As diversity at the senior end of the solicitors’ profession steadily increases, will the rest catch up?

The legal profession has found it hard to shake off its image of being predominantly white, male, middle age and middle class, despite consistent calls from the government, regulators, members of the judiciary and pressure groups, for the industry to become more diverse. While slow and incremental improvements have been made, advances have not come about quickly enough for some.

However, the glass ceiling may be starting to break resulting in a new wave of individuals entering the profession and reaching its zenith.

Data from a diversity monitoring survey, undertaken by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, covered issues about age, gender, ethnicity, disability, religious belief, sexual orientation, education and caring responsibilities. The results suggest that solicitors are slightly more diverse than the rest of society as a whole.

Some 9,383 firms, employing over 200,000 people, initially provided responses to the SRA’s request to report data for the survey, following a request from the Legal Services Board. This equated to 86 per cent of all firms responding.

Gender targets

The SRA’s survey identified a ‘gradual’ increase in the proportion of female solicitors in firms over the last three years. Of the three groups identified in law firms, women now account for up to 31 per cent of partners or equivalent roles, 59 per cent of lawyers and 77 per cent of other staff in the firms that took part.

Linklaters announced that it had become the first Magic Circle firm to adopt gender diversity targets, at its annual partner conference in April. It aims to obtain a 30 per cent female membership on its executive committee and international board by 2018.

The firm also plans greater gender diversification of its partner promotions, planning for at least 30 per cent of new partners to be female by 2018. Earlier this year, the firm exceeded its target with nine of the 21 partner promotions going to female lawyers.

But Linklaters is not alone in pushing for greater female representation at the top end of its organisation. A number of other firms have also launched gender diversity targets.

Ashurst unveiled plans to make 40 per cent of all partner promotions female by 2018 as well as handing one in four management positions to female staff. The targets were set by the firm’s global board at its first meeting following the full financial merger of its Australian and UK arms last November.

Pinsent Masons and Herbert Smith Freehills have each set interim targets of 25 per cent for female partnerships within the next four and three years respectively, which both firms plan on increasing to 30 per cent thereafter.

Finally, Allen & Overy is understood to be considering introducing a 20 per cent female partnership target by 2020.

Bench marks

Female representation is also improving beyond private practice: three more female judges have been appointed to the High Court recently, bringing the total to 21.

The Judicial Appointments Commission published its latest statistics on 18 selection exercises carried out between October 2013 and March 2014.

The results demonstrate a strong performance by women in the legal sector with just under half being recommended for appointment. Women made up to 54 per cent of appointments as district judges, compared with 44 per cent of applications made. However, the Commission’s results are not as positive for black and minority ethnic (BME) professionals.

Ethnicity data

According to the survey, of 136,081 solicitors practising in the UK, 85 per cent are white. Non-white solicitor numbers, as declared, comprised 8 per cent Asian, 2 per cent black, 1 per cent Chinese, 1 per cent mixed and 2 per cent from other ethnic groups.

At partner level, the majority are white (89 per cent). Breaking down that figure further reveals that seven per cent of those partners are Asian, two per cent black, 0.5 per cent Chinese, 0.5 per cent mixed and one per cent from other groups.

In related news, the SRA has accepted the findings of an independent report by Professor Gus John, published in March, which shows BME solicitors to be disproportionately over-represented in its regulatory activities and often receive harsher sanctions than their white counterparts.

Professor John suggests that the problem is not that the regulator is institutionally racist but that wider socio-economic factors may be to blame.

Statistics show that 61 per cent of BME solicitors work as sole practitioners or in firms with two-to-four partners. Just 10 per cent are in firms with more than 81 partners. Traditionally, sole practitioners and small firms encounter greater regulatory scrutiny.

Try harder

Perhaps encouragingly, the SRA has reported a drop in the proportion of BME solicitors referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal for a third consecutive year.

Furthermore, some 12.9 per cent of partners, solicitors and support staff are from ethnic minority backgrounds, compared with 12.4 per cent of the UK workforce as a whole suggesting that the solicitors’ profession is more diverse than other industries.

Diversity cannot be solved overnight but the profession seems to be making strides in the right direction. And there is some credence to the argument that firms and the judiciary can only promote from the available pool before them.

However, the regulator and firms should not rest on their laurels. This year’s report card should probably conclude that firms could do better and must try harder.

Increasing the profileMary Gallagher is diversity and talent manager at Addleshaw Goddard

“Our diversity programme is led by our senior partner, Monica Burch, who is supported by a dedicated diversity and talent manager, partners, fee earners and business services staff from across the firm. We haveorganised our approach around three key strands of diversity – gender, social mobility and ethnicity – which helps to give focus to our work. However, we are not limited to taking action within these areas.”We have worked hard over the last few years to embed a flexible culture at the firm, which we know has helped to retain a number of women with caring responsibilities. We also focus on issues beyond flexibility to see what we can do to support and retain all women in the workforce, not only working mothers.

“For example, we have reviewed our partner promotions process from a gender perspective and launched unconscious bias training for key groups. We have also invested in a female lawyer development programme, which aims to inspire women to aspire for senior positions in our firm.

“To diversify our workforce, we have tried to increase our profile within the black and minority ethnic (BME) community, for example, by attending BME-specific university career fairs. Conscious that we needed to do more, we have recently invested in a relationship with SEO London (an organisation that provides access to BME students).

“We work closely with local schools across London, Leeds and Manchester to help young people fulfil their potential. We are a founder member of PRIME, an initiative where law firms commit to providing a minimum number of quality work-experience placements to school-age students from less privileged backgrounds.

“Three years ago, we launched the Sonia McMahon Memorial Award, designed to give one student from our partner schools a financial contribution towards the cost of studying law at university. We have also developed a legal apprenticeship scheme providing an alternative route into the profession for young people who do not want to go down the traditional path of attending university.

“Our legal access scheme identifies bright law students studying at BPP Law School who come from less privileged backgrounds and offers them a place on our summer
placement programme.”

This article was first published in the Solicitors Journal on 17 June 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission.