The legal profession has historically had a bit of an issue when it comes to diversity. It’s not just a lazy stereotype that law can be something of a privileged bubble: the numbers bear it out. Research* shows that 21% of lawyers attended fee-paying schools, triple the proportion of the wider population, and this gap widens with the size of the firm: in those with 50+ partners over 30% of lawyers attended private school.
The overall figures are more promising when it comes to ethnic diversity (the proportion of BAME lawyers is 21%, for example, in a general workforce which is 13% BAME) but less so when looking at partners in firms of different sizes. Both black and Asian lawyers are significantly underrepresented in mid-to-large size firms, and the largest have the lowest proportion of BAME partners – only 8%.
Taking the initiative: driving social mobility
The good news is that diversity is improving in the sector, and firms like Dentons recognise that things need to change. Its work with the Social Mobility Business Partnership, for instance, provides school-aged students with access to the legal profession and support to develop their career aspirations. As well as developing commercial awareness and hands-on skills, this helps break down some of the psychological ‘fitting in’ barriers students may experience when entering the world of business, by giving them the chance to experience different working environments and meet professionals.
The firm is also a founding member of Aspiring Solicitors – set up to increase diversity in the legal profession by providing increased access – and a member of Prime, a collaboration of law firms committed to providing access to work experience in law firms for school-aged students from backgrounds that are under-represented in the profession. The six-year Solicitor Apprenticeship Programme for school leavers is a big part of this too, offering an alternative route to becoming a qualified solicitor via the costly traditional university path.
Breaking down the ‘fitting in’ barriers
Jacob Reilly is one of these apprentices. Now five years into his programme at Dentons, he has experienced first-hand how there’s no better way to break down those ‘fitting in’ barriers than being in the thick of the action. “Adjusting to office life is a difficult transition,” he says, honestly. “You need to develop the social skills to work alongside colleagues in an effective manner quickly. Working alongside professionals was a new and unfamiliar experience for me. It took time to adjust to the new codes and manners I would have to work with.
“The apprenticeship scheme is not the same as school. It is bona fide work and there are times where it can even be unenjoyable - dealing with long hours or particularly troublesome tasks. These are just hurdles to overcome, however, and the right attitude can take you a long way.”
The programme really is “bona fide”: it combines eight seats of work-based learning in Dentons’ London office and part-time study with BPP University. The firm looks for a minimum of ABB at A-Level but also the right attitude, assessed via application forms and tests as well as interviews.
It’s also important to note, however, that the Dentons recruitment team considers every application form that is submitted, particularly in light of the impact of Covid-19 on A-level grades, and so applicants are encouraged to apply for the programme even if they haven’t met this minimum grade benchmark, if they feel they can submit a strong application.
Apprentices should have a global outlook, drive and ambition, not to mention commercial awareness, collaboration skills, innovation and enthusiasm.
Experience & enthusiasm, not elitism
“What I think was key to standing out as a candidate was demonstrating how much I learned from my gap year,” says another solicitor apprentice, Ameena Ahmed, just a couple of months into her programme at Dentons. Ameena did an internship with a fintech company after her A-levels. Like many apprentices – but unlike 30% of lawyers in larger UK law firms – she did not attend a fee-paying school for A-levels, instead letting her enthusiasm and experience shine in her application to Dentons.
“This job helped me build up experience of office life, manage my own projects, and gain so many transferable skills, even though it was non-law related. I learned a lot from working alongside some brilliant people! The experience I gained set me up for success and went a long way in terms of boosting my confidence. I would definitely recommend looking for any sort of work experience, even if it is volunteering.”
Another solicitor apprentice at Dentons, Harith Ahmed – just one year into his programme – agrees that hands-on skills are vital to succeed in the role: “One skill that is essential, for example, is being able to communicate clearly and effectively, which will be useful in your application, your interview, and generally throughout your career.
“Another skill that is essential for being a successful solicitor apprentice, or a solicitor in general, is being able to manage your time effectively. You may be able to demonstrate this simply by ensuring your application is submitted well within the deadline and planning ahead if you need to travel to an interview so that you arrive on time.”
For Harith, going from an East London academy to a law firm, the most interesting part of the apprenticeship has been engaging with clients and really getting to grips with how the organisation works. “This is something I would not get the opportunity to do until at least after my university degree if I chose to go the 'traditional' path of becoming a solicitor,” he says.
Equal access to exciting opportunities
Jacob highlights the vast variety of specialist experience the apprenticeship programme offers as being one of its most valuable elements. “I have spent time in a number of departments covering a huge swathe of commercial law. I have worked, just for a taste, on large government contracts, multi-billion-pound banking facilities and collective proceeding litigations,” he explains.
“There are many exciting opportunities to involve yourself in meaningful work, where you feel you are having a big impact on the world. The breadth of legal activity within Dentons also means that those looking for something more niche can also find enjoyable work.”
Building a professional network
As well as the professional experience, Dentons’ apprenticeship also offers people from all walks of life the chance to meet and form working relationships with other legal professionals. “For me, personally, it has been the people I have had the pleasure to work alongside,” Jacob says, when asked about the part of the programme he’s enjoyed the most.
“The apprentices are a genuinely fantastic bunch of people and we have all gotten along very well. My colleagues in every department I’ve been in have been both helpful and, often, inspirational. I considered myself incredibly lucky when I was originally offered the apprenticeship.”
Harith talks about lunches and social events with other apprentices, all part and parcel of being a bonded team, and is keen to do more of this in the future. “With restrictions easing and people becoming more comfortable seeing each other face-to-face, hopefully we can organise apprentice-only social events more often,” he says.
A game-changing programme
For Ameena, the programme has been a game-changer. “At first, I chose to pursue a solicitor apprenticeship because, to be honest, I did not want the debt from university and law school,” she admits. “Once I began to research further into the role, I realised it is a good career path for me – earning while learning and working, what more could you ask for?
To out more about Solicitor Apprenticeships at Dentons, check out the Dentons apprenticeships website.
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