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Challenging the Oxbridge Recruitment Bias

Cailyn Cox

Curtis Garbutt/Flickr

Could changing attitudes in the legal industry brighten the future for students not from the very top universities?

For law graduates, finding useful experience in the workforce is a major hurdle to overcome after graduating, especially from a less prestigious university.

In the commercial law business in the United Kingdom, it is traditionally very hard for graduates from a university outside of the Russell Group to land a good job, and the situation isn’t changing much for the better of the “others”.

Top students, not top universities

With evidence in the US showing that students from the top of their classes make the most successful lawyers, and not only those that hail from top universities, it seems certain that law firms could do better by expanding their recruitment horizons.

It may also improve the outlook for a few graduate job-seekers and motivate potentially brilliant lawyers to make their application to the firm of their choice. Consequently, law firms throughout the UK have been pledging to change their intake procedures to benefit those candidates who may come from less privileged backgrounds.

However, according to research from Legal Week, progress is slow. From 2010 to 2013 the percentages of legal trainee recruits from overseas universities increased from four to six percent, recruits from Russell Group universities (excluding Oxbridge) went from 55 to 56 percent, and Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge) decreased from 24 to 23 percent. Recruits from “other” UK universities decreased from 17 to 15 percent.

Although the figures are based on incomplete data, they show that universities in the UK have changed marginally in their percentage contributions to new legal recruits, and while overseas universities’ contributions are low, the percentages recruited from them have risen significantly.

CV blindness

James Doyle, a graduate recruitment partner at Hogan Lovells, claims that diversity initiatives are having an impact: "At the law firm level there's a real focus on social mobility,” he says. “The people we recruit do come from a variety of different backgrounds, and I think that's quite important."

Clifford Chance introduced measures in 2013 to counter the bias towards Oxbridge students in its recruitment process. In the final interview, the partner conducting the interview is not notified of the university the candidate attended.

Some have noted that bias may still exist in the earlier stages of recruitment, but so far the measures seem to have contributed to large changes in the composition of graduate trainees.

The Independent reported that, "In its first year of operation, the scheme has seen its annual intake of 100 graduate trainees come from 41 different education institutions – a rise of nearly 30 per cent on the number represented in the previous year under the old recruitment system."

Unfortunately, Allen & Overy (A&O), along with the rest of the Magic Circle firms, seem to have a different opinion on implementing “Oxbridge bias” countermeasures into its recruitment process.

A&O's senior graduate recruitment manager Sarah Cockburn said, “We won’t be implementing blind CV interviewing. We regularly conduct analysis of our application process and we do not see any bias at all in our selection process at any point.”

However, Kirstie Kelly, director of LaunchPad Recruits says the company is seeing a general shift in the recruitment industry when it comes to selecting candidates: "We are starting to see an increasing number of our professional services and law sector customers really starting to challenge the status quo and changing the previously rigid application pre-requisites.

"The net result has been shown with a widening range of applicants from a breadth of backgrounds, but those who meet their culture fit criteria. Of course, they need rigour around testing these capabilities, and many are incorporating the new thinking around Strengths Based Video Interviewing (via CAPP-eu.co.uk) as a way of validating candidates - beyond Oxbridge."

PRIME: Changing Focus

PRIME is an initiative launched in 2011 by 22 founding members including law firms and legal departments. According to the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), the program provides, “fair and equal access to quality work experience in the legal profession for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

From just 22 founding firms in 2011 to 80 today, the initiative carries no obligation for firms to make job offers to those who are selected for work experience, but simply aims to “broaden access to the legal profession.”

Oxford University's Faculty of Law is even looking at becoming a member of PRIME, providing validity to claims that there will be an advantage in law students from diverse economic backgrounds. Maureen O'Neill, the faculty's director of development, says, “We are absolutely elitist in wanting the very brightest students to come, but we don't care about their background or income."

“Adapt or Die”

Although “adapt or die” has become an adage to live by for many companies following the financial meltdown of 2008, many companies still remain steadfast in their old ways, not knowing how they may potentially be slowly suffocating themselves.

While the calls to broaden the scope of law firms’ recruitment searches are in general accordance with the UK’s policies of equality and justice, they are in all likelihood in the legal practice’s best interests too.

Cailyn Cox

Cailyn Cox is a freelance writer who is attempting to conquer the literary world one step at a time. We live in a hi-tech era, so it pays to know something about it, literally! L&T has helped her to become brand aware and write compelling and engaging social content.