Traditionally, the law sector hasn't been known for its inclusivity, but in order for it to accurately reflect the society it serves strides are being made to increase diversity in the legal profession
How diverse is the legal sector?
That's a pretty big stereotype to shake off and while there's no denying that the legal profession has its fair share of diversity and inclusion issues, initiatives are in place to improve diversity, promote inclusion and tackle discrimination in the sector.
Under the Equality Act 2010 there are nine protected characteristics, which it's illegal for employers to discriminate against. These include:
- gender reassignment
- marriage and civil partnerships
- pregnancy and maternity
- sexual orientation.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) publishes diversity data every two years. Their most recent data was collected from law firms in England and Wales in summer 2021 and represents more than 186,890 people working in over 9,667 firms. These latest figures show a small but steady increase in diversity among all lawyers when compared to the previous 2019 survey. While this is positive news and an indicator that things are moving in the right direction the legal sector still isn't as diverse as it should be.
'The legal sector does not accurately reflect the society it serves,' says Alice Hasted, senior early talent adviser at Taylor Wessing. 'However, it's working together to ensure there is change - it just takes time.'
Tara Davidson, graduate recruitment manager at Travers Smith agrees, 'the legal sector does not reflect larger society, however it is moving in the right direction. In the last ten years diversity has become a matter of huge importance for the sector. Firms are more aware than ever of where improvements can be made and are striving to implement and bolster change where possible.'
Here we delve into some of the protected characteristics in more detail and highlight the action being taken and some of the initiatives in place to help improve matters. To find out what schemes, initiatives and networks are available at your preferred firms or current workplace conduct some research and look at organisation websites and social media channels. Speak to current trainees, solicitors and partners or contact the HR department.
While women make up over half (52%) of lawyers in law firms (men make up 47%), the underrepresentation of women becomes more apparent at senior levels.
While 61% of solicitors are female only 35% are partners. Women are also underrepresented in certain practice areas such as criminal work, where only 38% of lawyers are female and corporate law, where women only make up 46% of the workforce. On the other hand, women are overrepresented in private client work where they account for 56% of lawyers.
Law firms across the sector recognise that they need to do more in order to level the playing field when it comes to gender inequality, as a result a number have recently upped their gender diversity targets.
With female partnership currently standing at 21%, DLA Piper has announced its intention to increase this figure to 30% over the next four years, with the aim of raising this to 40% by 2030. Magic Circle firms Freshfields and Clifford Chance are also working to achieve a global partnership of at least 40% women by 2026 and 2030 respectively. Female partnership at another Magic Circle firm, Linklaters already stands at 41%.
Part of the Law Society, the Women Lawyers Division promotes inclusion and provides advice and support to all women solicitors, from trainees to retirees. The Association of Women Solicitors (AWS) also promotes and supports women's interests in the legal profession. They enable professional development by providing educational events, networking and mentoring opportunities.
According to the SRAs 'How diverse is the solicitors’ profession?' data only 5% of all lawyers declare a disability. While this number has increased by 1% compared to 2019 data, it is still notably lower than the UK workforce average where 14% declare a disability.
A disability could be physical or invisible, such as mental illness. Lawyers with disabilities can face discrimination at the recruitment stage due to a lack of understanding and a fear as to what their disability will entail, and they often have to deal with struggles relating to the accessibility of facilities and reasonable adjustments.
Free to join and open to all solicitors and their allies, the Lawyers with Disabilities Division (LDD) aims to promote equal opportunities within the sector for people with disabilities. Made up of law students, practicing solicitors, paralegals, law lecturers and retired solicitors, it provides mentoring and work experience opportunities for its members and can even help candidate's secure training contracts.
A number of firms have signed up to The Valuable 500, an initiative to encourage 500 national and multinational organisations to help change and unlock the social and economic value of people living with disabilities across the world. Here are some of the law firms who have committed to putting disability inclusion on their business leadership agenda:
- Addleshaw Goddard
- Charles Russell Speechlys
- Clifford Chance
- Eversheds Sutherland
- Herbert Smith Freehills
- Hogan Lovells
- Kingsley Napley
- Mishcon de Reya
- Pinsent Masons
- Reed Smith
- Simmons & Simmons
- Slater and Gordon
- Slaughter and May
- Stephenson Harwood.
The SRA diversity data shows that 18% of all lawyers are Black, Asian or from a minority ethnic group, a 1% increase from 2019 statistics. 78% are white. The breakdown is as follows:
- 12% are Asian compared to 7% of the overall UK workforce
- 3% mixed/multiple ethnicity
- 3% Black
- 1% from other ethnic groups.
Both Black and Asian lawyers are significantly underrepresented in mid to large firms.
There is clearly still work to be done in this area and there are a range of schemes and initiatives in place to increase the representation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups in the legal profession.
Alice highlights an initiative at Taylor Wessing, 'we collaborate with Aspiring Solicitors The Black Aspiring Solicitors Scheme, where we invite a cohort of Black and mixed-race Black heritage mentees to join a series of virtual or in-person workshops. The workshops are designed to upskill mentees, developing their application skills and commercial awareness, as well as provide insights into working in commercial law.'
Another example, law firm DWF runs an Ethnic Minority Access Scheme, developed in partnership with Aspiring Solicitors. The placement scheme helps six individuals from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds gain paid work experience for one week at the firms London or Manchester offices.
With the aim of improving the opportunities available to young Black people in the UK, the #10000BlackInterns programme offers paid work experience across a variety of industries and provides training and development opportunities and mentorship. Over 700 companies across the country, including more than 40 law firms have signed up to offer internships with the scheme.
The Black Solicitors Network (BSN) represents the interests of existing and aspiring Black solicitors in England and Wales; it's committed to achieving the 'equality of access, retention and promotion of Black solicitors'. Its Junior Lawyers Group (JLG) aims to connect junior lawyers across the legal sector and provide a forum of support, inspiration and guidance.
It's a long held belief that the law sector is elitist, and this isn't without foundation. Traditionally, the cost of studying to become a solicitor or barrister has excluded all but the most advantaged.
According to SRA data 22% of lawyers attended a fee-paying school compared to 7.5% of the general population, while a greater proportion of lawyers (58%) come from a professional background, compared to 37% nationally. Only 17% of lawyers come from a lower socio-economic background compared to 39% of the general population.
However, in recent years strides have been made to widen access to the sector and, if organisational diversity targets are anything to go by, increasing social mobility is a priority for many legal employers.
The introduction of law apprenticeships has provided a pathway to legal careers for those who would previously have been prevented from studying law due to high tuition fees. 'A career in law, can and should, be available to anyone who wants to gain entry to the profession, and we have a responsibility to ensure we are distributing opportunity widely,' says the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) team at Norton Rose Fulbright. 'We were one of the first large City law firms to introduce an apprenticeship programme, which includes solicitor and paralegal apprenticeships.'
PRIME is an initiative where law firms provide quality work experience to underprivileged school aged children. With more than 60 firms involved including Clyde & Co, Dentons, Latham & Watkins, Norton Rose Fulbright, Taylor Wessing and Womble Bond Dickinson students from the UK and Republic of Ireland can search for opportunities through their website.
Magic circle firm Linklaters runs Making Links, a programme designed to help talented university students from underrepresented groups succeed in their early careers. As a Making Links scholar, you’ll receive coaching, work experience and £6,000 in financial support.
15 city firms, including Ashurst, Eversheds Sutherland, RPC and Trowers & Hamlins have also pledged to work alongside universities such as Bradford, Lincoln, Liverpool John Moores and York St John to provide mentoring and career coaching to aspiring lawyers form disadvantaged backgrounds.
Furthermore, the Law Society's Diversity Access Scheme (DAS) provides funding support, work experience and mentoring to successful applicants. Take a look at their page to see if you're eligible and how to apply.
More good news, law firms dominated in the latest Social Mobility Employer Index, compiled by the Social Mobility Foundation. The 2022 list of top 75 employers for social mobility included five law firms within the top ten (Browne Jacobson, Grant Thornton UK LLP, Herbert Smith Freehills, Baker McKenzie and Squire Patton Boggs). DLA Piper, Allen & Overy, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP, Linklaters, DWF, Lewis Silkin LLP and CMS all appeared in the top 20. All in all, 38 law firms and one chambers make up the top 75.
The SRA reports that a greater proportion (3.5%) of lawyers identify as gay, lesbian or bi-sexual than the UK workforce as a whole.
The majority of law firms have their own LGBTQ+ networks, for example Addleshaw Goddard’s OpenAG, Slaughter and May's PRISM, Dentons GLOW and Pride at Norton Rose Fulbright. These networks host events and provide support for LGBTQ+ employees. Research your firm of interest to see what they offer.
Stonewall compile a list of LGBT friendly employers every year. The top 100 employers 2023 include the following firms in the top 20:
- Clifford Chance
- DLA Piper
In total 13 law firms make the list.
The Law Society also has an LGBT+ Lawyers Division, providing a community for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender lawyers.
What can students and graduates do to help?
Increasing representation should be a priority for all firms. The DE&I team at Norton Rose Fulbright believe 'firms need to focus on hiring a diverse workforce and fostering an inclusive and equitable culture. They should enable diverse groups and people to be themselves, feel empowered and stay and grow within their roles.'
However, it's not just law firms that can help with this. Students and graduates have a part to play too.
'Don't be afraid to ask law firms and early career teams what they are doing to increase representation of diverse groups and people,' advises the Norton Rose Fulbright DE&I team. 'The sector understands diversity, equity and inclusion is becoming increasingly important to clients - the more people, groups and communities that engage with firms and put the focus on increasing representation, the greater chance of real impactful change.'
'Students and graduates can also share content through their social media channels and their networks, this helps to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal sector. Share, engage and celebrate the successes when you see them.'
Alice adds, 'Engage with firms and ask questions. Bring your suggestions. We want to learn from you to ensure we have an inclusive working environment.'
Find out more
- Discover more about diversity in the workplace.
- Find out how to become a lawyer.
- Learn about the reality of working in law.
- Read up on the top UK law firms.