Are legal mentoring programmes actually successful in promoting diversity?

Increasing diversity in the legal profession

Firstly, diversity means understanding that each individual is unique. This can be along the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs and/or other ideologies. The individuals within these groups are considered diverse because with individual differences come new approaches, varying attitudes and alternative knowledge. Many mentoring schemes recognise the importance of diversity within the legal profession. We’ve all heard of them – Aspiring Solicitors, Rare, GROW and STRIVE.

Rightfully, many students swear by these mentoring schemes. They provide free access, opportunity and assistance to students from underrepresented groups with the aim of increasing diversity in the legal profession. Their success is evident: since 2014 over 1600+ training contracts and vacation schemes have been offered to Aspiring Solicitors’ diverse members. Also, GROW has paired over 400 mentees to individual mentors from a wide range of firms or chambers just through their platform that was launched at the start of Covid-19. We have seen firms increase their recruitment pool so as to attract good calibre candidates from all backgrounds, as a result of adopting Rare’s contextual recruitment system. These mentoring schemes are challenging the status quo. Candidates who have felt like minorities during every stage of their journey are supported. Unconventional backgrounds are disregarded and instead, potential is prioritised.

So, what’s the problem?

After conducting a quick survey 21/25 aspiring lawyers from state-schooled backgrounds were unaware they even existed in the first year of their undergraduate degree. This is unfortunate, as all these mentoring schemes have services specifically designed for first years. These include scholarships, introductory career programmes with top international firms, legal work experience and networking events. There are even programmes available for A-level students including insights, workshops and ongoing coaching. Successful applicants are distinguished from their peers having got their foot in the door and built valuable relationships with employees from the best law firms.

Great, now my peers are ahead of the game and I’m still searching down avenues and seeking opportunities myself. Hence, the issue lies with the unfamiliarity of such schemes for state-schooled students. Imagine having gained this exposure at such an early stage. Imagine entering into university not feeling clueless. Imagine already having legal work experience on your CV. Unrelatable. Yet, these programmes are designed for me and you; state-schooled students are one of the diverse groups which mentoring schemes aim to encourage in the legal profession. To this extent, it is questionable whether they are successful in promoting diversity, if eligible candidates are unaware of their existence and consequently missing out.

Barriers because of A-level grades

Members of mentoring schemes are only eligible for most of their events if they have achieved at least ABB at A-level. However, many aspiring lawyers who have achieved lower than this would significantly benefit from greater access to the services offered, in order to demonstrate that grades do not define one’s self. Law firms want O-shaped lawyers; we are continuously told that academia alone is insufficient. How can diverse students believe this, if minimum A-level requirements are presenting further barriers to reaching their goals? It just widens the gap and makes them feel even less capable. I remember joining Aspiring Solicitors, having heard testimonies from successful applicants on how they wouldn’t have got to where they are without Aspiring Solicitors. I wanted this same level of support. I was amazed upon discovering their various programmes, but I soon felt disheartened after checking several and realising that I wasn’t eligible. Of course, in such a competitive market it makes business sense to take on high achievers.

However, true diversity should not be watered down by business sense. You shouldn’t have to fit that classic profile to get help with your applications. Mentoring schemes recognise this and claim to go beyond tick-boxing by considering the whole picture. If this is the case, it seems counter-productive to make only ABB+ candidates feel eligible. This is of increasing concern given the recent A-level grading chaos over the summer. Strong candidates should not be held back by grades they got a few years ago. I have heard numerous success stories of candidates who attained BBB or lower at A Level and have gone onto achieve high 2:1 and first-class degrees! These are diverse students, who are prevented from accessing opportunities.

We have tonnes of potential; if mentoring schemes aren’t going to believe in us, then who will?

Benesha Benny

Benesha is a second-year law student at Lancaster University. She is passionate about breaking down barriers and tackling systematic disadvantage, so as to encourage diversity within the legal profession. Benesha strongly believes that our differences should be celebrated and not presented with hurdles. As the Senior Editor and content writer for Legal Diversity, she will address serious issues with the aim of advocating change.

Benesha Benny