Updated: Jan 6, 2020
Diversity and Inclusion in the Legal Profession - Mere regulatory compliance or genuine cultural change?
In this blog I am going to talk about the legal profession and evaluate whether protected characteristic groups such as women, ethnic minority, disabled, LGBT and socially disadvantaged citizens are really playing a role in a supposedly more diverse and inclusive industry. Or, whether the legal profession is using the guise of diversity and inclusion as a form of self-promotion to appear that it has become genuinely inclusive.
The legal profession is one of the the oldest and most established professions in this country. A profession that dates back to the time of the Roman Empire. Yet for centuries the legal profession in this country has been the preserve of white, wealthy aristocratic men. Minority groups and others not from the dominant characteristic group were for centuries marginalised by a profession that was to all intents and purposes an elitist plaything that solely meted out justice for the wealthy and their interests.
However, in order to establish whether the legal profession has become genuinely more inclusive, its necessary to look at the different protected-characteristic groups that make up our society. For instance, women were not allowed to become solicitors until 1919, which became about as a result of the Removal of the Sex Disqualification Act 1919. However, some 35 years later there were still only 350 practising female solicitors, many of whom were working in firms run by their own families. Ivy Williams became the first women ever admitted as a Barrister in this country in 1922 when she was called to the Inner Temple. However, since the 1970's the number of women in the legal profession has increased dramatically. In today's society 48% of solicitors are women and some 65% of law students are women aspiring for a career in the legal profession. In 2010 for the first time in its history equal numbers of women qualified to practise as barristers. Currently 37% of barristers in the United Kingdom are now women. These statistics are indicative of an upward trend of genuine gender equalisation within the legal profession. Yet, scratch beneath the service and gender equality in the legal profession is not as obvious as it might seem. The Solicitors Regulation Authority cite on their website that in large law firms only 29% of partners are female. Yet, interestingly in mid-size law firms this number rises to 54%. What this data indicates is that more women than ever are working in the legal profession but many are finding because of their sex and the possibility of them having children they often struggle to acquire senior roles within major law firms. This is backed up statistics from the SRA which suggests that only 29% of partners in major law firms are female.
Let's now look at ethnic minority groups so called bame groups. This group makes up 21% of lawyers working in law firms. In fact, interestingly enough there has been a noticeable rise in the number of Asian lawyers in the legal profession up to 14% compared to the UK average in the workforce of a mere 6%. Again we see a similar correlation between the bame and female groupings in that small and mid-size law firms 34% of partners come from a bame background. Yet, in major law firms only 8% of partners come from a bame background. What this data indicates to me is that bame groups like the female group seems to be fairly well represented in small and mid-size law firms, but sadly is chronically underrepresented in major law firms.
The next group to analyse data from centres around religion and beliefs. In this group Christians formed 51% of all lawyers, with Atheists next on 30%. Rather perplexing in this category was the fact that 17% of lawyers in small law firms are Muslims, yet in large law firms this group makes up only 2% of all lawyers.
Now we shall look at the data for those attended fee-paying schools. What is interesting with the data here is that 22% of all lawyers attended fee-paying schools, compared with just 7% of the general population. In large law firms this figure is even higher at 36%. Furthermore, only 56% of lawyers in large law firms are state-educated. In smaller firms this figure rises to upwards of 70%. What this data demonstrates is that social mobility is still heavily weighted in favour of white men from privileged backgrounds, who have often had the opportunities given to them on a plate because of wealth and connections.
In the sexual orientation category 3% of lawyers identified themselves as LGBT, compared to the UK population (2%). However, the prominent LGBT advocacy group stonewall estimates that the UK figure is much higher at 5-7% of the population. In large law firms only 3% of partners identified themselves as gay men but less than 1% of partners were gay women. Which seems to suggest an absence of either gay women applying for prominent roles in major law firms or a stigma attached with being a gay woman in a major law firm.
In the disability category only 3% of lawyers identified themselves as disabled compared to 10% of the working age population in England & Wales that are disabled. In major law firms only 2% of solicitors identified themselves as being disabled, compared to 4% of ordinary staff within major law firms. What this suggests is that either disclosing a disability in a major law firm can still be seen an inhibitor or major law firms are simply not overly interested in actively recruiting disabled people into their organisations.
This data indicates to me that although some diversity and inclusion has taken place in the legal profession. Its reputation as a stuffy, corporate, hard-nosed industry still remains. As a partner I met at a law firm once told me when I asked about opportunities for disabled people his response was "no one rejects us as we are the best. Why would they?". This kind of institutionalised arrogance that stalks the legal profession still seems to exist and until law firms fully embrace diversity and inclusion on a more equitable level. Then it will continue to be an unequal playing field.