‘We need an inclusive profession’: what can law firms do to improve diversity?

<span>Photograph: Maskot/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Maskot/Getty Images

What comes to mind when you think of “a legal professional”? Last year, when researchers at The University of Law (ULaw) asked this question, the most common perception – perhaps unsurprisingly – was still a white man. So just how diverse is the legal profession in 2022?

The last three decades have seen the profession acknowledge how important it is to improve diversity, promote inclusion and tackle discrimination. And change is happening (pdf) – if rather slowly. In 1970, fewer than 10% of new solicitors were female. By the late 1990s, women accounted for more than half of all new entrants. In 2016, they accounted for just over 60%.

But there’s still much work to be done. Women still remain underrepresented at high levels. Only 5% of all lawyers declare a disability, which is considerably lower than the UK workforce average of 14%. And just 17% of lawyers come from a lower socioeconomic background.

And looking beyond statistics is also vital, says Shaid Parveen, senior tutor, associate professor, and chair of the ULaw Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Staff Network. She was awarded legal academic of the year at the Women in Law awards 2021. “The proportion of ethnically diverse lawyers is 21%, which on the face of it looks very positive,” she says. “But a 2021 Law Society report indicated that ethnically diverse lawyers are still facing barriers which include the ethnicity pay gap, microaggressions and progression. We need a representative and inclusive profession if we are going to be able to compete within the global legal sector and to meet the diverse needs of our clients.”

Law firms must take the diversity challenge seriously – not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it makes firms better. “The Law Society’s position on this is that law firms rely on the quality of their people and win business by reflecting the clients and communities they serve,” says ULaw tutor Katie Reid. She’s the founder of iBelong, a club which aims to empower students from non-traditional backgrounds to study and enter the profession with confidence.

“Every student and lawyer, no matter what socioeconomic background they come from, brings a unique way of solving problems,” she points out. “These strategies are shaped by our personalities, experiences and culture. Diversifying the talent pool to include every socioeconomic group prevents uniformity in law and promotes new business opportunities and creativity.”

So how are firms improving their equality, diversity and inclusion? Of course, all firms must follow the law and ensure they comply fully with the Equality Act 2010. But there is so much more they can do. Solicitor apprenticeships, where trainees earn as they learn, are now offered by numerous law firms, such as Irwin Mitchell and Mishcon de Reya. They’re helping to lower the barriers to those who are very talented but can’t afford the costs of legal training, and they’re proving popular. In 2016, just 30 apprenticeships were on offer: in 2019/20, that number had jumped to 242.

Encouraging representation is key, says Matt Tomlinson, dean of ULaw’s Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle campuses. “For any LGBTQ+ person to see themselves represented in their industry or workplace is immensely powerful. It offers a sense of security and reassurance that they can belong in that environment and are not alone.”

Initiatives such as sharing information about LGBTQ+ history month, he says, promote a better understanding of the issues that the LGBTQ+ community have faced and continue to face. “This understanding is so important in promoting an inclusive culture within an organisation.”

Related: ‘I just think differently’: how an autistic lawyer landed his dream career

ULaw alumna Haleemah Farooq agrees. She is a casework officer at the office of the Kent police and crime commissioner, and host of Disability’s Not a Bar, a podcast for disabled aspiring barristers. “For example, being a white cane user has made my office more aware of me. They will say my name before speaking or will now describe something in more detail for my benefit. Equally, I am also Muslim, and this year I undertook fasting in the month of Ramadan. My colleagues were respectful, not to speak of food and drink around me.”

Changing the law profession for the better will take time, but change is already underway. Everyone can play a part, says Parveen. “Have a vision of the changes you want to see and be realistic, as there will be turbulence and you will face resistance along the way. And be prepared to challenge senior leaders who should be prepared to listen and act, as any change in culture needs to come from the top down.

“Change does not come through being complacent. It is as a result of being proactive and thinking about those around you and the future generations.”

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