Amid significant turbulence around the process for awarding grades to 2020’s pandemic-disrupted A-level graduates, two of the world’s biggest law firms have announced dramatic shifts in their UK recruitment policies.

On 14 August, DWF revealed that it would no longer set specific A-level or Scottish Higher requirements for graduate recruits, and would instead pursue a strategy of contextual recruitment in a bid to woo a more diverse talent pool and boost social mobility. (, 14 August 2020)

Three days later, City-based firm Ashurst – which takes on around 45 trainees per year – said it has dropped A-level stipulations for training-contract seekers, on the grounds that “gamified assessments of cognitive ability, problem solving and emotional intelligence” are more accurate predictors of workplace effectiveness. (The Lawyer, 17 August 2020)

In a statement, DWF director of corporate social responsibility and engagement Ty Jones said: “For too long, social background has impacted an individual's likelihood of working in the legal sector. As a leading Social Mobility Employer, we are taking steps to dismantle the barriers to accessing and progressing within the profession.”

In a report at a leading industry journal, Ashurst graduate recruitment partner Nick Wong explained the rationale behind the firm’s new assessments, saying: “We know that academic performance is not an accurate predictor of performance in a role, and using these tests also reduces the risk of unconscious bias and social capital playing a part in recruitment.” (Legal Cheek, 18 August 2020)

Ashurst’s announcement arrived on the very day the UK Government unveiled a U-turn on the method for gauging this year’s A-levels, following a storm of controversy over grades awarded by computer algorithm on 13 August. Designed as a contingency for A-level students’ inability to sit their summer exams amid the social impacts of Covid-19, the system downgraded 40% of the results from grades predicted in teacher-based assessments (, 13 August 2020), with students from disadvantaged backgrounds reportedly hardest hit (Metro, 14 August 2020)

In an opinion column on 3 August, Sir Peter Lampl – founder and chair of social mobility charity the Sutton Trust – argued that contextual recruitment “will be key” to helping young people ride out the current crisis. “We need to look past A-level grades and degrees,” he stressed, “and make every effort to give due weight to young people’s characters, and values, and propensity for hard work.” (Evening Standard, 3 August 2020)

Is he right?

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “The challenge with saying, ‘We’re not going to look at A-levels,’ or ‘We’re not going to look at degrees,’ is, what are you going to look at instead? Why has that individual chosen not to take that traditional, recommended path? The acquisition of A-levels or a degree do provide you with some insight into qualities such as work ethic, the ability to follow a curriculum – and in a sense, the willingness to align with a mission.”

She asks: “If you’re looking for something else – or, indeed, as well as – then how do you judge that? Which metrics or criteria do you put in place in order to be able to select those people who have taken a non-traditional route, but are still entirely capable, and just what your organisation needs? So that’s the key challenge. And the assessment centres that firms typically utilise for making those sorts of decisions can be very expensive to run.”

Cooper notes: “Where there is significant scope for challenge is how employers tend to focus very tightly on the actual grades a candidate achieved, or the university at which they obtained their degree. Or the subject they studied. Or whether it was an A-level, BTEC or apprenticeship. Let’s be more broadminded. You should be able to tell from candidates’ experiences of such courses that they have studied and applied themselves. They’ve abided by the relevant assessment regimes and achieved qualifications. So, acknowledge that – then take onboard assets such as interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence.

“But I think to a large extent, amiability is what recruiters are looking for – plus a knack for creative thinking and a facility for not being constrained in one’s thought processes. And I don’t necessarily believe that having A-levels or a degree are going to limit those assets. Traditional qualifications, and other engaging or appealing personal qualities, are far from mutually exclusive.”

She adds: “There is one, unfortunate effect of this A-levels fiasco that I’d like to highlight, which is that it has made us forget about the BTEC cohort – students who have been working very hard in a much more applied, vocational sense, within a framework of continuous assessment. They are every bit as employable, or as fit to go to university, as their A-level counterparts.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on understanding HR


Source refs:, 14 August 2020

The Lawyer, 17 August 2020

Legal Cheek, 18 August 2020, 13 August 2020

Metro, 14 August 2020

Evening Standard, 3 August 2020