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Personelle Today

april 10, 2024


D&I in the legal sector: How can we accelerate progress?

Like many ‘traditional’ professions such as accountancy and finance, the legal sector is stepping up its efforts on diversity. But how can it achieve true inclusion, asks James Lavan?


Diversity is a perennial discussion topic for employers and a paramount concern for law firm leaders. One of the challenges is that diversity and inclusion can mean different things to different employers. Beyond rejecting discrimination and embracing the benefits of a more diverse workforce, there is no uniform or unifying consensus of its precise meaning.


For law firms who like certainty, that can be a challenge as they battle to increase their diversity through recruitment, targets, retention, and benchmarking against each other.


On the benchmark of gender, for example, law firms seem to be doing quite well. Recent data published by the Solicitors Regulation Authority shows that the proportion of women in UK law firms rose from 48% in 2015 to 53% last year. In fact, women have comprised the majority of newly qualified solicitors for more than two decades.


But the real problem is what happens in the 15 years after qualification, when the drop-out rate for women at big law firms is nearly twice that of their male counterparts. A smaller percentage of women stay on to become partners – typically in the 25-35% range. At law firms with more than 50 partners, only 28% are female.


Causes of this gender gap are many and complex. Beyond bias – unconscious or otherwise – family and a better work-life balance are the primary reasons given by women themselves to explain why they leave.


In a profession where long hours are a cultural norm, some of them choose to move elsewhere by their early thirties because they want to start a family. A number of so-called Magic Circle firms have recently bucked the trend, appointing women to senior partnerships.


Symbolic appointments


It was Allen & Overy that stole the big headlines this year, however, with the election of Hervé Ékué as the first Black leader of a Magic Circle firm. This was hailed as both “momentous” and “symbolic.”


Why is this so unusual? Ethnic diversity at law firms has generally made slower progress – particularly for Black lawyers who are still underrepresented compared to their Asian counterparts.


Change has accelerated since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, when Black Lives Matter protests against racism swept across the US forcing law firms to deal with inequality and diversity in their own ranks – a trend that gained momentum here in the UK too.


An increased focus on diversity has led to more chief diversity officers (CDOs) being appointed in US and UK law firms. Some global firms now have diversity teams of ten or more. These efforts are starting to pay dividends with the number of Black solicitors rising in most City law firms.


Scroll through the online photos of any firm and the female and ethnic minority lawyers are, of course, instantly identifiable. They are also routinely evaluated in terms of comparative data, which can act as a spur towards further progress.


But inclusion – the ‘I’ part of D&I – is usually less apparent and perhaps more easily overlooked by those responsible for recruitment. You can tell nothing of a lawyer’s school, background, or university by simply looking at their photo.


Social mobility


In truth, the lack of inclusion in law firms is a largely invisible, intangible problem that is intertwined with social mobility – primarily a by-product of the English class system that firms have traditionally ignored, but more are starting to address.


For young lawyers and potential lawyers, it is something they instantly recognise in visiting law firm offices: they walk in and meet lots of people who are not like them, from a different social or educational background.


They know they could be in a minority, but cannot vocalise it; they are not actively discriminated against, but they feel that they do not fit in.

Law firms are not alone in trying to improve inclusion. They are wrestling with the same issues as a lot of other professional services firms.



As I. Stephanie Boyce, former president of the Law Society, noted recently: “Working class people, who are under-represented across organisations and at senior levels, report feeling less included in the workplace.”


As someone from a working-class background – my dad is a roofer from Glasgow, my mum a teaching assistant from Lewisham in south-east London – it is something that young lawyers often tell me. It resonates.


Law firms are not alone in trying to improve inclusion. They are wrestling with the same issues as a lot of other professional services firms: trying to dispense with antiquated attitudes, hallmarks of the class system such as etiquette, and focus instead on wider abilities.


Driving change


Changing big institutions that were designed for white middle-class men takes time. But there is a genuine desire to change and take full advantage of a broader pool of talent. Certainly, the shortage of available talent in recent years has been a key driver of change.


For example, many law firms are looking at alternative qualification methods similar to apprenticeships, or using the paralegal route and training paralegals internally, which dispenses with the expensive post-graduate LPC qualification – at £14,000, a deterrent to students from less well-off backgrounds.


On the long road to achieving the full potential that true diversity and full inclusion can bring, law firms acutely recognise the key constituent elements that matter: gender, race and social background. It will take several years before they ultimately reach their goal. But reach it, they will.

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