Social Mobility in Law: The State School vs Private School Divide at Top Law Firms

By Josie Curtis

Despite only 7% of the UK population attending private school, this contingent of society is consistently overrepresented in top law firms. It is an inequality many firms are seeking to address through diversity and inclusion initiatives aiming to improve social mobility. But it persists nonetheless, having significant notability within the Magic Circle.

The Magic Circle is the name given to the UK’s five most elite law firms, consisting of Allen and Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields, Linklaters, and Slaughter and May. In their 2019 Diversity Reports (2020 for Allen and Overy), each firm divulged the breakdown in background of its lawyers, partners, and business support staff in their UK offices. The consensus was that far more of these firms’ members attended a fee-paying school than the UK population average. These figures were 25% at Allen and Overy, 23.8% at Clifford Chance, 14.8% at Freshfields, 18% at Linklaters, and 25% at Slaughter and May.

However, the inclusion of “Support Staff” and “Business Services” in each of the firm’s reports reduced the average much lower than if only partners and lawyers were included. For example, a staggering 49.3% of Slaughter and May’s partners attended an independent school, whilst only 11.4% of non-legal employees did. Just 19% of partners and 16% of associates at Linklaters attended a non-selective state school, compared to 46% of “Business Services” employees and 64% of secretaries.

Yet it is not only the Magic Circle that exhibits social mobility problems within the legal field. In 2019, the Sutton Trust found that the profession with the highest proportion of privately educated individuals was Senior Judges at a whopping 65%.

So why is this inequality so profound within law? Clearly, the answer lies within the privilege of privately educated students.

First, exam grades are often far higher in private schools compared to state schools. In 2019, the Independent Schools Council announced that 17.6% of A-Level exam entries from pupils at an independent school were awarded an A*, compared to the national average of 7.8%. Furthermore, 46.4% of entries achieved either an A* or A grade, in comparison to the national average of 25.5%. Resultantly, the privately educated are overrepresented in top, Russell Group universities; at Oxford and Cambridge, they typically comprise between 30 and 40% of the student body. The glittering Oxbridge name on a candidate’s CV then delivers a much greater chance of securing a vacation scheme or training contract at top law firms. Indeed, from 2010-2019, despite less than 1% of each year’s UK graduates hailing from Oxbridge, graduates from the elite duo constituted a huge 15.4% of Magic Circle trainees (Chambers Student Guide).

Beyond exam results, the opportunities and support offered by elite private schools set their students up for top careers and university places. For example, Haberdasher Aske’s School for Girls offers practice university or job interviews with independent, expert interviewers, assistance with university admissions tests and applications, and a specific teacher to support Oxbridge applicants. Badminton School’s Director of Higher Education & Professional Guidance, along with its Pastoral Heads, make initial contact with companies to organise their students’ internships and are even willing to plan students’ travel for them. Whilst at Harrow, previous alumni offer work experience placements and mentoring to current students.

Certainly, both law firms and top universities alike look beyond academia when selecting a preferable candidate. Extra-curricular activities including sport, music, art, or theatre are essential to demonstrate an individual’s ‘well-roundedness’. Again, private schools have the upper hand. At North London Collegiate School, students often work with external performers and lecturers in music, and tour to Venice, New York, and Tuscany to perform. At Westminster School, students are able to work with professional sports coaches, including former athletes at the Olympic Games.

Whilst researching these institutions, I could not help but reflect on my own experiences in education. I went to a very average Scottish state comprehensive, Greenfaulds High School in Cumbernauld. Ranking 123 out of 345 state schools in Scotland in 2020, it wasn’t awful, but it certainly wasn’t the best. The idea that school could have ‘societies’, orchestra pits, and former Olympic athletes as PE coaches seems ludicrous. At my school, extra-curricular activities were never a requirement, we did not have a school newspaper or magazine, and teachers sometimes had to share classrooms because there was not enough space. No-one in my year went to Oxbridge, nor did anyone in the years above, or below, or possibly anyone in the school’s history. When my school had our UCAS evening, the teacher skipped the slide detailing the Oxbridge application process; it was not even a consideration. Of course, a very, very large part of that is due to the school’s location – I doubt many Scottish students would be willing to part with nearly £28k for a university degree they could get for free!

Furthermore, we did not have too much encouragement about work experience. It was compulsory to complete a work experience placement at the beginning of 4th year (when I was 14). This was to be found of our own accord and there was not much information detailing how to obtain one. The only ‘work experience’ the school would organise for us was working in another school or at a building site. As a result, most of my year group either worked with their parents, at a gym, in a shop, or a school or building site, participating in experience not necessarily linked to their desired future career path.

My personal experience trying to find a placement consisted of traipsing around the town center’s shops with a bundle of CVs, struggling to find anywhere that would take me for a week. Being 14, I did not yet have a clear idea of what career path I might pursue, and it got to the point I would do any placement for the sake of having something. I knew I was interested in writing, so I initially contacted Cumbernauld News (our local newspaper branch), but they never replied. Eventually, I managed to find a week’s placement at Dobbies Garden Centre. Although not entirely related to my career ambitions, the experience has proved useful for developing customer service skills that I would go on to utilise in part-time jobs I have had throughout my education.

I am now a third-year student at the University of Edinburgh, studying History. Still uncertain of my career plans when applying for university at 16, I decided to choose a subject I knew I enjoyed. After more research, I have discovered that law is an area I have a strong interest in, as it is an amalgamation of my favourite subjects: history, politics, sociology, international relations, and ethics. Upon my graduation, I plan to undertake either the Accelerated LLB in Scotland, or the Postgraduate Diploma in Law in England.

Many of my peers at University attended private schools; in fact, although 93% of the UK population are state-educated, only 65% of Edinburgh University’s students are. Despite this, out of a year group of well over 200, I won the award for Best Performance in Second Year History for 2019/2020 – one of my proudest achievements. On reflection, I remember I was always taught by my parents that ultimately it doesn’t matter which school an individual goes to; they could have all the help in the world and they may still lack interest in academia. Importantly, it is a person’s drive and willingness to work hard that will enable them to realise their aspirations.

Nevertheless, it can be difficult to compete with the more privileged. If you have been educated at a state school, how can you boost your chances of securing a top training contract?

In recent years, law firms have recognised the need for greater diversity. Along with the publication of their Diversity Reports, the Magic Circle – along with other top firms – are also increasingly offering placements, open days, and workshops specifically for disadvantaged students.

An example of this is Clifford Chance’s ACCESS programme, designed for first-generation university candidates in their penultimate year of a non-selective state school as an initial stepping stone into law. Students attend a four-day work placement in London to gain an insight into life at the firm, whilst developing skills in networking, teamwork, and presentation. Other Magic Circle firms have similar programmes.

In addition, external groups such as Aspiring Solicitors have been established to widen access to the legal profession. They provide access to mock interviews, coaching, mentoring, legal work experience, and scholarships to students from a disadvantaged background. This could include students who: come from a low-income family; are the first generation to attend university; went to a non-selective state school; were formerly in local authority care, amongst other underrepresented groups such as being Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic, or LGBT+. If any of these categories apply to you, Aspiring Solicitors could be a really helpful resource.

It could also be worth looking at whether your university has a 93% Club. This is a student-run society, present in 10 universities across the UK, which aims to connect and inspire state-educated students. Founded at Bristol University in 2016, the society is named after the 93% of the population who attend a state school, but who often represent a far smaller contingent of many universities. Although not directly associated with law, joining the society would be a positive way to upskill in networking, interviews, and in building a professional LinkedIn profile.

With this article, I am not aiming to denigrate privately educated students or suggest their achievements are any less than their state-educated counterparts. I am merely attempting to highlight the ripple effect of privilege that exists in the lives of alumni of independent schools, and how difficult it often is for the less privileged to compete. But it is possible, and with the correct combination of diligence, intellect, and determination, anyone wishing to pursue a career in a top law firm should have the ability to, irrespective of educational background. With regard to social mobility, law firms and universities alike are moving in the right direction, but there is a long way to go before the attainment gap may be closed.