American Lawyer chief European correspondent Chris Johnson meets regularly with senior figures in the legal world at their favorite breakfast joints to chew over the industry’s tastiest talking points. Johnson’s guest this week is Linklaters corporate partner Simon Branigan. On the menu: graduate recruitment, social mobility, and karmic retribution.

——————–

It’s fair to say that law is not the most diverse of industries. Flick through some back issues of The American Lawyer—which as an avid reader, you will of course have at hand—and pay particular attention to the photos. What you’ll generally be looking at, I suspect, is a lot of white guys in suits. Even the suits will mostly be the same color. (In fairness, The American Lawyer has long championed diversity in all forms. The January 2013 issue featured not one but four women on the cover, while a separate article profiled female leaders at Am Law 100 firms, but you take my point.)

But while gender and racial equality have rightly become key focuses of management and human resources teams at international law firms throughout the United States and beyond, one area of diversity that can easily be overlooked is the social background of staff members.

It’s to discuss this last point that I’ve come to meet Simon Branigan, a corporate partner at Magic Circle firm Linklaters, which earlier this month announced that it is raising the grant it pays future trainees by up to 40 percent in an attempt to attract a more socially diverse range of students.

We’re meeting at Branigan’s preferred breakfast spot, a local gastropub called The Jugged Hare. It strikes me as a somewhat unconventional choice for an early morning meal. The restaurant’s website boasts of cask ales and a veritable bounty of meat, all prepared in an open "theatre kitchen," replete with an eight-spit rotisserie and a charcoal grill. I imagine the disapproving looks that will surely meet any order that doesn’t involve at least some protein. ("Granola? Do you want steak with that?") My sense of imminent awkwardness isn’t helped by the scene that confronts me as I push through the old-fashioned swing door. The room is almost completely empty, save for two groups, who, judging by their suits and travel luggage, are very likely visitors at Slaughter and May, Linklaters, Simmons & Simmons, or one of the other top law firms within a 200-yard radius. Nobody is talking. Stuffed rabbit heads stare down at me from the wall. I order a black coffee and contemplate the prospect of conducting an interview in a near-silent pub.

"It’s cold out there,” says Branigan as he arrives, offering an ice-cold hand in greeting. The United Kingdom is currently enduring an unseasonal cold snap, with parts of the country buried under snowdrifts of up to 15 feet. London has been spared such extremes, but the mercury is still sitting the wrong side of zero degrees Celsius. If the restaurant were any closer to Linklaters’s London headquarters, it would have to pay rent, but Branigan says the short walk has left him "frozen solid."

Impressively (or depressingly, depending on your perspective), Branigan has already been in the office for more than an hour. A self-confessed "early riser," he usually starts work at 7:00 a.m. each day.

In addition to his fee-earning duties, which see him handle transactional work for clients such as Citigroup, Rio Tinto, and The Royal Bank of Scotland—the latter his main client ever since a nine-month secondment at the now state-owned bank in 2004—Branigan was appointed last May to serve alongside derivatives partner Mark Middleton as one of the firm’s two graduate recruitment partners. The "time-consuming but hugely enjoyable" role, as Branigan puts it, involves him giving presentations at universities across the country, conducting interviews with prospective trainees, and acting as liaison between the firm’s professional graduate recruitment team and the partners.

A waitress takes our orders. Branigan opts for scrambled eggs on brown toast, washed down with a latte. Reassured by his meat-free choice, I ask for eggs Florentine. I’m still working my way through the first giant pot of coffee, so wave away the offer of a refill.

"It’s true that the law has historically been quite one-dimensional," says Branigan. "We’ve made huge strides [in terms of diversity] over the past 20 years, but the one area in which we still need to do more is social mobility."

Branigan insists that Linklaters already casts a wider net than many of its rivals when looking for prospective trainees. The firm actively targets students from 20 of the country’s top universities and regularly recruits from a further 10.

"It puts paid to the frequent criticism that we’re only interested in Oxbridge and the usual suspects," he says, although he admits that, as the country’s two leading academic institutions, Cambridge and Oxford universities still account for a "large proportion" of Linklaters trainees.

The firm takes on between 110 and 120 trainees in London each year—a figure that Branigan says "hasn’t changed for decades, even during the recession." In 2012, the firm’s trainee intake was almost evenly split between men and women. Just under 10 percent described themselves as gay or bisexual, three percent declared a disability, and 28 percent were from ethnic minorities. Around 20 percent were the first members of their families to go to university.

Branigan himself comes from a working class background in Northern Ireland. (He now speaks with an almost imperceptible accent, which I incorrectly guess as Scottish.) He, too, was the first member of his family to attend university, studying French and Spanish at Oxford.

"The firm is actively targeting people that aren’t from an environment where it’s almost a rite of passage to apply for a firm like Linklaters, Freshfields, or Slaughter and May, to make sure they know that this is a route that is open to them," says Branigan, adding, to my considerable surprise, that over 40 percent of the firm’s London-based partners did not attend a private school. "We don’t want carbon copies—a diverse range of candidates bring a diverse range of skills—and there’s so much potential out there."

Like most other top U.K. law firms, Linklaters provides financial support for future trainees to help cover the cost of their education before they join the firm. Branigan says that the firm was getting feedback from current recipients that they were struggling to cover their living costs at the current rates, however, and describes the subsequent increase in funding as "one of the easier decisions we’ve ever had to make."

So, from April 1, the grant paid by Linklaters to sponsored students undertaking the seven-month Legal Practice Course at the College of Law in London will increase from £5,000 ($7,500) to £7,000 ($10,500). Students on the yearlong Graduate Diploma in Law course, meanwhile, will see their maintenance grants increased from £7,000 to £8,000 ($12,000) if they are studying in London, and from £6,000 ($9,000) to £7,000 if they are studying elsewhere in the country. The firm will continue to pick up the tab for any tuition fees. (A total of 151 future trainees received maintenance grants in 2012, at a total cost to the firm of £982,000, or $1.5 million.)

Branigan says that the firm did consider switching to a system by which the grants would have been allocated on an individually means-tested basis, but says the amount of extra resource such a process would require meant it "wouldn’t be workable in practice." He also dismisses any suggestion that the move to increase grant payments is a publicity stunt designed to win over students, many of whom will leave university with large debts to pay off.

"People can often be cynical about large City firms, but there is genuinely no other agenda to it," says Branigan, who has been with the firm since joining as a trainee in 1998. "We want to make sure that a career at Linklaters is not reserved to people from a certain, exclusive background. Ultimately, we want the best people, no matter where they’re from."

Linklaters also supports a number of other social mobility initiatives, including Pathways to Law, the Social Mobility Foundation, Pure Potential, the Warwick University Multicultural Scholarship Programme, and provides more than £20,000 ($30,000) in annual funding to the London-arm of U.S. charity Sponsors for Educational Opportunities, which helps students from black and other ethnic minority communities get access to internships and graduate schemes. The firm also has its own community investment initiative, "Linking Work With Learning," which aims to improve literacy and employability amongst children in over 40 inner-city London schools, and runs a mentoring program that allows London School of Economics students from less advantaged backgrounds to contact Linklaters associates for career advice.

One of the biggest developments in social mobility within the legal profession came in late 2011, when a group of 23 law firms, including Linklaters, joined forces to launch the industry’s first market-wide initiative. Named PRIME, it aims to give fair access to quality work experience for young people from less privileged backgrounds, with a target of 2,500 internships for such students by 2015. The member firms, which now number over 80, including several U.S. law firms, such as Latham & Watkins and Mayer Brown, are committed to providing student interns—equivalent to 50 percent of the firm’s annual intake of trainee attorneys—with a minimum of 30 hours of training to develop business and personal skills. The firms are also obliged to provide financial assistance to the students during their internship and to maintain contact with them once it ends.

Branigan says that PRIME has already generated noticeable results: The proportion of state school applicants for Linklaters’s most recent vacation scheme intake rose from 33 percent to 42 percent. But Branigan doesn’t believe that firms should introduce binding quotas for social diversity.

"I don’t think we need to have X people from a certain background—it’s important that every candidate is judged on their merits,” he says. “People shouldn’t get in just because they went to a state school and we need to improve our figures, just in the same way that they shouldn’t automatically get in if they went to a top private school or have a family member at the firm."

The application process to become a trainee at Linklaters certainly seems rigorous enough.

Applicants start out by undergoing an online "Watson Glaser" test, which assesses critical thinking. (For any readers that would like to have a go themselves, a sample test is available on the Linklaters website, here). They then complete and submit a written application form, which is subject, along with their Watson Glaser results, to an internal screening process. Survive that and the fun really begins. An interview day starts with yet another Watson Glaser test, followed by an "e-tray" exercise whereby candidates have to prioritize and respond to a stream of virtual emails, which is supposed to replicate a normal day in the office. Having had lunch and a tour of the office with current Linklaters trainees, the candidates face a one-on-one interview with a member of the firm’s graduate recruitment team, and then have to draft an email setting out the legal and wider commercial issues that arise from a case study, which they present before a partner and senior associate in a final interview. If you still want to be a lawyer after reading that, you have my respect—and sympathy.

"It’s a full day," says Brannigan with a smile that suggests he appreciates the level of understatement.

Branigan insists that most "seem to enjoy" the grueling examination, adding that he is constantly surprised by the level of professionalism and composure exhibited by prospective trainees, many of whom will be just 19 or 20 years old.

"Things have certainly moved on from when I applied," he says. “I really didn’t have a clue, but candidates nowadays are really slick and informed. They’re all very impressive, so candidates have to work hard to distinguish themselves. It’s much more competitive.”

I ask Branigan whether he ever grows tired of everyone being so polished. Doesn’t he sometimes yearn for someone to come in and really not know what they’re talking about, just to mix things up a bit?

"You may think so, looking at it from the outside," he says, "but it would be slightly disappointing in reality as it would mean that the screening process hadn’t worked properly."

Branigan heads back to the office, leaving me to lament an increasingly anodyne world in which interviewees never make mistakes and nobody ever does anything outrageous or embarrassing. Then, when I get up to leave, I promptly knock over a full flagon of milk on the adjoining table. I can’t help but smile at the irony as it splashes all over my suit trousers, my shoes, and the floor. I doubt I’d have got the job.

Breakfast for two came to £26.44 ($40), with service.

——————–

Chris Johnson is The American Lawyer’s chief European correspondent. Reach him at cjohnson@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter at @chris_t_johnson.