The importance of social mobility – and why the legal industry needs to change
Associate Angeliki Kotsidou, inspired by a recent interview about social mobility with Sir Peter Lampl (who has given away £50 million of his self-made fortune to help boost social mobility in Britain) describes her own lived experience, and details why she believes the legal industry has to change.
“I went to Durham; which university did you go to?”
His face dropped when I replied, “Bradford”. Irrespective of the fact that the faculty I studied at was excellent and well-regarded amongst linguists, with close links to the United Nations and various other international organisations, conclusions were drawn about me, my social background, the quality of my education and (potentially) the level of my intellect, right there. And that was just one of a series of similar conversations that took place in my first few days at law school.
Our obsession with Oxbridge means we’re missing out on lots of young talent
A recent article in the Daily Telegraph, entitled “Our obsession with Oxbridge means we’re missing out on lots of young talent” resonated with me as it documented the philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl’s take on state school admissions to Oxbridge, and his endeavour to aid social mobility through the Sutton Trust. It made me consider my own journey into a profession that was long dominated by Oxbridge graduates.
Lack of meritocracy
As someone perceived to be an outsider, (I was brought up outside the British secondary education system, in a society where state schools are the norm), this kind of approach, and indeed assessment of my abilities, based purely on the name of the university I went to prior to commencing my law training, felt unusual and incredibly unfair.
Growing up in a country where social stratification is ultimately non-existent and any child can apply to, and graduate from, a good university irrespective of the socioeconomic status of its parents, I find the lack of meritocracy when it comes to applying for certain types of jobs in the UK, quite frankly unacceptable. There is so much discussion and debate about diversifying professions, universities, apprenticeships and certainly there are welcome movements taking place designed to create greater social mobility, but the fact remains that it is happening way too slowly, and the many high-profile discussions do not translate to action: they filter down to buzzwords without substance.
The numbers seem to suggest that state school representation at Oxbridge has increased significantly but we still live in a world – and certainly this has remained true in the legal profession – where an element of elitism, perhaps snobbery is the word, remains sadly all too common.
It is only fair that I point out that Beyond Group is different and in fact looks beyond the traditional criteria of academic qualifications and one’s alma mater. If only others did the same.
The haves and the have-nots
Lampl suggests that the best option is to “bulldoze the whole thing and start again” and part of me agrees with him. We have only to look at the GCSE and A-Level fiasco of the last two academic years: for the privileged, the opportunities are endless. For others, less so. The pandemic has only exaggerated that chasm between the haves and the have-nots, in the education system and beyond.
Any changes to that education system to level up accessibility have ground away very slowly; it’s hard to resist the conclusion this is because the political elite largely have their roots in privilege themselves.
As a parent in a grammar-heavy county, I have agonising decisions to make regarding my son’s education and the possible outcomes and opportunities afforded to him, which may be largely dependent on which school he attends. Through my own experience, I know anything is possible if you work hard enough for it but what has been the cost of my own success?
What are we doing for future generations?
Lampl encourages us to ask ourselves: what we are doing philanthropically? Are we busy building our nest eggs for our own future generations, or are we enabling social mobility in every aspect of life? Does it matter? It should. We would all be better off in a society where it’s effort and application that counts, not the lottery of which family you’re born into.
Addressing the question of privilege
Privilege is a serious issue to be addressed urgently, one that should not be allowed to affect your opportunities to develop and progress – and nor should the colour of your skin, or your gender.
From a business perspective, it’s in everyone’s interests that the best people – those defined by their enthusiasm, passion and application rather than background – be appointed to the best positions. And it is up to each individual business owner to make a difference and let go of age-old prejudices, giving opportunities to those who are passionate and worthy, irrespective of their background.
It is encouraging to see that those in the law are beginning to embrace diversification when it comes to recruitment, not looking at academic performance per se but instead a much wider menu of attributes.
The legal profession, long dominated by straight white males, is – thankfully – changing, but to my mind, not fast enough. According to the Law Society, women have represented more than 60% of entrants into the solicitor profession since 1990. Yet while more than half of practising solicitors are female, women account for only 30% of partners in private practice. But still, there is more transparency now, with gender pay gap reporting and a drive towards more inclusive recruitment.
Here at Beyond Group alternative routes to qualifying as a solicitor are actively promoted, which widens the routes into the legal profession. It’s no coincidence that we act only for entrepreneurs and their businesses, those who are ahead of the game when it comes to looking forward, and to what is possible, refusing to accept the “it’s always been done this way” attitude. To succeed in life you have to be bold: our firm, and our clients, ignore those old-fashioned boundaries which do so much damage to the ambitions of everyone. And through the charities we support, such as HideOut Zone, we get the chance to speak to youngsters and instil into them the belief that they can achieve anything, regardless of their background. Other law firms should take note.
The article finishes poignantly with the statement “Education is the building block of everything”. I would struggle to find anyone who disagrees with this. However, our current education system is in dire need of reform if we want to see real change. An antiquated, hierarchal, selective system no longer serves the needs of a modern, democratic nation.
Ultimately, we all have our role to play to make things right and to step up to our responsibilities: none of us should be happy until we/our children/our young people have equality of opportunity. It shouldn’t matter whether someone went to Oxbridge, or indeed even to university for that matter. Let’s face it: a university degree confers no absolute guarantee of intellect or transferable skills, nor does it demonstrate the passion essential in order to succeed.