Publish and be damned: LSB says regulators should inspect firms’ diversity data

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By Legal Futures

26 July 2011

Edmonds: transparency has to be the cornerstone for further progress

Law firms and chambers whose workforces are significantly at odds with the make-up of the wider profession can expect questions from their regulators, the Legal Services Board (LSB) has warned.

The LSB today confirmed that it is pressing ahead with controversial plans to make firms and chambers survey and publish the levels of diversity and social mobility in their workforces.

Having this information will help consumers “take better account of diversity in purchasing decisions”, it said.

The LSB has, however, made a small concession by allowing employers not to publish the results on sexual orientation, religion or belief, and gender reassignment.

LSB chief executive Chris Kenny told Legal Futures today that it was persuaded that there are real concerns among the likes of Stonewall that individuals could be inadvertently “outed” by the process.

However, the LSB is not convinced that this will happen in practice and the decision paper published today said the position will be reviewed by the end of 2013 with a view to ending the concession in 2014.

The results of the surveys, which should be collated by the end of next year, will be used to build an overall picture of equality and diversity in the eight branches of the legal profession – providing an evidence base for future action – and also identify areas of the profession where there may be issues.

Drilling down yet further, Mr Kenny said that LSB expects the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Bar Standards Board and other regulators to take a close look at practices whose results should a significant deviation from the norm. There may be a reasonable explanation, he said, but he made it clear that the questions should be asked.

Responses to the consultation showed broad support for the proposals, except for the requirement for firms and chambers to publish their own data, to which the reaction was very mixed.

Every person will be asked to self-classify against the characteristics set out in the Equality Act: age, gender, disability, ethnic group, religion or belief, sexual orientation and caring responsibilities. Questions on socio-economic background have been added to ensure that social mobility is specifically addressed for the first time.

Staff will have the option not to answer and while the LSB recognised that this may mean the statistics are incomplete and/or skewed, “our view is that data collection on such a basis would still represent a major improvement on the status quo”.

LSB chairman David Edmonds said: “The new requirements to measure the diversity of the workforce and publish results serve two purposes. Firstly, these measures will create commercial incentives to widen the base of lawyers by shining a light for consumers on the adequacy levels of diversity within firms.

“Secondly, the aggregate data will improve the ability of the regulators to shape new initiatives to improve diversity across the profession. Transparency has to be the cornerstone for further progress.”

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