Olivia Parker, Careers Development Officer at the Law Society, talks about whether employers are really engaged with fair access and highlights some of the pitfalls that are still regularly identified in the traineeship recruitment process.

In the three years I’ve been working in our careers team, social mobility and fair access are terms that have become ever more prominent in recruitment vocabulary. Rightly so, as we should be training a legal profession that represents all the communities we serve and thus attracting a diverse range of students.

While there are positive conversations happening all the time, I wonder if they are actually filtering through to influence recruitment practices as it seems there are a few issues that remain commonplace. I’m not sure if it’s a case of employers not being aware of the real impact of these issues, or potentially continuing with an ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ approach. The trouble is, I would argue that a lot of practices out there are broken and don’t truly embody a fair approach. I want to bring a few of these matters to life and explain a bit about why they really do deserve some real consideration and ultimately, fixing.  

Are you still asking for school grades?

This is a common practice in all industries, not just the legal profession. Some popular arguments for looking at grades include that they can be helpful in determining an excellent track record, showing a consistent attitude to work over a long time, longstanding ambition and a proven ability to deliver good results. But academic success is rarely a simply measure of natural aptitude and instead, can be heavily influenced by other factors such as:

  • A positive learning environment at school, with great teachers where pupils are encouraged to push themselves and self-motivation becomes embedded.
  • Supportive parents, who take an interest in career options and choices.
  • The student is informed enough to discover a specific career they want to pursue which fuels their drive and motivation.
  • The influence of friends and peers, with people having a common ambitions and an environment where they are encouraged by one another.

It’s for us as employers to recognise where our attainment criteria are being blind to these external factors. For example, a grade B at Higher Modern Studies from a pupil who attended one of the lowest-performing schools in the country and came top of their class deserves to have their circumstances and consequent potential recognised fairly, rather than automatically classified as not having performed to an arbitrary standard. Using contextualised recruitment software offered by companies like Rare Recruitment can embed this kind of assessment into your recruitment process, meaning you can identify high-performing students which might usually remain hidden in a pile of applications.

Other applicants that can fall prey to an over-reliance on school grades are those who have taken an access route, such as an HND in Legal Studies. Students might choose this route for many reasons, including not having obtained the requisite school grades for university, or the desire to pursue a career as a solicitor only came about after time in another career. For these students, looking at school grades can outweigh consideration of their more recent academic performance, which would arguably paint a far more accurate picture of their ability. 

Do you exclusively hire previous interns?

The next one is a big one as it’s increasingly common for legal employers to hire their trainees from their intern pool. I can see why it makes sense - an internship is basically an extended interview and it gives reliable evidence to claims of being ‘hardworking’, ‘a great communicator’ or having ‘excellent attention to detail’ on an application form. But can all potential applicants down-tools for a two, three- or four-week internship for a specific period over the summer? Many students have jobs that they can’t just give up over the holidays, or they might not be able to schedule time off in the allotted time you’ve chosen. ‘Well we can’t accommodate everyone’ you might say. But are you really trying hard enough? Can you make your placement timings flexible, or offer part-time options?  Or, at the very least, could you stop hiring exclusively from your intern pools so you can consider everyone?

Is your fair access work verging towards tokenism?

The ‘gold standard’ that some employers are recently aspiring to is a set path of early-years engagement. As an employer, you welcome a school pupil onto an insight day, invite them back in their first year for another one-day careers event, host them on an internship in their third year and then finally, offer them a traineeship. They’ve been with your firm the whole way through their early career! Now that makes an excellent statistic.

One criticism of this approach is that it puts significant pressure on early-years students to make big decisions about their career. Being proactive at 15 or risk missing out could be deemed a tall order. Another key consideration is that as an employer, you’ll need to make an honest assessment about whether this really is fair access, or whether it could be considered tokenism. Be aware that by picking out a small handful of students and showing them a path at an early stage, you could be blocking this path for others further down the line, or simply failing to signpost to everyone. Fair access is about everyone being able to have an equitable chance to achieve a certain outcome. Are you trying to benefit everyone, or are you limiting your gaze to a chosen few?

How to be a responsible recruiter

From the conversations we have regularly at work, we’ve still got a long way to go in the legal profession to embed fair access and champion social mobility. I think it’s time to move on from the good conversations we're having and take some positive action. When it comes to traineeship recruitment, perhaps the top five things you as an employer can start with are:

  1. Remove school grades from your traineeship applications, in favour of competency and skills-based assessment.
  2. Make your application processes friendly to those who come from an access course, or who have had a previous career.
  3. Make your internships more flexible to accommodate reasonable adjustments to a greater range of students’ circumstances.
  4. Manually map out your traineeship pipeline and analyse how accessible it really is to everyone at all stages.
  5. Explore how using contextualised recruitment software could make your recruitment fairer. We’ve invited Rare Recruitment to run a masterclass on fair access and their product, which takes place on Tuesday 12 March as an afternoon session. Get in touch if you’d like to find out more and sign up to attend.

We’re here to help you act as responsible recruiters, so you can also make contact if you want to have a discussion with a member of our team. Our online recruitment guidance, can also be a helpful source of advice.

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