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Greater diversity in senior solicitor positions needed before equality achieved

Greater diversity in senior solicitor positions needed before equality achieved


News of growing social mobility is tempered by lack of representation for women, BAMEs, and the disabled in solicitor profession

The Solicitor Profession Diversity Profile data for 2015, released today by the Law Society, shows a profession where over half of its members are the first generation in their family to attend university, suggesting an increase in social mobility.

However, an analysis of the socio-economic makeup of the profession found solicitors are more likely to have attended fee-paying schools (27 per cent) than the rest of society in general (7 per cent). The Sutton Trust's recent report 'Leading People 2016' showed that half of partners in Magic Circle firms attended independent or fee-paying schools, while an analysis from the SRA reports that 29 per cent of partners and 23 per cent of solicitors benefitted from being educated at such schools.

Notwithstanding some positive figures in the Law Society's report, progress is still needed to grow the representation of women, BAME groups, and those with disabilities, especially in senior roles. Much has already been made of the news that more women than men are joining the profession '“ now making up 48 per cent of all solicitors '“ but female representation at the top of law firms remains stubbornly low.

The proportion of women partners has risen from 15 per cent in 1995 to 29 per cent in 2015. Yet despite this steady increase, a recent analysis of partner profiles found the situation was less rosy at leading UK firms, where just 21 per cent of Magic Circle partners and 19 per cent of Silver Circle partners were women.

Solutions to this gender gap remain elusive, following the profession's dismissal of quotas as a means to increase diversity at the top of the legal pyramid. A survey from legal recruiter Laurence Simons found that 47 per cent of respondents considered quotas to be ineffective, despite almost two-thirds of women lawyers believing their gender had hampered their career progress.

The proportion of solicitors from black and minority ethnic backgrounds stands at 13.9 per cent, a 0.2 per cent increase on 2014, and closely mirroring that of the general population, according to Chancery Lane's latest figures. Census data for England and Wales in 2011 found that of those in the population aged between 16 and 64, 14.4 per cent described themselves as belonging to a BAME group.

Within the BAME solicitor population as a whole, women are better represented (56 per cent) than the white population (48 per cent). However, BAME solicitors, like women, are underrepresented at partnership level, with only 11 per cent of partners coming from BAME backgrounds.

Greater representation was found at smaller firms, however, with 17 per cent of partners in two-to-four partner firms having a BAME background. This contrasts with larger firms '“ those with over 81 partners '“ which were found to be sorely lacking, with just 4.8 per cent of BAME partners.

The report comes on the same day The Lawyer revealed that the ethnic makeup of Clifford Chance's partnership hit its lowest level in six years, with only 5 per cent of its London-based partners coming from a BAME background.

The revelation will come as an embarrassment to the Magic Circle outfit, which was recently shortlisted both for the 'Attracting Talent' award at the BSN's UK Diversity Legal Awards and for its commitment to diversity and inclusion at the British LGBT awards.

Disability, religion, and sexuality

Around 6 per cent of solicitors reported having a long-term illness, health problem, or disability. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, 16 per cent of working-age adults have a long-term illness, impairment, or disability. Law Society research from 2003 suggested solicitors are reluctant to classify themselves as disabled, so the latest figures could be higher.

Practitioners with disabilities were more likely to work in the government sector (11 per cent) than in private practice (5 per cent) or other in-house legal teams (6 per cent).

Robert Bourns, the president of the Law Society, acknowledged that people with disabilities are underrepresented in the profession and greater diversity in senior positions was needed 'before we can say with any confidence that we demonstrate equal opportunities for all'.

Bourns said: 'As the professional body for solicitors, we support progress for the best candidates, regardless of their background, so that our profession reflects the population it serves.'

Meanwhile, data on the religious orientation of the general population suggests solicitors with no religion (35 per cent) are overrepresented within the profession, whereas those of Christian (47 per cent) and Muslim faiths (4 per cent) are underrepresented. The Law Society's survey also found that around 2 per cent of solicitors identified as Jewish, 2 per cent as Hindu, and 1.5 per cent as Sikh, followed by less than 1 per cent as Buddhist.

The findings on sexual orientation were said to be broadly representative of the UK population. Over nine in ten solicitors were found to be heterosexual and just 2.6 per cent lesbian, gay, or bisexual. The government estimates that between 5 and 7 per cent of the population is LGB.

In a recent article for Solicitors Journal, Erin Smith, chair of the LGBT division of the Law Society, encouraged firms to embrace their LGBT colleagues for the good of their careers and business. 'Encourage, promote, and let people be themselves to get on with their jobs,' she said. 'Your bottom line will thank you, and ultimately your profession will too.'

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor at Solicitors Journal | @JvdLD