Skip to content

Can social background still be a barrier to progression in the legal profession?

Related people
Jo Dooley

Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion


View profile →

Charnock Nathan
Nathan Charnock

Senior Associate


View profile →

Turnbull Emma
Emma Turnbull

Community Investment Manager


View profile →

31 October 2019

Members of A&O’s Social Mobility Working Group talk openly about their personal experiences and why social background is still an issue.

Earlier this month, the latest Social Mobility Employer Index was published, showing A&O moving up over 40 places in the past year. The firm is now ranked 32 out of 125 top companies working to improve social mobility.

The Index, compiled by the Social Mobility Foundation, looks at the actions employers are taking across areas such as working with young people and recruitment, to benchmark which companies are doing the most to ensure access and progression for people from all backgrounds.

A&O achieved top grading for its work with young people through programmes like A&O Accelerate, a new graduate recruitment scheme, as well as Smart Start and Smarter Futures, both of which target students from low socio-economic backgrounds. The Foundation also praised the work of A&O’s Social Mobility Working Group in having an action plan focused on the key areas of recruitment, progression and culture.

Launched two years ago, A&O’s Social Mobility Working Group brings together the diversity and inclusion, graduate recruitment and pro bono and community investment teams – plus others with a personal interest in the subject – to join up the firm’s thinking, generate ideas and track progress.

Here, Jo Dooley, head of diversity and inclusion, interviews Mark Mansell, partner and co-head of corporate responsibility; Nathan Charnock, associate; and Emma Turnbull, pro bono and community investment officer, about their motivation in setting up the group and why social background is still a subject businesses find it hard to talk openly about.

Jo: First of all, tell us why social mobility is important to you personally?

Mark: I believe strongly that people should be chosen for how good they are and the qualities they bring to an organisation. When I started out in law I was like a fish out of water – I had a different upbringing to most people and found it really difficult to show what I was capable of. I did my Articles at another firm, wasn’t kept on, didn’t want to stay on, and thought to myself, ‘well, that’s it, law was a nice idea but not for me’. People around me had a kind of polish that privilege gives you, and if you don’t have that you can feel pretty different.

I only came back to law a few years later – I joined A&O with a good degree of trepidation but luckily had a completely different experience. So I want everyone who comes here to be able to shine and not have to worry about whether they fit in.

Nathan: I grew up in a small village in North-West England and was the first in my family to go to university, so the world of law was completely alien to me. I was lucky that, at 16, a teacher referred me to Pathways to Law (a social mobility programme), which gave me work experience, trips to the Inns of Court in London and help with university applications. Without that referral, I could have gone in a very different direction – many of my peers did.

When you come from a working-class background, you question at every stage whether a professional career is for you – whether people will judge you for how you sound or look. But at each stage you also become more ambitious as you're given more opportunities to improve your own life prospects. Back then, becoming a lawyer in a local firm would have been a great achievement for me, but I went on to study at the University of Manchester and got an insight into the broader legal profession. I knew I had to grasp any opportunities I could because they’d be few and far between. I want to make sure more of those opportunities are there for other young people.

Jo: What were your first experiences of A&O like?

Nathan: When I did the vacation scheme here, I was quite overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place but I really felt part of something exciting. People were passionate about their work and providing a great service for their clients, and possibly that’s what I hadn’t seen before. My parents always worked hard to make ends meet, but to see people working late on these complex matters while still appearing to enjoy what they were doing – I found that fascinating.

Before I arrived, I was very conscious of what to wear, how to talk to people. It took a little while to find my way, but people were very welcoming and made time to listen to me and give advice – that’s the reason I chose A&O over anywhere else.

Jo: Coming from the North-East, I remember early on in my career working consciously to drop my accent. How do you feel about yours?

Nathan: My accent is a little all over the place! It’s very diluted now so I get a lot of stick from friends and family back home. I was definitely conscious of it at the start – even just pronouncing my name clearly so I didn’t have to repeat myself.

Mark: You’d still know I’m from Essex, I think, but I do remember early on correcting the way I spoke. I found it weird though – it didn’t sound like my own voice.

Jo: Emma, in your role you spend more time than most working on social mobility. Why?

Emma: I started as a PA at A&O when I was 17 – the same age a Smart Start student comes here. My parents left school at 15, so their advice was always, ‘work really hard and do better than me and your Mum’. Back then there were no social mobility programmes like there are today, so I’m really passionate that young people now get access to these opportunities and can go on and achieve fantastic things – in part because I didn’t have those options, but also because I know how much talent is out there.

I’ve spent my whole career here – in a way A&O has been my university. I’m lucky that I was surrounded by people who took an interest in me and encouraged me to go further. When I first moved into the pro bono and community investment team, I’d be ushered into a room to do a presentation or lead a meeting – 16 years on, I’m so glad I did. I know how much people can gain from that kind of mentoring and support.

Jo: Why do we need the Social Mobility Working Group at A&O?

Mark: We’re more unequal as a society now than we’ve ever been. The reasons we need programmes like Smart Start and A&O Accelerate is because it’s harder for people from certain social groups to do well than when I was a young lawyer. We have to address that.

Different teams in A&O are doing this, but it can be hard in a big business like ours to make the mark you want. We’ll achieve far more by working together to influence people, bring forward plans, develop ideas to take back to our teams. And it’s important to show partner support, not only from me, but from David Campbell and Vimal Tilakapala who are also in the working group.

Emma: I definitely agree there’s more impact in collaboration than in trying to do things on your own. I also think it’s important that people like Nathan and Jo (Hughes - Senior PSL/Alumni Manager), who don’t do this as their day job, can bring their own experiences to the group. Listening to individuals’ personal experiences is very powerful.

Jo: It makes the issue more real – do you think it also provides a challenge to the business from a different perspective?

Nathan: It does, yes, and that links to an important point about awareness. As a group, we need to promote a better understanding of the challenges social background can create. If people see obstacles to fitting in within this environment, they should know how to make us aware so that we can do something about it. We want people to feel welcome, we want them to get on, enjoy working here and to really knock down some of those barriers.

Jo: There’s a debate about the impact of micro behaviours – those small actions, usually not intended to cause offence, but that can leave people feeling excluded. My example goes back to accents – even today, if somebody mimics my accent it takes me right back to being that under-confident girl in a new city and working environment, a world away from the one I grew up in. How do we make people understand what these sorts of behaviours are, and the impact they can have?

Mark: The first thing needs to be education. Most people don’t set out to make a colleague feel uncomfortable – it happens because they don’t realise or understand – so we need to be more aware of our own behaviours.

The second thing is the realisation that not everybody is like you. Sometimes it’s obvious – if someone is a different gender or ethnic group – but with social background it isn’t, so people can make assumptions that leave you feeling uncomfortable.

Nathan: I agree – once you’ve settled into a team, people quickly see you as that young professional living in the city. Sometimes people have conversations with you and assume you must be the kind of person who goes sailing at the weekend or on an annual ski trip – I’ve never done either of those things! When I started as a trainee I didn’t know how to join in those conversations so I’d try to avoid them. Even now, people often don’t realise that my current way of life is still new to me. And then I go back home and start not to fit in there either! I’m conscious that others joining the firm may be in the same position as I was, so it’s important that we’re all aware of the challenges people can face when they enter this environment for the first time.

Jo: How do we go about making progress across key areas like recruitment, progression and culture?

Mark: In a sense the most straightforward one is recruitment. We’ve made good progress in graduate recruitment and with our Lawyer of the Future framework, which helps to take bias out of the recruitment process by assessing candidates’ future potential rather than past experience. Working on progression and culture take longer, though, so that’s where we need to focus more.

Emma: Collecting better data about people’s social background – which we’re now starting to do – will really help us get a clearer picture across our business, so that we can understand where there may be barriers to progression and how to take action.

Mark: We need to look at the language around progression, too – we say we want people who are ‘confident, outgoing, good self-promoters’ – but these are things you can only demonstrate when you feel comfortable in your environment. We also need to make sure the path to partnership is transparent enough for everyone to visualise – if no one in your family or network has ever gone down that path, it’s harder to know whether it’s something you want or can achieve.

Nathan: I think this starts at a junior level – for example, we’re assessed on our contribution to things like business development, which to some juniors comes naturally because they've already got contacts, maybe from school or university, so have a network they can immediately draw on. For others, it takes a bit more work and training. It’s important we factor that in and make sure training continues to be available.

Jo: We want people from different social backgrounds to feel they belong in this environment, yet as soon as they enter a law firm they’re trying to adapt and change. Diversity is about celebrating and encouraging differences, but with social background people are often working to make the difference less visible. How do we create a culture where people don’t feel they have to change to fit in?

Mark: I really believe we have a great culture at A&O, but we could all think about how we can be more inclusive. It’s about everyday actions – if we see somebody who’s finding things harder, maybe because of their background, we should be willing to put ourselves out to support that person.

Nathan: I don’t think there is one perfect fix. Collecting data about people’s backgrounds will help because the better picture we have of our organisation – particularly in relation to retention and progression – the more we can understand where there may be issues. That will also help us to improve our education and awareness. Social background is still a hidden barrier in many ways, which makes it harder for people to understand.

Jo: So why don’t we have a network for social mobility, to increase visibility in the same way we do for, say, race and ethnicity?

Nathan: I think people find it difficult to say ‘I’m from a working class background’. Some people don’t want to celebrate that necessarily.

Mark: I think it’s also harder to define – what kinds of backgrounds are we talking about exactly? What about people who’ve come from outside the UK and aren’t necessarily working-class, but also don’t feel they have the cultural capital to fit in? Social background is probably the only area of diversity that people can and do change – so what would the message from the network be – ‘don’t change’? We all change in lots of ways as we grow up, the point is we need a culture where people shouldn't feel they have to change. 

I also think as we continue to make progress with other aspects of diversity – LGBT+, gender, race – it becomes easier to see that, you know what, I’ll be accepted for who I am.

Nathan: I think education and awareness – through conversations like this – are really important; so is making sure our recruitment processes don’t unfairly advantage those from certain backgrounds. We have to take these steps in unison to make sure that people from disadvantaged backgrounds see more of their peers in these sorts of environments, and are encouraged to stay because they feel this is a culture they can be comfortable in.

Jo: Finally, tell us what advice you’d give your younger self – or anyone starting their career today?

Emma: When I see the young people on Smart Start each year, I want them to feel they can fit in. I say to them, I was your age when I walked through these doors – if you want to, you can succeed somewhere like this too. It shouldn’t be where you were born or your background that determines how well you do in life, but your aptitude and ability.

Mark: I would tell people that failure is not the end. It’s easy to think, ‘I’ve run into a dead-end here’. I certainly felt like that at the end of my training contract. But it’s rarely the end, it’s just a chance to turn to something different.  

Nathan: I’d say, don’t doubt yourself. If you work hard and take those opportunities, your background shouldn’t be a barrier to achieving what you want.