Representation in the legal sector: what do the latest numbers tell us?

Representation in the legal sector: what do the latest numbers tell us?
cross_sellAccording to the Law Society’s latest Annual Statistics Report, the proportion of ethnic minority solicitors has more than doubled since 2000, although they continue to be significantly under-represented at partner-level. It also found that the number of practising solicitors was over a third higher than ten years ago and over two-thirds of that growth accounted for by women. However as solicitors got older, the figures reflected the reality that women were more likely to leave the profession and not return. Funke Abimbola, managing counsel for Roche Products Limited and diversity champion, considers the findings of the Law Society’s Annual Statistics Report, interviewed by LexisPSL.

What does the Law Society's latest report tell us about the state of representation of women in the profession?

The report confirms that the following issue still remains a very real one—while women are attracted to the legal profession at entry-level in droves and account for almost half of solicitors with practising certificates, retaining women solicitors and progressing to the more senior levels of the profession remains a challenge. It is also interesting that there are more women solicitors working in-house than there are male solicitors, possibly given the slightly different culture working in-house as opposed to private practice.

What about the ability of private practice law firms to retain women lawyers? Is there a particular problem with retention in the larger City firms?

This remains a real issue due to the fee-earning/billable hours business model operated by private practice law firms and the higher billable hour targets that the larger City firms tend to have for their fee-earners. There is an inherently macho working culture within City firms in particular, which poses a real challenge to women solicitors wanting to progress their careers. This becomes even more of an issue when women decide to have children, go on maternity leave, return to work and want to work more flexibly and is increasingly an issue for male solicitors who might want to work flexibly. While it is, genuinely, not always possible to achieve a successful flexible working pattern working within certain areas of practice (for example corporate law), I am not convinced that a flexible working culture has been truly embraced by many City firms.

What do the latest figures reveal about the representation of minority ethnic solicitors in the profession?

The figures confirm a divergence even within the BME community working in private practice with the majority of BME solicitors in private practice coming from an Asian background (7.8%) and the smallest representation being the African-Caribbean community (0.7%). Further, career progression for BME solicitors remains a source of concern with barriers to career progession—only one fifth of BME solicitors are partners compared with one-third of white European solicitors.

In your experience, how does private practice compare to the in-house profession on these issues?

My experience of working in-house is that industry has a more pragmatic approach towards recruiting talent generally. While qualifications and experience are still important, my experience has been that industry does not recruit in quite the prescriptive manner that many of the larger law firms tend to. There are still far too many law firms who only recruit graduates from Oxford, Cambridge or a Russell Group university. While this served as a useful tool for sifting the sheer volumes of applicants for roles, the effect has been to exclude many candidates from disadvantaged or under-represented groups. What struck me when I started working in industry was the ethnic and socio-economic diversity of my colleagues, something I had never experienced working in private practice.

Where do you stand on the argument for quotas to promote greater representation?

I prefer to use the word ‘target’ rather than ‘quota’. ‘Quota’ suggests that an allotted number of roles need to be filled by those meeting set criteria which is, frankly, insulting for applicants who want to be appointed on merit. ‘Target’ denotes an aspirational goal that you can work towards within a set time frame. I believe that targets are absolutely essential as a focal point with the emphasis then being on putting in place the necessary structures and support required in order to meet that target.

To what extent are corporate clients driving positive change on diversity in the profession?

There are a growing number of clients who are including diversity criteria as a core component when looking to appoint external lawyers for their legal panels as would be the case with any other supplier. I have certainly heard about law firms losing client pitches due to a lack of gender or BME diversity within the firm. I can only see this positive change continuing.

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