PRIME membership rises to 75 as firms push forward on diversity

Weil Gotshal & Manges, Baker & McKenzie, White & Case, Reed Smith and Olswang are among a host of firms signing up to social mobility initiative PRIME, with 75 now committed to the scheme.

The increased tally means PRIME – which is intended to raise the aspirations of students from under-privileged backgrounds by encouraging them to consider careers in the legal sector – has tripled the number of participating law firms since it launched in September last year.

In addition to the five firms mentioned above, other new entrants to PRIME include Weightmans, SJ Berwin, Travers Smith and Sidley Austin.

PRIME – which was launched last September with 23 founding members including all of the magic circle and firms such as CMS Cameron McKenna, Eversheds, DLA Piper, Herbert Smith and Hogan Lovells – sees participating firms commit to providing an annual number of work experience placements equivalent to half their annual trainee intake to disadvantaged children aged between 14-18.

Legal Week reported in January that PRIME had increased its membership to 50 firms including the likes of Simmons & Simmons, Latham & Watkins, Mayer Brown, Taylor Wessing, Squire Sanders, Stephenson Harwood, Irwin Mitchell and Withers.

News of the new recruits to PRIME comes amid attempts by a growing number of law firms to tackle the issue of social mobility in the wake of a 2009 Milburn report on access to the profession, as well as figures from educational charity the Sutton Trust which show that law is the profession with the highest percentage of independently educated members.

Other examples of new initiatives by law firms include a move by Linklaters to team up with the London borough of Islington to find five apprentices for its billing team, print room, HR department, learning & development and IT teams. All of the apprenticeships – which must include a mix of work and training and are intended to help the long-term unemployed back into work – will pay the London living wage of around £15,000 a year.

Linklaters head of diversity Felix Hebblethwaite said: “In Islington there are 3,000 young people between 18-24 out of work, so programmes like this are important. There’s no commitment to a job afterwards but it obviously is some experience for their CV.”

All law firms will soon be required to provide details of their social mobility statistics to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) before the end of this year as part of controversial plans by the Legal Services Board (LSB) to compel law firms to publish details of all their diversity statistics.

The required statistics will cover age, race and gender as well as socio-economic background. The LSB proposals state firms will have to publish details on their websites by the end of this year, although the SRA is yet to confirm implementation details.

A number of law firms have already started compiling details ahead of the deadline, including Linklaters and CMS Cameron McKenna.

Recently-compiled figures from Herbert Smith show that 47% of the firm’s partners went to independent schools, with around half of these securing a scholarship, compared with 35% of associates and 38% of trainees.

The research also found that nearly half of Herbert Smith partners (47%) went to Oxford or Cambridge Universities, compared with 34% of associates and 36% of trainees.

Meanwhile, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has appointed City real estate partner Annette Byron as the firm’s sponsor for social mobility. She will be responsible for overseeing the implementation of all of the firm’s diversity initiatives.

Freshfields senior partner Will Lawes said: “We have a number of programmes in the UK and more widely focused on social mobility, such as the recently announced University College London scholarships and work experience, involvement in the industry’s PRIME initiative and the firm’s longstanding coaching and mentoring programmes at both school and university level.”

For more details of how law firms are tackling social mobility, see this week’s news analysis.