legal education is the cost. For example, we offer a wide range of scholarships and bursaries to help alleviate some of the financial costs associated with higher education.

There’s also support coming from legal organisations. For example, The Law Society, the independent professional body for solicitors in England and Wales, created the Diversity Access Scheme (DAS) to “address key barriers to the solicitors’ profession faced by those from less advantaged backgrounds”. Another of their initiatives is the social mobility ambassadors scheme, a network of solicitors who overcame barriers themselves and help promote social mobility within law.

Law firms may also have their own schemes to help improve social mobility and diversity within their organisations, or work with organisations who have social mobility programmes. For example, The Law Springboard Programme from upReach – who help those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds access graduate jobs – work in partnership with international firm Slaughter and May.

There are also organisations such as The Social Mobility Foundation and The Sutton Trust, which work with schools and students to help improve social mobility and encourage employers across all sectors to create more diverse workplaces.

How to improve social mobility in law

Improving social mobility and socioeconomic diversity in law requires contribution and effort from a range of fields, including education providers, employers, industry experts and the government. Whilst more financial support could help those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, there is also a need for more education on social mobility. The more we understand the barriers people face, the more equipped we are to tackle them.

There are some law firms who have diversity initiatives and are actively changing the landscape of their organisations. However, there needs to be more work from the wider legal sector to help improve social mobility. Pro bono work, paid internships and law firm diversity initiatives all offer valuable points of access to the sector.

Firms can also help close the gap by working within their communities, promoting the benefits of higher education and challenging the barriers some individuals face. Finally, another asset the legal world has at its disposal are those lawyers who have overcome the barriers now faced by others. Their success can inspire future lawyers.

Ultimately, we believe that the more inclusive and diverse the legal work force becomes, the better that work force reflects the society which it serves.


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