Open for business

19th Oct 2020

A recent boost to social mobility in IP may have come from an unexpected quarter.


While it’s impossible to overlook the negative impact that the spread of COVID-19 has had on our society and economy, and especially the personal toll that it has had on so many families, it’s also true that this terrible crisis has brought about some interesting changes – and one of these could be the prospect of improved access to legal careers, including the specialism of IP.

November will see the IP world focus on Careers in Ideas, an initiative launched in 2018 by IP Inclusive with the aim of raising awareness of IP-related job opportunities. In advance of a week dedicated to this important objective, IP Inclusive hosted a roundtable bringing together a range of voices from the world of legal recruitment to discuss what candidates are seeking in their employers and how diversity and inclusion efforts can play a part.

One of the panel’s conclusions: that when it comes to more inclusive recruitment, COVID-19 has brought some unexpected benefits. For one thing, the panel noted that the move to a remote-access selection process has “opened the field to previously excluded or discouraged groups – for example, disabled people, parents and other carers, and people living in less accessible parts of the country – thus widening the pool of people from which you can feasibly recruit”. In addition, remote interviews offer employers an opportunity to “assess a candidate’s ability to work and communicate in a virtual space, which is fast becoming a core business skill”.

Crucially, the panel reported that COVID-19 has “provided an ideal opportunity to recruit a more diverse intake, which in turn allows us to access a wider and deeper talent pool and bring in new perspectives, making our teams more innovative and effective while also improving our attractiveness to clients and future recruits”.

Making room for mobility

This opportunity will undoubtedly be welcome, even if its root cause is not. That’s because social mobility continues to be a huge challenge for the UK. In fact, “the situation is dire,” said Sarah Atkinson, Chief Executive of the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF), in her response to the latest Social Mobility Commission (SMC) report, released in June. “This report shows that the British promise to young people – work hard and you will be rewarded – is still being broken, and in fact it is where you are born and your family background that determines your life chances. Levelling up is at risk of becoming a cruel joke.”

The SMF highlights the scale of the problem in its 2019/20 annual review, noting that: just 5 per cent of students eligible for Free School Meals go on to study at the most selective universities (compared with a national average of 12 per cent); employees in elite occupations who are from working-class backgrounds earn on average £6,400 less per year than their peers from wealthier backgrounds; and, tellingly, 65 per cent of senior judges were privately educated, compared with just 7 per cent of the whole UK population.

With its history of hiring from elite universities, it’s no wonder the legal sector can be particularly hard to access for those from less privileged backgrounds. Yet there are ways to pick apart this pattern. For example, the SMF offers an Aspiring Professional Programme and law is one of the 11 sectors targeted. The programme provides mentoring, work placement and upskilling opportunities for young people from age 16, and the SMF is also working to build a graduate recruitment pipeline. In February, it launched a “Department for Opportunities” with the aim of “raising the profile of social mobility as a cause with the public and building networks with organisations and institutions [including employers] who can improve social mobility across the UK”.

Meanwhile, the Sutton Trust has put together a two-year “Pathways to Law” programme, which offers Year 12 students from state-funded, non-fee-paying schools a chance to explore “what entering the legal profession might look like”. The programme prioritises students based on a number of criteria, including those who would be the first in their family to attend university or who live in an area with a low rate of progression to higher education or a high level of socio-economic deprivation.

In addition, PRIME – an alliance of more than 60 UK law firms – is working to bring students into the Solicitor profession. In an article on the PRIME website, Katie Faulds of Crasner Consulting highlighted the role of educational opportunity in social mobility, noting that “the fact that the university someone attends plays a significant role in influencing one’s access to graduate jobs and starting salary (with certain ‘elite’ employers targeting only a selective group of universities) […] means that, quite frankly, one’s careers can be somewhat defined and curtailed at the mere age of five years old, with the choice of school that parents and/or guardians make”. “These stifling statistics become even worse when we drill down into the legal profession,” she asserts, labelling the situation “scandalous”.1 

Giving you guidance

For its part, IP Inclusive has produced a blueprint for firms that want to take action in the form of its Recruiting for Social Mobility guidelines. As the guidelines stress, this is not an exhaustive list (or a replacement for specialist legal or HR advice), nor will the ideas suit all employers, but the hope is that they will provide a useful starting point.

For one thing, it suggests that when you engage in outreach – for instance via careers fairs, exhibitions or talks at schools and universities – you consider how to target or create events that will reach students from less privileged backgrounds. This could include visiting schools or universities that you haven’t previously interacted with. Outreach to schools that are underperforming and those in less privileged areas will also provide access to a different talent pool than you may be used to exploring. Consider also reaching out to students on vocational rather than academic courses.

The way your firm presents itself to be public may be worth reviewing, with an eye on how your firm appears to potential recruits from less privileged backgrounds. Are you broadcasting an environment in which they would feel they are likely to fit in? According to IP Inclusive, using descriptors such as “exclusive” and “technical excellence” may discourage certain applicants. It suggests looking at whether you could promote qualities such as approachability, client care, innovation and creativity.

Advertising issues

Take care in how you advertise your vacancies, in case you are inadvertently discouraging people from less privileged backgrounds from taking that first step. IP Inclusive recommends advertising widely, in particular on social media, in directories that are accessible to job-aggregator search engines, and through careers advisers in educational settings, as well as in the local and national press.

Be careful with the language you use in adverts too, so that it doesn’t put off people who are less confident of their abilities. Words like “elite” and “high-flying”, or suggesting that a degree should be from a “top-flight” university, could have the effect of deterring able candidates from a variety of backgrounds. Stuffy, formal language and IP jargon will also put up barriers.

Mentioning diversity and inclusion credentials, support networks and fairer recruitment processes may, by contrast, provide encouragement.

Assessing your applicants

Some ways to improve fairness when you’re assessing applications include using “blind” selection processes to draw up a shortlist. This involves omitting some types of information from the selection process, perhaps by removing the names of schools or universities attended (focusing instead on results attained), as well as the years in which qualifications were received or the candidates’ dates of birth (since people who have not had a positive educational experience may take longer to achieve academic qualifications).

The practice of “contextual recruitment” can also help to broaden the candidate pool. This means taking account of a candidate’s background and personal story when assessing their achievements, so that you don’t unnecessarily dismiss a talented applicant. A set of high grades earned at a poorer-performing school could tell you more about a candidate than a set of similar results from an elite independent school, for example. Be attuned to other circumstances – illness, trauma or other factors – that might have affected the candidate’s ability to achieve academically.

Other ways to consider a candidate’s context include:

  • Be alert to how gaps in education or attainment are accounted for in cover letters, or ask candidates about such circumstances at interview. Think of their answers as explanations, not excuses.
  • While it is crucial not to inadvertently introduce “positive discrimination” (the recruitment process must be fair for all candidates), provide a space for contextual information in any standard application form (for instance, to explain gaps in CVs or any unusual subject choices, grades or educational routes).
  • Beware of placing too much emphasis on a candidate’s sporting or musical talents or any interesting hobbies, since these may be the result of a privileged upbringing rather than the candidate’s resourcefulness.
  • Equally, IP Inclusive advises that you should not assume that candidates who have reached a “top-flight” university or attended an independent school did so only because of a privileged background. Be attentive to the “back story” that may show they got there through exceptional application and sacrifice.
  • And, importantly, ensure the selection process is based on objective criteria. Require selectors to document and justify decisions, for instance using a score sheet for each candidate. Having a number of people involved in the selection process can also be useful so that they can exchange ideas and perspectives on each candidate. Involving experienced HR professionals can also be valuable.

The interview process

At the interview, the same caveats about objectivity apply, and interviewers should be appropriately trained and briefed. Factors that can trip up interviewers in terms of bias include: accent; a candidate’s level of self-confidence; grammar; and a lack of similar cultural touchpoints to the interviewers.

In light of the current COVID-19 limitations, many interviews will be carried out with web-based tools. In these cases, do be aware that a candidate may not have access to a wide array of devices or software through which to take part.

Whatever the format of the interview, telling candidates what will be expected of them and providing information about who they will speak with, any dress code required and the type of questions that will be asked will help to make those with less interview experience (or those who have not had access to coaching) more comfortable with the process. Do remember to make allowances for nerves, and do whatever you can to help candidates from less privileged backgrounds do their best and demonstrate their full potential.

After the interview

While it isn’t strictly part of the recruitment process, it’s worth doing some work to ensure that your new joiners don’t become fast leavers. This means giving them support as they settle in as new members of the team.

For example, if you’ve identified gaps in their education that need to be addressed, consider training in those areas, and allow extra time for them to gain “missing” skills and knowledge. Be sensitive when it comes to socialising, too. They may not be able to afford a meal or drinks out with the team or be comfortable with a quiz night that requires common “cultural capital”.

And, crucially, continue to nurture an inclusive environment, where everyone can be comfortable being themselves, share their concerns and experiences, find role models and gain confidence as they pick up experience and skills.

Ultimately, as the IP Inclusive panel also noted, the key factors in attracting and retaining good employees in the future will not change: communication, flexibility, inclusivity, nurturing and trust. 

However, the panel concluded: “To be successful after COVID-19, we must embrace the changes it has made possible, rather than insisting on returning to how we were before. This is as important in the context of recruitment and retention as in any other aspect of a business.” Securing greater social mobility is surely one of the most positive of the fresh possibilities.

About Careers in Ideas

Careers in Ideas offers resources targeted at school, college and university students, their teachers and careers advisers. Its resources are free for anyone to use in promoting careers in IP, and the initiative encourages IP professionals to use the resources when visiting schools or careers fairs. A work experience resource pack has also been created to help firms offer meaningful work placements.

Make a difference for social mobility

A task force has been established to build a network of organisations and individual contacts through whom careers resources can be disseminated, or who might collaborate in opening up the IP professions to a wider pool of recruits. If you would like to support the task force in any way, please email Chris Burnett at [email protected]


1 Katie Faulds, ‘Talent is everywhere, opportunity is not’, February 2020, at:

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