If you go to any student forum on the internet, you will quickly come across a common post. Students at GCSE or A Levels concerned that their grades will not be good enough to ensure a future legal career. I remember this part of my life with some fondness. When I was in the last year of my A Levels, I spent a lot of time asking around about whether the Russell Group would ever take anyone who had less than perfect GCSE grades. Once I finally got to a Russell Group university, however, I graduated to worrying about whether top law firms would consider candidates in a different light from those who went to Oxbridge.
It may seem silly in retrospect to think that getting AAA instead of an A*AA would mean your professional doom, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that these grades play a significant role in opening the doors to some of London’s leading firms. A 2019 study by Chambers Student tracked which universities were sending the most lawyers to the top firms and results showed that, for Magic Circle and US firms, almost 80% of associates came from Russell Group universities. This sounds like a large number in itself, but when considering the fact that the group makes up 24 of over 160 universities in the UK, it serves as a damning reminder that grades do talk. But the Russell Group is not uniform in prestige. Oxford University has been the best performing university for training contract recruitment every year between 2010 and 2018. The exception was 2017, when underdog Cambridge University took the top spot.
The natural question that follows from this is whether such skewed results are reasonable. For certain US law firms, thousands of applicants will be vying for a couple dozen places. In this sense, such criteria seem reasonable. A study by The Ladders suggests that recruiters spend six seconds looking at a CV before they decide, and academics provide an easy route for partners to cut down and find ideal candidates. It can be somewhat disheartening for those who take crucial time to make such applications, but when many of the applicants do not have prior working experience, there is not much else on which to make a decision. There is also the element of clients to consider, where some argue that firms that ease up on academic requirements may suffer on the business development side.
On the other hand, law firms have made efforts to even the playing field. Over the last decade, many of London’s top practices have adopted a ‘blind application’ policy, whereby those viewing the applications will not be told which universities the candidates have gone to, or even which type of secondary school. This has allowed for a shift in focus from pure academics to other merits on the candidate’s application, such as answers to questions as well as extra-curricular experience.
Beyond this, many firms do take into consideration mitigating circumstances, especially when candidates are otherwise exceptional. This holistic approach allows candidates who may have very good reasons for their lower grades to make up shortfalls in their application. In a market of employees and employers, it follows that firms with the largest attraction will attract and choose the top talent. By making the approach more holistic, it allows those who are otherwise fantastic candidates to get their foot in the door without necessarily lowering the standards of the people who actually get in.
It is unlikely that there will ever be a point in the future where academics are not considered at all, or that top city firms will not treat universities differently. It can easily be argued that universities will vary in calibre and so this should never be the case (at least for the sake of meritocracy). However, we should not entirely lift the blame from the academic institutions themselves, who still have some work to do to make up for the lack of diversity and inclusion on their own courses. The problem is a systemic one on both sides, and only a concerted effort will make a difference from those who do not go to the top schools or get the best grades.