Diversity in the legal profession

Author
Jemma Smith, Editor
Posted
June, 2021

Ensuring that the legal profession reflects the society it serves is high on the agenda of educational institutions, law firms and barristers chambers. Learn more about how the sector is tackling diversity and inclusion issues

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 there's no denying that the legal profession has a long way to go before it eradicates inequality, but strides are being made to improve diversity, promote inclusion in the sector and tackle discrimination.

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 and representing more than 186,000 people working in over 9,500 firms, the data shows that despite the efforts of law firms in recent years 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.

Disability

According to the SRAs 'How diverse is the legal sector?' data, published in March 2020, only 3% of all lawyers are disabled, compared to 13% of the UK workforce overall.

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 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 firms who have committed to putting disability inclusion on their business leadership agenda:

  • Addleshaw Goddard
  • Ashurst
  • Charles Russell Speechlys
  • Clifford Chance
  • Eversheds Sutherland
  • Freshfields
  • Herbert Smith Freehills
  • Kingsley Napley
  • Linklaters
  • Mishcon de Reya.

Gender

While women make up almost half (49%) of lawyers in law firms and three quarters of the workforce for 'other legal staff' according to the SRA data, the underrepresentation of women becomes more apparent at senior levels.

Only 29% of women are partners in firms with 50 or more partners:

  • 34% in firms with 10-50 partners
  • 39% with six to nine partners
  • 35% with two to five partners
  • 37% with one partner.

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 after missing previous aims.

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 have also stated their intention 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 21% of all lawyers are Black, Asian or from a minority ethnic group. The breakdown is as follows:

  • 15% are Asian
  • 3% Black
  • 2% mixed/multiple ethnicity
  • 1% from other ethnic groups.

Both Black and Asian lawyers are significantly underrepresented in mid to large firms. The SRA data further breaks down these figures to show that firms dealing in criminal and private client work have the highest proportion of Black, Asian and minority ethnic lawyers, while firms who deal with a mixed range or corporate work have the lowest.

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, in 2020 law firm DWF launched its Ethnic Minority Access Scheme, developed in partnership with Aspiring Solicitors. The placement scheme will help 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. The programme will run every year.

With the aim of improving the opportunities available to young Black people in the UK, the #10000BlackInterns programme will offer paid work experience across a variety of industries and provide training and development opportunities and mentorship. So far over 700 companies across the country, including more than 20 law firms and five barristers chambers, have signed up to offer internships with the scheme, which is due to start in the summer of 2022.

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 21% of lawyers attended a fee-paying school compared to 7% of the general population, while a greater proportion of lawyers also have parents with a degree level qualification (51%).

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.

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, Clyde & Co, 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 2020 list of top 75 employers for social mobility included four law firms within the top ten (Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, Browne Jacobson, Herbert Smith Freehills and Baker McKenzie) and Linklaters, Freshfields and Hogan Lovells all appeared in the top 20.

Sexual orientation

The SRA reports that a greater proportion (3%) of lawyers identify as gay, lesbian or bi-sexual than the UK workforce as a whole (2%).

The majority of law firms have their own LGBTQ+ networks, for example 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 2020 include the following firms in the top 20:

  • Pinsent Masons
  • Baker McKenzie
  • Travers Smith
  • Slaughter and May
  • Hogan Lovells
  • Clifford Chance.

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

Find out more

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