Research conducted by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found that 65 per cent of people believe ‘who you know’ is more important than ‘what you know’. This really struck a chord with me.
I was the first in my family to go to university. My dad left school at 14, and spent over 30 years in the local factory, from the shop floor doing night shifts, working his way up through hard work and a gift for pragmatic problem solving. My mum worked part-time in my school’s tuck shop, helping the children work the till, and helping my popularity through discounted hotdogs – perhaps there will always be some element of “who you know”.
The research goes on to state that three quarters of people think family background has a significant influence on life chances in Britain today. The fact that many able young people I knew never had a chance to widen their horizons attracted me to the first BakerOpportunity meeting as a new partner in 2011.
Where I grew up in Somerset, becoming a lawyer didn’t often come out of the computer-generated service that passed for careers guidance. I think it mentioned “prison warden” once, which I guess has some connection with the law. Going to university was not the norm at my secondary school, which was indebted to the local agricultural college for saving us from bottom of the academic league table. I taught myself maths GCSE from a book in a separate room with two friends as only three of us were going for A-Cs – which on reflection was great prep for later studies. I ignored advice not to be ambitious with my A Levels, and worked hard at my studies, and through numerous holiday or weekend jobs that both helped me fund university, and stuff I’d not really thought about before – travel; skiing for goodness’ sakes; or explaining to my parents that a DJ wasn’t just someone on the radio.
I’ve always loved new experiences and managed to collect quite an eclectic mix of work experience, which included working as a scaffolder at 30 feet up on day one (there was literally no health and safety law in my town); two months at a piston factory with night shifts; several weeks stacking aerosol cans; finding I was actually quite good at tele-selling gym membership to the residents of Swindon; and, as an 18 year old agency worker, offloading 80kg (heavier than me) sacks of imported gum beads off containers dodging palm-sized bugs that arrived with them, plus a short stint working as a bin man – alongside some hard working and quick-witted men who had taken a different path.
This all gave me the chance to work and get on with many different people – unknowingly building a valuable asset for my current job. Are there times when it felt just a little bit harder to get in and fit in in this profession? The honest answer is yes, but it got much easier – and Baker McKenzie’s culture is key to that. To be honest I was already fortunate: a supportive family; frankly better off than my peers; and, by pure chance, falling in with a couple of like-minded friends at secondary school – safety in numbers which, as well as being decent at football, helped deflect the comments from peers that actually doing some homework tended to attract.
But I was lucky. The statistics speak for themselves – in the UK, those from high income backgrounds are far more likely to have high income as adults. The most advantaged 20 per cent of young people are still seven times more likely to attend the most selective universities than the 40 per cent most disadvantaged. A British Social Attitudes survey found that 95 per cent of the public agrees “in a fair society every person should have an equal opportunity to get ahead“. We make no apologies for striving to attract the “best” lawyers and professional business services staff, but the reality is many of the top City professions remain less accessible to talented students from low income families.
So as a Firm, do we have a responsibility to support social mobility? I think we do. I’m proud to be one of the partner sponsors of BakerOpportunity, and I’m proud of the proactive steps the Firm has taken to broaden access to the legal profession. BakerOpportunity has designed, implemented and supported a range of programmes, each of which aim to play a part in levelling the playing field. Among our initiatives are a well established work experience programme specifically aimed at sixth form students from low income families; partnerships with organisations such as the Social Mobility Foundation, Aspiring Solicitors, Pure Potential and Career Ready each of whom aim to raise the aspirations of talented state school students; and a Back to School volunteer day scheme encouraging state educated staff (fee earners, secretarial services and business services staff) to return to their former school. Based on our commitment to supporting social mobility and ensuring better access to the legal profession, we have ranked in the Top 10 each year in the Social Mobility Employers Index.
As a Firm we have made significant strides towards providing an inclusive and diverse environment, where people are able to be themselves regardless of background. We have seized opportunities to collaborate with clients and to develop an external reputation as an employer who “walks the talk” when it comes to diversity. But we need continually reflect on our approach, to commit to pushing boundaries in order to ensure that we seek out, attract and develop all talent. Do we, and other City employers, genuinely offer a level playing field to those wishing to enter the top professions – regardless of connections, schooling or status? Reflecting on my own experience, I did well in a 30 minute interview with graduate recruitment, which in 1998 was enough to get me a summer placement. With the benefit of 3 weeks here, talking football with a couple of senior partners in the partner exit interview came relatively naturally – I felt I could almost be myself. As a member of our graduate recruitment interview panel, I often ask myself whether my CV and confidence/naivety as a pre-Bakers 20 year old would make the cut in today’s more rigorous recruitment / work placement process. This always makes me think there is more to be done.
Arron Slocombe, Partner, Pensions at Baker McKenzie.