Diversity in the legal profession

Author
Jemma Smith, Editor
Posted
June, 2022

A frequently discussed topic, diversity in law is high on the agenda of legal employers. While there's still work to be done strides are being made to ensure that the legal profession accurately reflects the society it serves

It's a commonly held view that law careers, particularly solicitors and barristers, are the domain of white, middle-to-upper class males and exclude all those who don't fit into these categories.

That's a pretty big stereotype to shake off and while there's no denying that the legal profession has it’s 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:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnerships
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) publishes diversity data every two years. Collected from law firms in England and Wales, in 2021 the data represents more than 181,333 people working in over 8,782 firms. The 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.

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.

Disability

According to the SRAs 'How diverse is the solicitors’ profession?' data, published in April 2021, 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
  • Ashurst
  • Baker McKenzie
  • Charles Russell Speechlys
  • Clifford Chance
  • Eversheds Sutherland
  • Freshfields
  • Herbert Smith Freehills
  • Hogan Lovells
  • Kingsley Napley
  • Linklaters
  • Mishcon de Reya
  • Pinsent Masons
  • Reed Smith
  • Slater and Gordon
  • Slaughter and May.

Gender

While women make up over half (52%) of lawyers in law firms (men make up 46%), 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 39 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. 

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.            

Ethnicity

The SRA diversity data shows that 17% of all lawyers are Black, Asian or from a minority ethnic group. The breakdown is as follows:

  • 12% are Asian compared to 7% of the overall UK workforce
  • 3% mixed/multiple ethnicity
  • 2% Black compared to 3% of the workforce
  • 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.

For 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 over a period of 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.

Social mobility

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 23% 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.

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, Fladgate, 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 has recently launched the 'Making Links Discovery' programme, aimed at 16 to 18 year olds. Designed to broaden access to the legal profession and advance social mobility and racial and ethnic diversity the integrated, 18-month scheme provides mentoring, tutoring, university application advice and skills sessions.

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 2021 list of top 75 employers for social mobility included four law firms within the top ten (Browne Jacobson, Herbert Smith Freehills, Grant Thornton UK LLP and Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner). DLA Piper and Baker McKenzie appeared in the top 20. All in all, 31 law firms make up the top 75.

Sexual orientation

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 2022 include the following firms in the top 20:

  • Clifford Chance
  • Slaughter and May
  • Pinsent Masons
  • Mayer Brown
  • Eversheds Sutherland.

The Law Society also has an LGBT+ Lawyers Division, providing a community for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender lawyers.

Read more on getting a job as an LGBTQ+ graduate and LGBTQ+ in the workplace: Employer view.

Find out more

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