The diversity series—BAME diversity in the legal profession

Diversity isn’t a new word or concept. If you look back throughout history, there are many famous examples of diversity shaping the world; from the mass migrations during the industrial revolution leading to a ‘melting pot’ of cultures across many countries, to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, in the present day it has become one of the biggest buzzwords. Whether it’s to do with gender, race, culture or something else, we all appear to be moving to a society that is aware of these differences and the barriers people may face if classed as a minority. These issues raised by diversity are most often discussed in terms of employment and the workplace. This has become especially prevalent in the legal profession, with a particular spotlight on the lack diversity within the sector.

As part of a series focusing on diversity in the legal profession, this article takes a deeper dive into the issues for black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) individuals in the sector. This series can also be followed on our podcast channel Lex Chat, where we interview four legal professionals from diverse backgrounds to discuss their journey into the profession, the barriers they’ve faced and how they think the sector is adapting to diversity today.

When trying to address why diversity has risen to the top of legal firm’s priorities, I looked at the benefits of having a diversified legal sector. There were many, but to name a few:

  • links have been made between diversity and profitability—Mckinsey’s ‘Why diversity Matters’ in particular, outlined that businesses perform better financially with a more diverse workforce. McKinsey found that in 2014, ‘companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 15% more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile’ and comparing this with data collected in 2017, this number rose to 21%—for ethnic and cultural diversity the numbers reflected the same with 35% likelihood of outperformance in 2014 and 33% outperformance on EBIT margin in 2017
  • a diverse workforce can produce greater innovation—having a workforce of all varied backgrounds means they can offer different perspectives on how a common goal is to be achieved
  • as reported by Today’s Conveyancer in How diverse is your law firm?, the present climate is seeing a rise in the demand for legal skills across the UK—with law firms being busier than ever having a diverse workforce means they can look to a wider talent pool of individuals to increase their capacity and improve work efficiency
  • society has changed and so has the cliental—living in a generation where technology is at the end of your fingertips, the scope to reach a wider diverse audience from around the globe is now possible, and often expected. Having a diverse legal profession means it is better equipped to empathise with society, understand different cultures and overcome unforeseen barriers like language. It ensures trust and faith is put into it as it reflects the world clients are living in

After uncovering the above, I questioned why, if diversity has been proven to have so many benefits for the businesses and the legal profession, is it only today we’re seeing such a drive towards achieving it? In talking with both Paulette Mastin, council at Linklaters and chair of the Black Solicitor’s Network and Ranjit Sond, solicitor, visiting lecturer at BPP and president of the Society of Asian Lawyers, for their opinions on the matter, they both came to similar conclusions. Some of the main reasons highlighted were around the rise in reports on diversity in the workplace, such as the governments Race in the workplace: The McGregor-Smith review and the Race Disparity Audit. As Paulette said: ‘What gets measured gets done’ and ‘strong metrics around economic benefits have driven the business case for embedding diversity in the workplace’. In referring back to the Mckinsey report, she says that these kinds of stats have made senior management become more inclined to take interest in the subject of ‘diversity’ to benefit their company’s profitability and financial performance.

As the profession moves forward and attempts to keep up with the modernising world, Ranjit believes that the push for diversifying the legal sector has come from its attempt to redress the imbalance of a flawed recruitment policy and move away from these ‘old’ methods. He stressed how it is well known, that in general, the legal profession is ‘just not diverse enough’ because of the sectors limited recruitment processes—for example only selecting candidates from the small pool of Oxbridge graduates at the bigger, magic circle firms. Paulette explored this point further, as she says prior to recruitment, there are already ‘structural disadvantages at the point of entry to the profession’ in terms of university education. The Solicitor’s Regulation Authority (SRA) released the baseline attainment data publication in 2015, which outlines the attainment gap between white and BAME students across all legal education. It revealed, among other things, that non-BAME students had a higher pass rate, and the gap was even more pronounced for black students.

In relation with the above, Paulette and Ranjit said, one of the most difficult barriers to tackle, which has come out of these reports is stereotyping and conscious or unconscious bias. Ranjit notes that this subconscious attitude towards others, can hinder individuals at both the entry and progression levels in the profession, but is not something that is so easy to overcome because it isn’t always immediately obvious.

Another notable barrier is the ‘glass ceiling’ effect. The numbers of BAME individuals entering the profession has risen and almost doubled. Despite this, when looking further up the chain to mid and senior levels, there’s a high level of attrition for BAME professionals, with the annual public diversity league table showing just 8% of partners being BAME. Ranjit stresses how detrimental this can be, not only for those on the promotion conveyor belt, but to those entering the profession. He says that the lack of visible role models and mentors can often fail to inspire the next generation and show them where their career can go.

To overcome these barriers, the legal profession has started to put some mitigating practices in place to try and make a difference. Some of those initiatives include:

  • awareness of unconscious bias—firms have started to address unconscious bias in their recruitment levels by introducing training for all staff, particularly those involved in the recruitment process. As well as this, anonymised application forms and CVs are becoming best practice to ensure it unconscious bias is eradicated at the shortlisting stage. Paulette highlighted though, that for these new practices to work, the mindset must also be changed to ensure the operational changes are not short lived
  • mentor and networking—as discussed by Ranjit, mentoring and networking with those of a similar background who are higher up the employment chain can inspire those entering the legal profession. The Society of Asian Lawyers often hosts networking events for university students
  • widening the recruitment pool—to ensure new talent is found from a wider talent pool, firms are creating further opportunities through sponsorships or alliances with organisations, such as Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, the Sutton Trust and Rare Recruitment
  • knowing your requirements and monitoring diversity—some firms have set quotas for diversity, however these aren’t enforced by law. LexisNexis has outlined an Equality and diversity (E&D)—overview, on regulatory requirements for E&D and diversity monitoring, diversity monitoring and data protection, protected characteristics, among other things

Although there is still a long way to go, there have been some big strides forward on diversity progress. As well as there being a new found sense of awareness and healthy discussion, the SRA reported that the proportion of BAME lawyers in England and Wales has increased to one in five—from 14% in 2014 to 21% in 2017. As Paulette mentioned, these numbers are beginning to reflect the percentage of BAME individuals in UK society.

However, even though the profession is moving in the right direction, this progression is slow; and as Paulette says: ‘It will be some time before we see the current programmes and initiatives for progression yield results.’

Filed Under: Diversity

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