Want diversity in law? Focus on schools

Liberty Martin is the US correspondent and columnist for DiversityQ. She is also a student at Columbia University and has written and produced podcasts for the Financial Times.

Better education for all is the key to improving business diversity. At least, that’s the strongly held belief of Mark Landon, a partner at Weightmans law firm. We called on Mark to give us insight into diversity initiatives in the legal sector, and he honed in on visiting schools to empower pupils from disadvantaged communities, offering more opportunities to young people and highlighting the educational barriers for many in law.

I think it’s fundamental for the success of any sector to ensure that you enable access to as wide a proportion of the population as you can who want to have a career in that particular sector. And obviously, I think there are some barriers for people and some of them are unsurprising, like opportunity. If you can improve everybody’s opportunities to get a really good education then you’re going to improve the diversity of people who actually apply to get into various careers which have a high academic entry level.

Bring the legal sector to schools

I think that the legal sector, like a lot of sectors, need to do more to make as broad a section of the population aware of the opportunity for a career in law. Historically there’s been a track record of those who are family of people who already work in the law getting in. If you haven’t got that connection to many sectors it’s quite hard to find out “Could I do it? What are the opportunities?” The challenge is making people aware and helping those who might not initially believe themselves as being capable of having a career in law through things like communication, mentoring etc.

So, in that vein,  some effective D&I initiatives in law are to go into the schools. It’s good to start from the year before GCSE and onward. I did a careers fair recently for a client school and something that struck me was a number of pupils aimed low compared to their actual capabilities. They were clearly bright, articulate young people and you have to say, “Well, aim high. Of course you can do this.”

 

MARK LANDON, PARTNER AT WEIGHTMANS LAW FIRM Want diversity in law? Focus on schools education opportunity
MARK LANDON, PARTNER AT WEIGHTMANS LAW FIRM

Something that struck me was a number of pupils aimed low compared to their actual capabilities. They were clearly bright, articulate young people and you have to say, “Well, aim high. Of course you can do this.”

Mark Landon, Partner at Weightmans Law Firm

Preparing bright pupils for the workplace

We also run mentoring schemes for young people because it can be as basic as answering questions like, how do I complete a CV, what should I include, how do I go about finding what opportunities there are, if I want to pursue the law what are the various ways of doing it, if I want to go to university what are the good universities? The mentoring scheme enables us to have conversations with young people as a sort of free agent.

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Over the summer we have work experience programs. Some of those we do with clients, for example, we work with Royal Mail and Aspiring Solicitors, an organisation that aims to increase diversity in law, to enable people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get some experience and to come in and spend some time with us.

Challenges with further education

There are different ways in – apprenticeships and the like – but you’re still gonna need good A-Levels and I think that the historical barriers to that are undeniable. One of the things I think law firms are trying to do now is, through organisations like Aspiring Solicitors, give weighting to people whose grades may not be at the normal level to get into university but when you look at the challenges they’ve had, the weighting gives a re-balancing. I think an awful lot of people still face real challenges to get the grades that they need. It’s not challenging through their innate intelligence, it’s challenging through day-to-day getting to school, having an opportunity to study without being distracted and putting in the hours you need to put in.

The imposition of university fees I think puts people off. I’ve spoken to young people in the last couple of weeks and they’ve mentioned that. Bear in mind, if you want to be a lawyer as well as do an undergraduate degree, you have to go to law school and these days that’s either one or two years, and again it’s expensive. That is going to be off-putting to people who actually just don’t want that debt and have challenges in not only meeting the fees but also the cost of living at university.

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