Don't stop now
Diversity must not be lost in the challenging post-covid era, urges Dana Denis-Smith
For the under-25s, the covid-19 pandemic is taking a huge toll on their education, career plans and future job prospects. This so called covid generation has suffered estimated A-Level results, a university education conducted partially online and an incredibly tough jobs market.
With the economy falling into the deepest recession since records began and the furlough scheme drawing to a close, redundancies are inevitable and we will undoubtedly see a reduction in entry level positions for those starting out in a legal career.
The Daily Mail recently reported that jobs website cv-library.co.uk was seeing job applications rise from an average of 25 per role to thousands. Notably, a trainee paralegal position attracted a staggering 4,228 applications.
This should be a concern for us all. If those leaving education now are not able to get that first foot on the ladder, where does the next generation of lawyers come from?
We also face the possibility that those facing the most barriers to entry, from black and minority ethnic (BAME) or socially disadvantaged backgrounds, will be even less likely to progress.
Not everyone comes into the profession through the traditional route of the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and a training contract. Many law graduates work as paralegals before being offered a training contract. More young people are training on the job, perhaps through apprenticeships or by qualifying through the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx).
These alternative routes often attract women or those from diverse backgrounds. Nearly three quarters (72%) of CILEx members are women for example, while 12 per cent are from a BAME background. Women are more likely than men to work in secretarial or legal support roles as school leavers, moving on to carry out legal work and later qualifying to be lawyers.
So, it is not just a shortage of training contracts that can impact the future pipeline of new lawyers – a reduction in these stepping stone roles, often filled by women, will have an impact too.
An increase in remote working is also likely to have a detrimental impact on those learning the ropes – inevitably training and ad hoc mentoring is made harder when people are not physically together. This means firms will need to put more effort into formalising the development opportunities lawyers and non-lawyers have when all staff work in the office every day.
We have seen a great deal of progress in recent years, with more women joining the profession and an increasing focus among firms of the benefits a diverse workforce can bring. However, in tough times when businesses are understandably under pressure, commitments to diversity and inclusion are easily forgotten. With fewer resources, high demand and fewer roles to fill, efforts to widen the pool of candidates away from the usual narrow selection of universities and backgrounds can take a back seat. This means missing out on talented individuals who may not meet traditional expectations of who becomes a lawyer.
There are positive signs that firms are not turning away from considering how the diversity problem can be tackled. In part spurred on by the recent Black Lives Matter protests, Allen & Overy is seeking to achieve greater diversity in its London office by aiming to have 15 per cent of its partnership from an ethnic minority by 2025. Along with 16 other City firms, it has agreed to conduct a data drive to find out where BAME lawyers are falling behind their white peer group.
I would like to see continued positive action by firms to tackle inequality. Women and ethnic minorities are still poorly represented at the top.
The fight for equality relies on a diverse pipeline of future lawyers coming up through the ranks. It would be disastrous if some of the hard won progress on diversity achieved is reversed as a result of the current economic turbulence.
Dana Denis-Smith is founder of The First 100 Years project first100years.org.uk