Diversity in the legal profession

Contrary to the belief of Ron Burgundy and his comrades in the film Anchorman, “diversity” is most definitely not “an old, old wooden ship” (Source). Over the past few years, it is no secret that there has been a constant debate about how diverse the legal profession really is and if steps have been made to change the status quo.

The universal definition of diversity within the working world focuses on combating discrimination in employment and promoting fairness and equality within the workplace at all times. The aspects of diversity are: disability, age, sex, gender reassignment, sexual orientation, race, religion and belief, social mobility, marriage and civil partnership and pregnancy and maternity. This can also be connected to Human Rights Law as it covers all areas in working life; from dismissal issues to treatment of minority groups in the workplace.

With regards to employment law, the Equality Act 2010 has been put in place to outline the framework of legislation to protect and enforce equality in the UK. All companies, including law firms, are obligated to adhere to what are known as ‘equal employment guidelines’. Amazingly, quite a lot of modern law firms are now actively working on improving and promoting their diversity policies.

The question here is: What has been done to boost diversity and how have changes been implemented?

Diversity within the legal sector

It is evident that although “there has been no shortage of initiatives from the UK’s largest commercial law firms to increase the diversity of their intake” (Source), it is noticeable that the websites of most major law firms will include sections on their commitment to creating a diverse profession. But how many of them are actually putting these initiatives to practice? Despite recent initiatives, it can be seen that areas of the legal profession “remain a bastion of white, middle-class, privately educated males” (Source).

As we know, the legal profession has traditionally been viewed as white, male and elitist, and it is often hard for anyone who does not fit the bill to be considered for positions within top firms. There is no doubt that this is quite a big barrier to break down, and there are arguably still a lot of issues to overcome. However, action is now being taken to tackle discrimination, open up the sector and create equal employment opportunities in the modern legal profession.

What legal diversity networks are out there?

Diversity initiatives and societies

As of recently, a number of representative groups have been established within the legal sector. Below are a few which collaborate with the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority (SRA) and Law Society (as reported here):

  • The Black Solicitors’ Network (BSN) are a well-known group who work towards “equality of access, retention and promotion of black solicitors within the sector” (Source).

  • The Lawyers with Disabilities Division (LDD) is “committed to promoting equality of opportunity for people with disabilities – whether they are solicitors, would-be solicitors or clients” (Source).

  • Interlaw is an inter-organisational forum for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) networks, and was established to address LGBT in the legal sector.

  • The Association of Women Solicitors is now part of the Law Society’s new Women Lawyers Division, to support and advise all women including graduates and those who have retired.

  • Aspiring Solicitors are committed to increasing diversity in the legal profession by, amongst other things, providing free access, opportunity and assistance to students from underrepresented groups, and promoting and encouraging diversity from within the profession.

  • Lastly, the rise of legal apprenticeships and talks about a possible “Solicitor Apprenticeship” to work alongside the traditional graduate route to becoming a lawyer is indication of a wave of change in the legal sector. Though it’s currently a whisper, there is potential for this route to become an established pathway, meaning an increase for social mobility.

The Law Society is perhaps the biggest network of them all which has put diversity at the forefront of everything that they do. Since 2009, the Law Society has been working with firms through its Diversity Charter to help them turn their commitment to diversity and inclusion into positive, practical action for their businesses, staff and clients and actually implement changes.

They are committed to helping the legal profession be actively: inclusive, reflective of diversity within society; responsive and “able to prove a sensitive, appropriate and highly professional service to all sections of society”, and; be able to build up companies to become good employers, recruiting on merit and offering training and development opportunities to all employees (Source). Additionally, the Law Society has a Diversity Access Scheme that has been put in place with the sole aim ‘to improve social mobility in the legal profession by supporting talented, tenacious people who face exceptional social, educational, financial or personal obstacles to qualification as a solicitor’(Source). The Law Society has had fantastic results from this as to date the scheme has supported around 150 aspiring solicitors to pursue their career ambitions!

Recent news on diversity

During the remainder of last year, the Black Solicitors Network’s (BSN) announced that they were having their seventh annual UK Diversity Legal Awards. UK Diversity Legal Awards are the only industry awards to solely focus on recognising, promoting and celebrating equality, diversity and inclusion across the legal profession and thus, many years later, they are continuously celebrated for it.

During the months of October and November, Magic Circle firms and international firms battled it out for diversity gongs. Hogan Lovells shortlisted for three awards but Freshfields, Clifford Chance, and Linklaters are also in the running. These firms have been celebrated because they were recognised for increasing diversity within the legal profession. However, the big winner at last year’s awards was Linklaters, which was acknowledged as having the best retention of talent initiative. What is more, they also took home a gong for best City firm.

The Magic Circle outfit is once again up for a top gong alongside Clifford Chance, Berwin Leighton Paisner, Norton Rose Fullbright, and Latham & Watkins.

Is there diversity in the legal profession?

To conclude, it is evident that a lot of firms have taken on what Lord Neuberger said in late 2013. Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, when speaking at the Institute of Government on the 18th June 2013, said the legal profession needed to do more to improve diversity.

Although the legal sector often gets a bit of stick for being an old white boys club, and has a stereotype of being open only to Oxbridge education individuals, we can agree that in the present day many changes are being made to promote diversity as much as possible.

In my own experience, I have had the pleasure of attending not one but two of the Aspiring Solicitors’ events that have taken place at my university. The founder, Chris, had the drive and the determination to help as many minority ethnic students as possible to get to recognised positions within the legal profession. Needless to say I was more than inspired. It amazing how the BAME Network is growing in such a traditional profession, slowly making it a more diverse one.

There are definitely still issues to overcome; however, no industry is a perfectly diverse. Indeed, there will be initiatives and societies developing in the near future that have the aim of making the legal sector a representative industry, to hopefully accelerate diversity in the long run.

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