Accessibility in law: why meritocracy is key for change

Guest post by Chris White, founder of Aspiring Solicitors and chair of trustees for the AS Foundation

White: The work doesn’t end at the recruitment stage

The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) latest diversity report, published in December, paints an overall positive picture of improved diversity in the legal industry.

The number of women, people with a disability, as well as those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, working in law have all steadily increased year-on-year according to the report’s figures.

Despite these improvements, the sector continues to face many challenges when it comes to access into the profession. The same SRA report found that people entering from lower socio-economic backgrounds had in fact fallen from 21% in 2015 to 18% in 2023.

Widening participation in the sector has been a long-term challenge for the legal industry. Even today, 21% of our lawyers have been educated in independent or fee-paying schools, according to the SRA’s data. While this number has declined, from 23% in 2015, it is still significantly higher than the national average of 5.9%. Despite the sector’s efforts over the years to improve accessibility from the bottom up, it’s clear that, sadly, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

The role of legal employers and educators

I founded Aspiring Solicitors in 2013 to support people from all underrepresented backgrounds to pursue a career in law. During that time, I’ve witnessed the sector change for the better in many ways.

The introduction of training scholarships, for example, has provided a new pathway into the sector for many, while the mandatory gender pay gap reporting has improved salary transparency and fairness for everyone.

There’s been a concerted effort from our law schools to support more people into the profession too. BPP University Law School, for instance, has introduced legal bootcamps for young people from diverse backgrounds, which saw half of the learners who took part in the scheme last year go on to secure apprenticeships with leading firms such as Allen & Overy, Addleshaw Goddard and Squire Patton Boggs.

While progress is certainly being made to widen access, the figures tell us there is more that needs to be done. So, how can we continue to improve its diversity and widen access?

We must ensure we’re providing fair entry routes into the sector. This means working with legal education providers to ensure that the students coming through their doors and qualifying to become lawyers, are representative of society.

Law schools are working hard to ensure this is the case, providing scholarships and removing barriers to entry for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. We partner with BPP to support this, raising the profile of its graduate entry solicitor apprenticeship, which provides a different entry pathway for people wanting to pursue a career in law.

We should constantly work to ensure entry to the legal field is based on meritocracy, as opposed to privilege and bias.

This includes adopting merit-based hiring, using data and knowing where the line in the sand is to progress. Focusing on both legal and non-legal experiences, as well as sustained strategic reviews of annual recruitment, is also key, and can be used to inform immediate change required to address imbalances/strategic concerns.

Thirdly, we need to ensure diversity is prioritised generally and that students, teaching staff, law firms and legal teams are empowered to speak up for each other and ensure there is zero tolerance of discrimination or prejudice. This allows all cultures to thrive, progress, and achieve, not just those who are most represented at the top.

Critically, the work doesn’t end at the recruitment stage; equality, diversity and inclusion is an ongoing practice. The sector must provide career-long support to all its employees to make sure people feel included and secure, and are given the tools to progress in their roles.

Failing to do so will have a negative impact on employee retention, resulting in professionals leaving their positions (and the profession entirely), and effectively undoing the positive changes that we are currently striving for. Not to mention negatively impacting company culture, profitability and opportunities for greater innovation.

Looking to the future

By building a meritocratic system, we can ensure that entry routes into the profession are based on fairness, rather than privilege. Taking steps towards improving accessibility and inclusion across our profession will benefit the sector and the communities in which we serve.

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