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Why are diversity policies failing at UK law firms?

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Civil Activist Ida Wells. Despite much history, are we still struggling to understand the importance of diversity at work?

Before you tell me they are not failing, please review the hard hitting statistical evidence concerning diversity (or lack of it) in Part 1 of this post.

Law Society data tells us that although 35.7% of students enrolling on law undergraduate courses in 2015 are from “ethnic minority” groups (I think this includes black students), only 14.9% of individuals admitted to the roll as solicitors in 2015 are black or ethnic minorities.

9.5% of law student undergraduates who started their course in 2015 are known to have a disability, yet only 3% of lawyers have a disability. And only 3% of lawyers are gay, lesbian or bisexual; both lower percentages than shown in the UK population as a whole.

These stats tell us that the law as a profession is attracting diverse candidates, but UK law firms, on the whole, are not embracing this diversity. Are law firms putting barriers up to minority applicants for trainee and NQ positions? Does this matter?

Yes, a diverse workforce is at the heart of any successful workplace in the UK and goes far beyond fulfilling legal obligations in the Equality Act 2010, and I’m pretty sure I have no need to spell out the why and because on this.

Law Firms and Diversity Policies

The lack of opportunity for solicitors who are not able, white, British and middle class is openly acknowledged at some law firms. Clifford Chance say:

“we make a point of recruiting individuals from a wider range of backgrounds than is often the case in elite law firms”

But despite having a highly developed diversity policy, only 5.2% of Partners at their London office are from an ethnic minority group, and they have no black Partners in London at all.

Although many law firms may refer to their equal opportunities policy, where the majority of recruitment decision makers are white, not disabled, heterosexual and British born, prejudice in the recruitment process can occur even where the decision makers may strongly deny holding discriminatory views.

Psychologists say that we make up our mind about candidates within 15 seconds of meeting them – and we choose candidates who are like us, whom we understand.

So lawyers from different backgrounds are more likely not to be recruited or promoted due to the effect of stereotyping, based upon our views of what kind of person may make a good lawyer and will “fit in” at the work place.

What happens to solicitors and lawyers from minority groups?

For minority group lawyers who make it past the training contract stage, the effects of prejudice may be continuing – one third of white European solicitors are Partners, whereas one fifth of solicitors from black and ethnic minority backgrounds are partners.

Employees in high profile jobs who have a visible disability remain rare. David Blunkett is a well known exception.

What happens to minority group lawyers? Undoubtedly, a growing amount are working as solicitors at UK law firms. Others may never enter the profession, or leave to set up by themselves – more than double the proportion of black and ethnic minority lawyers apply as Sole Practitioners compared with white Europeans.

Less is documented about lawyers with disabilities, although Partner Robert Hunter’s article in The Lawyer; Time for an ugly truth:in some firms, disclosing disability isn’t a good idea (25 February 2016) is revealing.

What is to be done?

Where we have a trainee/NQ solicitor workforce that does not reflect the high level of diversity in the law student population, we need to closely look at every aspect of our recruitment and promotion practices. If the equal opportunities policy isn’t making an impact, perhaps this could in part be down to how we view and make decisions about people who have different values and backgrounds to us.

If our understanding of our profession from our own education, background and workforce is British, white, heterosexual and not disabled then we need to re-educate ourselves, just as some Brexit voters finally did through finding out what the EU was all about – the day after the referendum vote. Perhaps understanding why minority group solicitors are successful would be a good starting point?

Black workers mainly non-professionals? Wake up to the 21st century!

We can also have more confidence in an objective recruitment process rather than our opinion. No-one likes a tick box exercise, but this could highlight to us how our own prejudice and background has an influence on our decision making process. Forms and templates can be used to score candidates based on their educational attainment and work experience, and on their performance within a thorough application and interview process.

Recruiting decisions that are based on scoring candidates against a range of competency criteria rather than an interviewer’s opinion can assist with a robust equal opportunity recruitment process, which also ensures that the best possible candidate for the job is recruited.

We can also make a positive proclamation on the recruitment section of our website or in recruitment advertisements confirming that applications from minority group candidates are welcome, and that we are committed to creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace. I recently saw this put to very good effect as an opener to a recruitment advertisement on LinkedIn.

Support from Diversity organisations

If making the right changes are beyond us, there is help and support available from organisations that do know how to go about this process – such as Stonewall’s Diversity Champions Programme , and also the Black Solicitors Network.

If the decision makers on recruitment or promotion opportunities are not diverse themselves, we can ensure at least one of them are. At a prior workplace we invited an external professional who was from an ethnic minority background to sit with us as an interviewer and a decision maker.  This isn’t tokenism – it can work.

On helping law firms to achieve diversity, Stonewall say:

We’re currently working with a number of law firms who are doing an increasingly good job with diversity and inclusion such as Simmons & Simmons, a Stonewall Star Performer*.

Other firms doing fantastic work include Pinsent Masons, Clifford Chance and Baker & McKenzie which were named fifth, ninth and eleventh top employers in Britain in our 2016 Workplace Equality Index alongside nine other legal firms.

It’s so important for these firms that they reflect the diverse communities that they represent, and so they continue to benchmark their efforts and look to improve by entering our WEI.

*’Star Performers’ are organisations which Stonewall has named a top ten employer three times in five consecutive years. These organisations ‘graduate’ the Index and mentor others lower down within it.


What happens if we get recruitment and promotion opportunities right and achieve diversity? We gain a workforce that is equipped for the present and future. This is a great time for law firms who are perceived as traditional and conservative to address their attitudes and fears, shrug off the conservatism, and make the most of the talent and diversity that exists within our lawyer population.

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