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Oxbridge still dominates leading UK law firms' partnerships

Posted by: Laurence Simons 12/04/16

- Research from Laurence Simons finds 44% of partners at Magic and Silver Circle law firms attended Oxbridge

- A further 34% attended one of the 22 other Russell Group universities

- Bristol, Nottingham, Kings College London and Durham among the other universities best represented at partner level

- Legal industry remains unconvinced that apprenticeships will improve social mobility

A significant 44% of partners at Magic and Silver Circle law firms in the UK studied at Oxford or Cambridge universities, according to our latest research.

The research, conducted on the backgrounds of over 1,100 partners, also found that Oxford is slightly more represented than Cambridge among top law firm partners, with 24% studying at Oxford and 20% at Cambridge.

One in three partners at top firms (34%) attended one of the 22 other elite Russell Group universities and just 22% attended a university outside of the Russell Group.

Just 1.8% of the UK’s student population of 2,266,075 study at the universities of Oxford or Cambridge1. The fact that graduates of these two universities produce more than two-fifths of Magic and Silver Circle firm partners demonstrates the extent to which they dominate the law graduate jobs in leading London based law firms.

While this does not reveal an inherent bias, Oxford and Cambridge universities are still in the process of improving social mobility at their institutions. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission annual report, published at the end of last year, was highly critical of Oxford and Cambridge universities for their failure to increase the number of state school pupils studying at Oxbridge colleges. Therefore the risk is that the Magic and Silver Circle firms, in taking high numbers of Oxbridge graduates, do not have a diverse workforce at the highest levels. Diversity and input from people with a variety of perspectives is crucial for a business to innovate and adapt in a fast-moving environment.

Fig 1. Partners at Magic and Silver Circle law firms by university type attended

Andrew Wintle, Principal Consultant at Laurence Simons, commented: “The tremendous quality of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge is rightly a source of national pride in the UK, but they are still criticised for failing to select their students from a diverse talent pool and, with many partners at Magic and Silver Circle firms educated at these institutions, the concern is that the top levels of leadership may fail to reflect the diversity of the UK population.

Organisational diversity is crucial as it allows firms to adapt and change in a fast-paced environment and also to grow and prosper. The legal industry is taking on a number of challenges at the moment, including new competition from the Big Four accountancy firms and the need to innovate around complex issues for clients, and the industry must be suitably equipped with an able workforce with lots of fresh ideas to meet the challenge.

Law firms are visibly seeking to improve diversity and it is important to note that solicitors usually take upwards of a decade to reach partner level – meaning that the true effect of diversity programmes on partnership representation may yet be felt.”

The Russell flexes its muscles?

The research also found that a total of 34% of partners at leading city firms attended the remaining 22 Russell Group universities. Among Magic Circle firms, 32% of partners attended the other Russell Group Universities, while 38% of partners at Silver Circle firms did. This means that just 22% of partners at the UK’s leading commercial and city firms attended one of the country’s 95 other universities, or studied overseas.

Within the Russell Group universities, there is significant disparity between how well represented their alumni are among the leaders of the UK Magic and Silver Circle law firms. 44% of all Russell Group-educated partners attended one of just four institutions, consisting of the universities of Bristol (14% attended), King’s College London, Durham and Nottingham (each of which were attended by 10% of Russell Group Partners). At the other end of the scale, the universities of Newcastle, Liverpool, Cardiff, Queen’s Belfast and Queen Mary were each attended by just 1% of partners.

Fig 2. Partners who went to Russell Group Institutions by university attended

Andrew Wintle continued: “The elite Russell Group universities represent over a third of UK partners and the same problem stands here as with Oxbridge, that very bright children from a disadvantaged background can have their chances of a good education, and therefore a successful career, reduced at an early stage. The Russell Group has taken significant strides toward increasing diversity and Business Secretary Sajid Javid’s announcement of a new ‘transparency duty’ in February this year, under which universities will be required to publish admissions and retention data by gender, ethnic background and socio-economic class, is welcome.”

Widening access

In September 2016 the government is introducing a new apprenticeship standard for solicitors, which enables people to sign up to this qualification route straight from school2. However, legal professionals questioned by Laurence Simons did not think this scheme would have the effect of increasing social mobility in law. Just 42% of lawyers believe that legal apprenticeships will result in improved social mobility within law firm jobs. A further 33% were unsure about how effective they would be, and 25% felt that they would do little to boost the prospects of those from less advantaged backgrounds.

Andrew Wintle concluded: “While lawyers remain unconvinced about whether apprenticeships will help achieve greater diversity in law, it is encouraging to see this further initiative which widens the pool from which trainee lawyers are chosen.

People with top grades from the best universities do not always make the best lawyers and they must be equipped with a range of soft-skills in order to practice at the highest levels. The new apprenticeship route will allow A-grade talent to shine, when it might not otherwise have done so.”

Tagged In: Partners, UK
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