Raphael Mokades explains how larger firms are able to recruit a more diverse range of applicants and gives some practical advice that will help small, medium sized and regional firms to do the same


City firms have made a lot of noise about – and had quite a lot of success in – recruiting ethnic minority trainees. Problems such as the disproportionate attrition of ethnic minority lawyers remain but, in terms of recruiting, things have improved. Several large City firms routinely boast trainee classes that are 30–50% ethnic minority, and 10% Black. This is what success looks like.

Achieving diversity

Larger firms have two big advantages over smaller regional firms when it comes to ethnic minority representation. First, they are typically based in diverse cities and, second, they recruit at scale.

The first point is obvious. The demographics of, say, Exeter, differ from Birmingham (7% ethnic minority versus 51%, since you asked). If there are fewer people from ethnic minorities near your office, and since it is harder to persuade people to move to an area where there might not be many people like them, achieving ethnic diversity is far tougher.

The second point is less obvious but bears exploring. It’s partly about probabilities and partly about possibilities. In terms of probabilities, if I recruit 12 trainees in Exeter, and Exeter is 7% ethnic minority, then because 7% is approximately one in twelve, that pool might only have a single ethnic minority candidate and a firm might conceivably end up with an all-white trainee class. Whereas if I am recruiting 50 people in Birmingham, and half the pool of candidates are from ethnic minorities, the chance that none of the top 50 will be from an ethnic minority group is essentially nil.

The minute you have small numbers – six candidates in Plymouth, four in Bath, eight in Bristol – each individual process can be legitimate but still end up without ethnic diversity. People realise this and processes that produce that kind of outcome get reformed pretty swiftly.

Now, onto possibilities. If I am running a highly profitable firm in London and taking 100 trainees a year, I can develop a pipeline of talent from secondary schools and first-year universities and be confident that at least some of them will end up joining my firm. If I am recruiting six trainees in Plymouth, I don’t have the scale to do that, because I’ll have to work with fewer students, and when you only back a couple of horses and they fall, you end up with nothing. You need more candidates but you may not have the resources to work intensively with 60 schoolchildren.

What you can do

  1. Commit. As a leader, decide this matters and then show your commitment.
  2. Talk about race. Say why it matters, where you are and where you want to get to. Our Race Fairness Commitment is free, signed by dozens of firms, and provides a roadmap for success.
  3. Be realistic. Look up your local population (via Google if necessary) and make your goals realistic. As noted, in Exeter I would be aiming for 7%.
  4. Set some targets. Targets must reflect ambition and not a quota. You can only meet that target by improving outreach and processes and not by dropping standards.
  5. Build your pipeline. Market to people from the groups which are underrepresented and widen your applicant pool. If you can’t organise your own outreach there are tech platforms like Vantage (tinyurl.com/mvhbsmzx) that can help smaller firms reach students at lots of schools and universities. 
  6. Develop that pipeline. You can work with students to raise aspirations, teach skills and to build your brand. That’s how you get a pipeline of local diverse talent. If you cannot afford to do this on your own, consider whether a group of local firms might come together to run a development programme for young people. There are lots of organisations that can help deliver something like this, inwcluding Aspiring Solicitors, SEO and the Social Mobility Foundation, as well as Rare recruitment.
  7. Use contextual recruitment. Models like contextual recruitment ensure that you have the fullest possible data on people applying to your firm – there’s an interplay between ethnicity and class which means that ethnic minority candidates are more likely to lack cultural and social capital. Traditional CV-based recruitment adversely affects these candidates while contextual recruitment levels the playing field.
  8. Be guided by data. Make sure you capture applicant data on ethnicity and are on top of it throughout your process. Candid – our applicant tracking system – gives you this in real time. If you see adverse impact, intervene. Train your interviewers, review notes from assessment centres, and stay on the data. Once you see no adverse impact, and you’ve got your applicant pool where you want it, a diverse cohort will follow.