Where is the diversity in law recruitment?

Women in Politics

Despite recent initiatives, the legal profession remains a bastion of white, middle-class, privately educated males. So what can be done to make it more inclusive? Harriet Swain reports on a roundtable debate.

At the beginning of his career, Dele Ogun, founding partner of the City law firm Akin Palmer, failed to get an interview as a solicitor until he left his name off his CV. “My name was a difficulty,” he says. Speak to almost any lawyer outside the white, male, public-school-educated establishment and there will be a story about the struggle to get – or at least feel – accepted by the profession.

And the figures back up the stories. A report commissioned by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission last year found 71% of senior judges went to independent schools and 75% went to Oxbridge. While more women than men now study law at university and become solicitors, and students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds made up 32% of those studying for law degrees in the UK in 2012-13, senior lawyers are a much less diverse group. The Chambers Student Guide 2014 gender diversity survey found just 24% of partners at an average commercial law firm were female. A report published last November by QCs Geoffrey Bindman and Karon Monaghan found that of the 12 judges in the supreme court 11 were white men and one a white woman, while in the court of appeal only seven – now eight – of the 38 lord justices were women and none was from an ethnic minority background.

How to address the lack of diversity within the legal profession, encourage more people from minority groups to join it, and law firms to be more open in the way they recruit and promote was the subject of a recent roundtable held by the Guardian and sponsored by The University of Law. It involved senior lawyers and representatives of legal groups dedicated to supporting diversity.

All recognised that the law was a competitive profession to enter for anyone, regardless of gender or race. But Ogun said while he found the competition rigorous at an academic level, it was fair. “No one has a problem with fair competition,” he said. “The problem was in terms of access after you had demonstrated that you had the academic capabilities to move into the level of practice.”

Many of the big law firms have been working hard to recruit from a more diverse pool, introducing initiatives such as CV-blind recruitment, whereby candidates are judged solely on an essay and interview, or providing workshops, work experience and mentoring, as well as more scholarships for underrepresented groups. But less is being done at higher levels.

A glass ceiling

Jonathan Smithers, vice-president of the Law Society, suggested that aspiration played an important role. “When I’m looking for people to work in my firm, sometimes the pool of people is not as wide as I would like it to be,” he said. “People need to aspire to become partners.” Miranda Brawn, a barrister and a director at Daiwa Capital Markets, said it was important for young people to have role models or mentors so they could see people like themselves in senior legal positions. She also urged lawyers from minority backgrounds to make an effort to network and socialise outside their comfort zone. Ogun argued: “Those of us from different backgrounds need to understand how the game is played.”

They also need to have confidence in their abilities, said Chris White, founder of Aspiring Solicitors, which aims to promote diversity in the law, although he insisted confidence wasn’t enough. “There is, to some degree, a glass ceiling in different organisations – this old boys network of you can’t get to the top of the profession because you’re not from this school or you don’t go to this polo club or this golf club. It exists, and anyone who says it doesn’t exist isn’t being true to themselves.”

Positive action

For Imran Khan, partner in the solicitors firm Imran Khan and Partners, the solution lies in positive action. “We have had this debate time and time again. We really have to reframe the debate and ask for a real change in the law. Otherwise it’s not going to work,” he said.

Chuka Udemezue, former co-chair of the Society of Black Lawyers, called for quotas, arguing that these would not mean taking on people with lower grades or who failed to meet entry criteria, but would simply reach out to people who would not otherwise be considered.

Some form of positive action is the only way to secure a critical mass of people from diverse backgrounds in the legal profession and thereby change the culture, said Matthew Ryder, a QC at Matrix Chambers. While he acknowledged that private firms could be tricky to persuade, he suggested that the government could begin to award contracts for legal services only to firms that could demonstrate a diverse workforce, insisting that such an approach would only work with the full support of the profession.

It would be unlikely to get it, argued Anesta Weekes, a QC at 23 Essex Street. She described barristers’ chambers as “little islands” that would be unwilling to conform to any kind of new regulation on positive action. “They will say: ‘We aren’t going to get our classic firsts [applicants with first-class degrees] walking in to chambers and it’s a first-class that we want.’”

White was also doubtful. While he said he dreamed of achieving true equality in terms of social mobility and disability as well as ethnicity and gender, he was worried about how to positively discriminate fairly across all under-represented groups.

He was also unsure about the feasibility of saying to individuals who were overwhelmingly white, middle-class and privately educated: “Don’t recruit people like yourselves.”

Ogun expressed mixed feelings about positive discrimination on the grounds that he wouldn’t like it for himself – “I like a struggle” – but wouldn’t want everyone to have to struggle the way he did. He suggested any positive action should start with the judiciary. This would send a broad signal about what a lawyer looks like, he said. There was the moral case that judges were funded by taxpayers so should be properly representative. And judges also had a direct impact on what went on in the bar. When instructing black barristers, he says, “something in the back of your mind says: ‘Is this going to affect the prospects of my client if they face a white judge?’”


For Alan Woods, director of apprenticeships at The University of Law, the answer is more data, leading to targets. While he did not agree that a change in the law was needed, he said regulators could do more to insist on law firms collecting more information about the diversity of their employees.

He was also hopeful that new legal apprenticeships would help. The number of apprenticeships available for aspiring lawyers has been growing steadily since 2011, he said, and last November The University of Law launched a six-year apprenticeship route to becoming a fully qualified solicitor.

Speakers at the roundtable agreed that such apprenticeships should help open the legal profession to a wider range of people.

“I often felt that the problem was the key to the door was on the inside, and those with aspiration were dependent on those on the inside to open the door,” said Ogun. “What I like about the apprenticeship initiative is it gives the possibility of someone skilling themselves up.”

There was also a consensus that applicants with top grades from top universities did not necessarily make the best lawyers. Focusing only on these applicants could lead to the UK legal system losing its edge, warned Smithers.

Woods accused law firms of laziness in concentrating on A-level qualifications when recruiting and failing to mention in recruitment literature that BTecs or access to higher education diplomas were also valid entry criteria, while White said firms should invest in more graduate recruiters to help sift applicants by more than mere grades. Lauren Riley, founder and director of The Link App, designed to help communications between law firms and clients, and a former contestant on the TV show The Apprentice, said it was important for people who had entered the legal profession through alternative routes to speak up to show others that it is possible.

But while Brawn supported the idea of an apprenticeship, she was worried that it would come up against snobbery, and there was a general concern among those at the roundtable that without support from the top of the legal profession it could lead to a two-tier system.

Until now, a legal apprenticeship could only lead to a job as a paralegal, but law firms have driven moves to change this to a full qualification to practise law from next year, and Woods was confident that this dynamism coming from the firms meant apprenticeships would become increasingly widely accepted.

But Udemezue was worried this was only part of the story and that former apprentices would find themselves at a disadvantage later in their careers when up against Oxbridge graduates.

Ryder also warned that focusing on vocational training from an early age sometimes created a narrow perspective and that those with a broader academic background to draw on could be more well-rounded.

Yet all agreed that the more diverse the routes into a legal career the better, because at least once people from diverse backgrounds were in they had the chance to shine. Once in, they could also begin to change the culture in what Khan called “a pale, male, stale profession”.

Source:  The Guardian



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