What is contextual recruitment, and how could it help your firm find the best students and graduates for the job?
Potential recruits under the magnifying glass

At the Law Society of Scotland we often find that firms and organisations are keen to improve their diversity methods when it comes to recruitment of trainees and interns, but aren’t sure of the best way of doing so. We also know the recruitment process itself is time consuming and the best candidates are often difficult to discern among a tranche of applications from people with very similar qualifications and experience.

Some companies have used blind recruitment to try and help the situation, removing details such as name, address, school and university from the application when it is reviewed. While there are likely some benefits to this approach, I’d argue it could make it harder to find the “outperformers”. These are the candidates who have done incredibly well within the context of their circumstances and exactly the type of people who will bring great benefit to your business.

We know from speaking to firms that the hardest candidates to make decisions on are those lost in the middle – a raft of students who all have similar grades and applications that are impossible to differentiate between. Indeed, most application forms or CVs will not find these outperformers either.

However, a contextual recruitment system will. This is one of the reasons firms are turning to contextual recruitment to unearth these talented applicants. Even better, using this system could actually make it easier to run the whole recruitment process.

Contextual recruitment uses software to enable you to:

  • identify candidates with the most potential, who have outperformed their peers or shone in challenging circumstances;
  • recruit a more diverse workforce;
  • demonstrate a tangible commitment to social mobility.

How does contextual recruitment work?

Diversity in recruitment specialist Rare has developed a contextualised recruitment system (CRS) to allow employers to use data to identify candidates with the most potential. Some of Rare’s legal clients include Clyde & Co, Clifford Chance, Pinsent Masons, Shepherd & Wedderburn, Ashurst and Linklaters.

However, we understand that many firms and organisations simply don’t hire enough graduates to justify investing in this system on their own. Therefore, the Society has teamed up with Rare to deliver a bespoke system for firms – meaning the cost is proportionate depending whether you take on one trainee or intern, or 10.

If you start using the contextual recruitment system, you run your application system as normal. When an application is submitted, you send a link to an applicant to complete the Rare form. This is not mandatory, but encouraged. The Rare form will then ascertain the following information:

  • school and grades achieved, specifying the year;
  • home postcode when at school age;
  • eligibility for free school meals;
  • whether first generation at university;
  • significant time spent working during school or university;
  • whether in care, or a carer, or a refugee.

The tables below show the additional information you will gain about each applicant, which can then be taken into account when deciding who to interview. If an applicant has a number of flags, then their performance should be considered in that context and that may identify an exceptional candidate who might otherwise have been overlooked. This is not designed to give people an advantage – simply to level a playing field.

A number of Scottish firms are already utilising this system and seeing really positive results. It's a really practical way of helping to make a huge difference for promoting diversity in the legal profession. The costs start at £300 + VAT. Please email careers@lawscot.org.uk to find out more.

A. Without contextual recruitment
Name Highers (top 3) University Work experience
Joe Smith BBB University of Edinburgh No relevent work experience
B. With contextual recruitment
Name John Smith
Highers BBB
School average DDD
School precentile 8%
Performance index +32%
Socio-economic flags
Academic flags ⚑⚑
Personal flags
University University of Edinburgh
Work experience • No relevant work experience • First generation at university • Eligible for free school meals
Case study: Pinsent Mason

Deborah McCormack,
Head of Early Talent, Pinsent Masons

Pinsent Masons made the decision to adopt a contextual approach to recruitment in 2015, integrating Rare’s contextualised recruitment system (CRS) into our application process for early talent opportunities from 2016.

At that time, we were acutely aware that the legal profession needed to attract, recruit and retain talent from a more diverse pool, including from lower socio-economic and ethnically diverse backgrounds. Working with Rare was part of a wider diversity and inclusion strategy. Other elements included working with a broader range of universities, expanding our PRIME work experience programme, sponsoring Street Law and partnering with diversity and inclusion organisations like Aspiring Solicitors.

The CRS delivers two outputs to employers: flags to measure disadvantage and a performance index to measure candidate performance against peers. Adopting a contextual approach allows us to consider applications from all candidates fairly, as we are better able to understand the circumstances in which they have achieved academic success.

Other influencing factors that the CRS identifies include: time in local authority care; working more than 16 hours per week while studying; caring responsibilities; refugee status; and being the first person in a family to attend university.

If another firm was to ask us whether we would recommend adopting a more holistic approach to recruitment of early talent, we would say absolutely! Our data show that using the CRS has enabled us to have a bias-free application process: the chances of being invited to assessment stage are the same for individuals regardless of their background.

Case study: Morton Fraser

Martin Glover,
HR director, Morton Fraser

At Morton Fraser, diversity and inclusion are at the heart of how we operate. Diversity of life experience and diversity of thought are key to the delivery of a culture of innovation and high quality service demanded by our clients. That is just one of many reasons why we use the contextualised recruitment system from Rare to help ensure we attract talent from all areas of society. Having the widest possible diversity in our workforce, allied to an inclusive culture where people feel they can actively participate and belong, is the hallmark of our employee experience at the firm.

We have used contextual recruitment for two years now, via the Society’s partnership with Rare, and have recently finished recruiting our intake of graduate law trainees with some very encouraging results. For the intake just completed, 40% of applications for a traineeship came from people with some form of social disadvantage, up from 25% last year. Of those appointed, 33% had some form of social disadvantage, up from 12.5% last year.

What these statistics show is that we are able to tap into areas of talent from which our traditional approaches to recruitment excluded us. The talent pool comprised of people with social disadvantage is strong, as evidenced by the number of offers we make to people in that category. What is also encouraging is the increasing numbers of talented people in that pool who are encouraged to make an application to us for their legal traineeship. The number of job offers we make is testament to the quality of talent in this pool.

We will examine further how successful our recruits from this talent pool are as time goes on and we will do this by looking at job offers following completion of training, as well as feedback from supervising partners, clients, and of course the people themselves. For now though, this has been a very positive experience for us and one that we will continue to explore.

The Author

Heather McKendrick is head of Careers and Outreach at the Law Society of Scotland

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