How law firms are looking at alternative routes to entry as they seek to increase diversity

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Long gone are the days of a career at one of Scotland’s top legal firms being exclusive only to those with connections in the profession.

The industry seeks to be as inclusive as possible through a range of initiatives because, as according to McKinsey & Company, the more diverse a team is, the more beneficial it is to a company.

The standard route to qualification is through an LLB degree at university followed by a two-year traineeship with a firm, while non-law graduates complete a two-year accelerated LLB in Scots Law.

The most popular alternative route is a three-year pre-PEAT training contract – which includes nine exams – with one of Scotland’s solicitor firms. But the number of alternative routes is growing as the industry widens its reach.

“We are in the process of developing an apprenticeship route to qualification and that is in its early stages, but we hope to launch it next year with a university and series of employers,” explains Rob Marrs, head of education at the Law Society of Scotland.

“The apprenticeship is not to grow the number of people studying towards becoming a lawyer, but to diversify in terms of the people who come forward.”

He claims that people from poorer backgrounds are under-represented on the LLB course and at every subsequent stage of the route to qualification. But it’s an issue which has not gone unnoticed by the legal heavyweights.

PRIME Commitment is an alliance of 60 UK firms which are committed to tackling social mobility and providing work experience for secondary school children who meet the criteria.

Brodies has welcomed more than 160 pupils through PRIME. “We’re keen that more students are presented with these opportunities, particularly in areas considered to be ‘cold spots’, so we’ve been actively championing the initiative to both schools and firms across the country to become involved,” says the firm’s HR director Kirstie Maclennan.

Sarah Phillips, a corporate and finance partner at law firm Burness Paull, agrees that the initiative is breaking barriers.

She says: “A lot of these children don’t know what they want to do when they grow up, but if they decide they do want a career in a law firm they will remember us because we haven’t given them just a two-week experience, we have kept in touch and supported them throughout. That is probably the most important bit.”

The Law Society of Scotland’s Profile on the Profession report, published last December, found that 85 per cent of paralegals, trainees and solicitors identified their ethnic groups as Scottish white, while less than

1 per cent identified as Chinese, ­Indian, Black or Asian.

Rupa Mooker, human resources director at ­MacRoberts, has concerns over the lack of BAME graduates applying for positions at the big firms.

Through events and work with industry group the Scottish Ethnic Minorities Lawyers’ Association, Mooker found that a lack of representation is having an impact on graduates’ confidence.

She says: “People attach a lot of importance to having legal experience in order to work at a law firm and that puts a lot of people off because they think they don’t have the contacts.

“When we dug a bit deeper it was coming down to people saying, ‘We don’t hear or see the people who come from our backgrounds working there, so it makes us question why [we would try to do it]’.

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the legal experience because you will have experience. If you are helping out with accounts or are up at 7am to help with the business, that is all positive work-life ­experience that law firms are ­looking for.”

There are also positive signs for those changing careers or returning to work after a break.

The Law Society of Scotland also found that older applicants were typically viewed in the same way as their younger counterparts.

The number of those who are ­older with a contract has remained within a few percentage points of young people, suggesting that the market has no intrinsic bias towards LLP diploma trainees straight from school.

Though while there is still much to do to open the profession up to all areas of society, Sarah Phillips believes it is the next generation of legal professionals that are leading change.

She adds: “Those of us who have been in the profession for a long time have taken the view that things are just the way they are, but the younger people coming in are just not accepting that.

“In order to recruit them in the first place, and then keep them within our teams, the firms have had to take a number of steps to ensure these improvements are in place.”

This article first appeared in The Scotsman’s Scottish Legal Review 2019. A digital version can be found here.