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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:
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:
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.’
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