We may have an equal opportunity policy, but the reality for most of us is that we do not work in a diverse workplace.
Policies are undermined by “commercial decisions” that result in candidates being chosen and promoted who are in the view of decision-makers going to fit in best with the team, or who they think their clients want to meet and work with. Does this really result in minority group lawyers not getting jobs? In my experience, yes it does, and I’ve heard the carefully formed arguments justifying the decision.
This post reveals just how bad diversity is at UK law firms, and Part 2 of this post makes some suggestions regarding what can be done to effect change. Input from managers who have successfully nurtured a diverse workforce would be very welcome – please comment at the end of this post.
Racial and Ethnic Minorities
The Good Part: Education
Census data tells us that black or ethnic minority youth choose higher level qualifications as a route to gaining professional employment – 20.2% of UK students in higher education categorised themselves as black or from an ethnic minority group, rising to 46.2% in London. Around 14% of the population of the UK are from a black or ethnic minority group, though this is likely a bit higher for the 16-24 age group.
A much higher proportion of black or ethnic minority students choose law. The latest available statistics from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) confirms that 35.7% of students who started a first degree law course in 2015 were from minority ethnic groups. Strangely there is no mention of black students, though looking at law student data from hesa.ac.uk, I think the Law Society may have included black students in their “ethnic minority” data.
There’s no doubt that studying law is attracting racial and ethnic minorities; when I completed the Legal Practice Course in 2005 in London, well over half of the 100+ students on the course with me were from black or ethnic minority backgrounds, a huge change from the predominantly white British students on the law conversion course I took in Exeter the year before.
The Bad Part: Recruitment
A much smaller proportion of black or ethnic minority lawyers make it through the recruitment process to become qualified solicitors – only 14.9% of solicitors admitted to the roll in 2015 were from ethnic minority groups. Again no mention of black students, but why are less than half of ethnic minority group law students making it through to qualify as solicitors?
The number of black legal staff remains very low – just 2% of the lawyer population. Overall, 15.5% of the 133,000 solicitors in England and Wales with a current practising certificate are black or from an ethnic minority group.
Using other professions to provide comparison – 40% of doctors employed by the National Health Service are black or from ethnic minority groups. However, the Police have notoriously low levels of black and ethnic minority officers, only 5.5%, with some northern counties having no black officers at all in their entire workforce.
The picture outside London
My own experience of working in law firms outside of London (in the South West) is that solicitors from black or ethnic minority backgrounds are virtually non-existent, making a stark contrast with the local population.
I am struggling to remember meeting a single black male lawyer outside of London in the last ten years, and black and ethnic minority employees with legal qualifications are unable to work their way up from junior positions. Their perception? Prejudice by recruiters based on nationality and race.
Taking one local law firm example, Burges Salmon’s 2015 workforce diversity survey data states that 4.3% of their legal workforce have declared themselves as belonging to an ethnic minority group, whereas 16% of the local population in Bristol are black or belong to an ethnic minority group.
The SRA’s diversity data tells us that only 3% of solicitors and lawyers state they have a disability. Yet 9.5% of law student undergraduates who started their course in 2015 are known to have a disability, and 16% of the working age population of the UK are disabled .
This low percentage of disabled employed lawyers could mean;
– law firms are recruiting lawyers with a disability who are not then disclosing their disability, or
– solicitors with a disability are not being recruited because the employer does not want to make the reasonable adjustments that are legally required under the Equality Act 2010 (though these also apply to the recruitment process), or
– the employer believes they could be a problem and/or will not “fit in”.
Just 3% of solicitors/other lawyers state they are gay, lesbian or bisexual, comparing with Stonewall’s estimate of 5 to 7% of the population. In Pink News, solicitor Geraint Lloyd-Taylor writes in his article Gay Lawyers and the quiet revolution you haven’t even heard of (14 March 2014) of a cultural change at many law firms on diversity which means they are more accepting of diversity, resulting in a better quality of working life for LGB employees.
Good news! However nearly half of the comments from LGB lawyers made in reply to this article disagree – one says law firms are “Happy to tout their equality when convenient – and stuff you in the closet when not”.
With the large number of people starting a law degree who are from minority groups (nearly half according to 2015 data), I don’t think we can escape a conclusion that something is going seriously wrong at law firms – could it be our recruitment and promotion practices and our work culture which are not supporting the progression to qualified lawyer for law students from minority groups? And what can we do? Can we rely on our equal opportunities policy to turn things around? In Part 2 of this post I look at how changes to work culture, attitudes and recruitment processes can effect change.