Part of the fold? CILEX lawyers and 'belonging'
Professor Chris Bones comments that the legal sector must work harder to support CILEX lawyers and those from non-traditional backgrounds
The fundamental problem facing employers in the legal sector is that many continue to sustain cultures that value social standing over professional competence.
We operate in a sector where presenteeism and hours worked (and billed) continue to drive decisions on career development and where the school and university background of candidates is of greater significance than their emotional intelligence, problem solving, business and communication skills. Many employees, regardless of title, are flagging issues with how they are managed and how decisions are made about their performance, reward and careers. Compared to employment experiences of their peers in other parts of the economy, the law seems for many to be operating in a Dickensian time-warp.
How do we know this?
In recent weeks we have seen as series of reports, from the Bar Council, LawCare and our own survey of CILEX members, that demonstrate the impact this mindset is having on those working in the sector.
Legal professionals are experiencing widespread problems in the workplace. LawCare found more than two-thirds of lawyers (69 per cent) have experienced mental ill health in the last year, with the Bar Council’s survey revealing nearly one in three respondents had personal experience of bullying, harassment and/or discrimination within the previous two years.
Despite their qualifications and experience, many CILEX lawyers felt they were treated with a lack of respect and that other lawyers considered them to be lesser lawyers than their solicitor counterparts. 81 per cent believed the rest of the profession looks down on them. Many employers report an exodus from the profession, particularly of younger lawyers, and there are some areas of practice that seem remarkably fragile as a result of a reducing supply of entry level talent. This is reflected in our own membership figures which show almost twice the number of 16-24 years olds leaving the legal profession this year compared to last.
These findings combine to suggest that as a sector we face a crisis in organisation cultures that needs to be addressed.
Failing on diversity
Three-quarters of responding CILEX members were women, 17 per cent from an ethnic minority background, and 70 per cent from a non-selective state school. CILEX’s report showed that the barriers that all CILEX members face are compounded further if they are female, ethnic minority, or went to a non-selective state school.
Almost half of ethnic minority respondents have experienced discrimination in their careers. Just 34 per cent of ethnic minority CILEX lawyers and 49 per cent of white CILEX lawyers thought their employers sought to promote people from diverse backgrounds into leadership positions.
That the most diverse arm of the legal profession work in what our report found to be a ‘hostile environment’ makes for uncomfortable reading – and suggests the profession needs to ask itself whether it is truly succeeding in attracting and retaining talent from those backgrounds.
Most CILEX lawyers qualify by fitting in study around work. For so many, university education was not an option, and without the possibility of evening or weekend study, it would have been hard to progress in the profession.
They have worked hard to make it into a legal career, often coming from less advantaged social backgrounds, without private education or a Russell Group university on their CV.
Too many legal sector employers appear to have a problem with employees who don’t fit the mould – and, while many have opened up – over 1,000 CILEX lawyers have made it to partner level in a range of firms – but many are still left behind.
We have to modernise
As the Law Care and Bar Council surveys have shown, the experience of CILEX lawyers is just one facet of a wider problem.
We need to look at how can we improve the treatment, retention and development of talented people across the board. How can we ensure that not only does bias not come into the recruitment process but is also prevented from impacting on promotion prospects throughout an individual’s career? Other professions, accountancy for example, expect merit and outcomes to drive careers and rewards, not university education and the specific qualification or title achieved – how can we introduce this as ‘the norm’ for the law?
Firms are getting better at changing their hiring processes to improve diversity in their ranks, and many are setting quotas and targets. But progress is slow, and is made even more difficult by the high levels of attrition in these cadres, as they experience the reality of working in a culture that Dickens would not find surprising.
Law Society figures show retention rates for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) solicitors are lower in larger City firms than for their white peers, with many leaving to join smaller firms, or parts of the legal sector that are seen as being more inclusive, such as in-house legal departments.
How do we change the culture that our members overwhelming still see as an “old boys’ club” with too many restrictive practices and barriers to entrance and progression?
The problem will not be solved by the individual actions of law firms alone. Nor by one or other profession making recommendations. We need an industry-wide consensus – which is why we are writing to both the other major professional bodies suggesting we sit down together to map out a way forward.
We need an employment standard that outlines best practice, defining behaviours and processes firms should have in place to create a work environment where employees thrive. Those which meet the externally benchmarked standards will become sought-after employers. and set a blueprint for others to follow.
As someone with a background in industry, it strikes me that that the law, more than other sectors of our economy, is still operating within the mores of an outdated class structure was never kind to those who don’t fit the traditional mould of what a professional is expected to be. If we want a legal sector and a justice system that represents the society it serves then as a sector, together, we will need to take class out of our profession and replace it with respect for professional standards associated with outcomes, not with title.
Professor Chris Bones is Chair of CILEX (the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives): cilex.org.uk