I write this article from a personal perspective and it is an expression of opinion only. I often get asked by candidates if they think firms discriminate against them and this article is about our experiences of behaviour that is both overt and implied.
Discrimination against Law Firms
Law firms often think that as recruiters we have a special list of candidates that we only introduce to our favourite clients and not any old Tom, Dick and Harry. This is incorrect. Such a list does not exist. What does exist is a database showing us exactly what type of firm a candidate is looking to work for, in which location and at what price. Often smaller law firms confuse this for some kind of discrimination against them on the grounds of size.
Discrimination against Candidates
Candidates ask whether law firms discriminate against them. Here the situation is more murky. Occasionally we come across some very dubious requests. One of these arose a few weeks ago with a company based in East London looking to recruit a fairly senior professional in a non-legal field. The email from the director said:
“I wonder of you ever come across any candidates who have the first language as English? I want them to feel comfortable in front of older working class English builders, these are our typical clients, and for the clients to feel comfortable with them.”
Any alarm bells ringing? We had sent across three CVs for professionals with the correct qualifications and the right amount of experience. All three had the right to work in the UK, although none was a native English speaker. The company eventually interviewed two of these candidates for the role.
The discrimination we encounter is very often on grounds of sex rather than race. Some years ago I was called by a senior partner of a law firm who asked me to find him a new assistant solictor. I took down details, and towards the end of the person specification (the usual requirements – fluent French, client following, 1st class degree, prepared to work for £20k for 60 hours a week without any holidays etc. etc..) he lobbed in that he was not looking to recruit any women aged between 25 and 35 years old. I was a bit taken aback and when I asked why he informed me that this was prime child bearing age and that women should do this in their own time and not his.
A few years later we had a call from a female senior partner who indicated a job specification along similar lines but her reasoning was that everyone asked for too much maternity leave. She had made do with 3 weeks so why couldn’t her staff?
Needless to say we declined to act for either firm and I was more than a little bit happy to note that one of these firms went under a few years later.
Age discrimination seems to be much rarer these days. When I started out in recruitment firms checked very closely how candidates were. Anyone over 40 years old was immediately doubtful unless the role was very senior. These days we get partners calling from time to time to ask for someone aged 25-30 years old with 2 years PQE, but firms are much more interested in candidates prepared to work at a particular income level than their age. So if a 55 year old solicitor with 20 years PQE will take a salary of £40k to do residential conveyancing, we rarely see a firm rejecting them. I suspect there is an acceptance that most people are going to have to work for longer than in the past and relatively few will retire at 60.
I also occasionally spot postcode rejections – ie firms reject candidates who live in certain areas around London for example, or we get asked why a candidate is living in a particularly notorious area of a city.
So although unlawful, unethical and unfair discrimination does occur from time to time, it is rare to see it either overtly or implied. More rejections occur for both sides – law firms and candidates – because a) the role and job being offered is not attractive enough to candidates and b) candidates do not fit the job specification being put forward by the firm. There are no recruitment agency lists of A grade candidates (a firm once signed up to our unlimited service expecting this!) and none of our staff are Freemasons.