Imagining the pathway and life of a lawyer can call forth thoughts of prestigious universities, sumptuous offices and the deference afforded to the most fortunate. On one hand, such assumptions can be an aspirational gold standard by which to measure oneself against, on the other they are a reminder of a less distinguished upbringing. How humble beginnings can be a hindrance and even though you’ve fought tooth and nail to become a lawyer, you’ll never quite fit in.
Asim Khan, InView Champion and international Commercial Counsel at Personio, believes the issue of social mobility is an oft-missed aspect of diversity, equity and inclusion.
A self-confessed “working class boy,” Khan believes there is a lack of women, ethnic minorities, and those from humble backgrounds at senior levels within organizations. “It’s where a lot of organizations are missing a trick. It’s all still the same - the same kinds of people with the same outlook in influential roles. Initially you’re thinking it’s great, you’ve got a high percentage of employees from a particular background or racial profile, but look closely and you'll see it’s mostly at junior level. Inclusion in terms of seniority isn’t there. And when you look at boards, and non-advisory boards too, you see that same profile of individual.”
Is this sameness, the selection of people who represent a certain strata of society, intended or not? Whatever the answer, it is clear that ‘associations by society’ are deeply ingrained and will require concerted effort to dispel. For instance, Khan often sees senior roles listed which require applicants to have attended certain universities. This reinforces negative feelings that the standing of an applicant’s education is more important than their actual experience.
“So much time has passed since the person went to university, it could be decades for some, and they’ve had so much experience since that time,” he points out. “There’s a lot that can still be done from a social mobility perspective. And being more inclusive.”
In the workplace, having a diversity of employees is highly beneficial as it enables a greater number of perspectives and experiences that can offer oversight to issues. From another perspective, it is of the utmost importance as it provides those from less fortunate positions with realistic and inspirational figures with which to identify. It can help strengthen beliefs that their aspirations and goals are achievable no matter their circumstances.
“Being able to see the impact of diversity policy is important, as is being able to identify the success stories. Ultimately, when people from different backgrounds look at organizations, or at the industry, they want to see examples of someone whose has progressed who is similar to them.
“My hope is that the few times I’ve appeared in InView, and the profile I'm building on LinkedIn, which makes it clear that I’ve not come from a privately educated background or speak the Queen’s English, has inspired someone to progress.”
According to Khan, social mobility is one of the most pressing and longstanding issues the legal profession is facing. Solving it will be transformative for not only those in the industry but for those from younger generations who wish to enter it.
“It's probably the main driver that needs to happen in the industry, whether it’s inhouse or private practice, because you want those different viewpoints and insights. A lot of clients and the people you work with come from truly diverse backgrounds.”
If the legal industry consciously addresses the issue of social mobility it will hopefully help break down some of those long-held images of lawyers sitting in their ivory towers, an old boys network that favors only a few.