Senior partners should undergo diversity training, LSB-funded research recommends

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By Legal Futures

14 October 2010

Kenny: slow progress of 'top down' change means other approaches are needed

Regulators should consider making diversity training mandatory for senior partners and line managers in law firms, say academics after research uncovered a complex web of barriers between minorities and women, and the upper reaches of the legal profession.

Findings from the research on diversity in the legal profession, funded by the Legal Services Board (LSB), were launched at a conference at the University of Westminster in London yesterday. The researchers found that despite recent advances in equality and diversity, a variety of factors means senior roles in the profession are still largely the preserve of middle class, white men.

The findings will be backed up by forthcoming Law Society research into pay disparity that has uncovered “a kind of structural inequality”.

Although in 2008-9 women made up 46% of all solicitors on the roll and 52% of those called to the Bar in that year were women, relatively few make it to the top. Similarly, black and minority ethnic (BME) lawyers now make up 24% of admissions to the roll and 16% of barristers, yet tend to occupy lower-paid, lower-status positions.

The LSB project, carried out by academics from the universities of Westminster, Leeds and Leicester, found that BME and women lawyers were largely absent in some areas of legal practice and concentrated in others. Gender, ethnicity and class all played a role in determining the likelihood of a lawyer reaching partnership in law firms or a senior position within the Bar.

Speaking to 77 lawyers, would-be lawyers and former lawyers, as well as five ‘diversity managers’, researchers heard numerous complaints that white male lawyers are preferred for advancement. They found that working patterns in the profession are ‘inherently masculine’; that flexible working can damage promotion prospects; and that work is allocated unfairly. The profession’s informal culture and reliance on personal relationships – for instance those established and reinforced during evening drinks at the pub – exacerbates problems, they say.

The findings mirror research that will be published by the Law Society later this month into pay disparities between different groups of lawyers. Speaking at the conference, Stephen Ward, the society’s director of communications, inclusion and corporate responsibility, said his research has found “a kind of structural inequality” that informs choices made by women, BME and other minority solicitors, which is why they often end up in lower-paid parts of the profession.

He said the society has to focus on “the unconscious bias that is obviously there” and the fact that the profession “recruits and promotes in its own image”.

Recommendations made in the LSB-funded report include diversity training for senior lawyers and managers; improving outreach programmes; targeted bursaries for training; better disclosure and monitoring of diversity data; support for mentoring schemes; and encouraging flexible working.

Launching the London conference, LSB chief executive Chris Kenny said diversity was a key LSB objective. “We believe passionately that unless you’ve got a diverse profession, a profession that looks like the society which it serves, actually you probably won’t have a fully effective profession either.”

But he said the regulators the LSB oversees had a good record of success in terms of diversity initiatives and promoting social mobility. He suggested that the slow results of “top down” initiatives means that alternatives now have to be tried. These include exploring such things as ‘consumer pressure, student pressure and peer pressure’ that will prompt legal service providers bringing about greater diversity.

Mr Kenny’s comments follow the revelation by Legal Futures that the LSB is developing plans to require regulators to ask all legal and non-legal staff in regulated entities to complete a diversity monitoring questionnaire (see story). If approved, the scheme will put the onus on legal services entities to gather and publish data, in the hope that transparency will improve diversity and enable regulators to identify policy priorities.

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