How mentoring can help improve diversity in the legal sector

Tuesday, 22nd December 2020

Guest blog by Melanie Chisnall, solicitor at Browne Jacobson LLP and Future Pro-Manchester committee member.


Browne Jacobson’s mentoring scheme, launched in 2016 in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University, was in response to a very specific problem. The scheme aims to prepare students without the advantages of private education, family wealth and access to privileged networks for careers in law through dedicated mentoring provided by the firm’s lawyers and HR team.  The scheme has already seen more than 50 students take on the programme to date with some truly heart-warming feedback from students on how mentoring has made a difference to them.

As with the majority of industries in the UK, the legal sector has traditionally struggled to create a socially diverse workforce, particularly at the upper echelons. Of the 12 Supreme Court judges currently in situ, eight attended either Oxford or Cambridge university – institutions that have historically taken an unrepresentative number of students from privately educated backgrounds.

However, as mindsets change toward greater levels of diversity, the industry has begun to recognise the importance of experience alongside education. As much as academic accomplishment is important, A-level grades can’t accurately portray candidate ability. There are a range of skills required in becoming a good lawyer and this can’t always be demonstrated by examination grades alone. This is particularly why Browne Jacobson took the decision to reduce the minimum entry requirement for training contracts to attract greater diversity among prospective trainees.

Mentoring offers a route for all young aspiring lawyers to better understand the demands and environment of the sector, while providing access to advice and insight from experienced legal professionals. By opening the door to students for work experience, the scheme identifies the difficulties students face without connections to the legal industry to get a foot in the door. This approach builds on the success of the pioneering apprenticeship schemes employed by many of the UK’s leading law firms that have undoubtedly helped improve diversity at entry level.

However, a disproportionate number of the top university graduates still come from private education, meaning that law firms across the UK are left with an unrepresentative set of hires. These barriers to entry often run deeper still – a point emphasised by a 2017 report by social mobility foundation The Sutton Trust entitled ‘The Rules of the Game’. The report, which analyses the UK’s university admissions process, highlighted considerable inequalities in the education system when it came to social background. In particular, disadvantaged students were found to lack the information, advice or guidance they needed during the application process, as well as being more likely to receive lower predicted grades from teachers. Mentoring schemes look to overcome these barriers, providing all students with the tools necessary to progress in selecting and starting their careers.

Browne Jacobson’s mentoring scheme has already received recognition for changing the status quo in the legal sector, with support from Pro-Manchester. The scheme is breaking new ground, being the first time that MMU has partnered with an external law firm in this way.

Its success in the last two years has seen the firm highly commended at the 2017 Manchester Legal Awards, as well as being shortlisted for the 2017 ENEI and UK Social Mobility Awards.

The legal sector is responsible for the fair administration of justice, and consequently has a duty above and beyond that of many sectors to reflect the diverse society it serves. Challenging traditions in the sector is vital to achieving this, starting from the point of entry. Truly tackling social mobility issues requires acknowledgement of the issues at the core of the education system. Mentoring is just one way in which everyone can play a part in levelling the field for the next generation.