Career barriers facing law students from ethnic minority backgrounds could affect their performance in the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) if they feel there is little point in doing well, academics have suggested.
The first stage of a major project examining what causes different levels of attainment for ethnic minority students compared to white students in professional assessments also highlighted the “myth of meritocracy” in the law.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) commissioned the project last year on the back of a longstanding ‘attainment gap’, albeit one not unique to the law – the significantly better performance of White students taking the legal practice course has continued in the first sittings of the SQE.
The systematic literature review said: “Marginalised candidates may feel they cannot enter the profession or advance in their careers post-qualification. As a result, they might not give their best in legal professional assessments.”
These candidates may choose to prioritise success in other areas seen as more valued by employers, such as work experience and soft skills, it went on.
“These are areas identified by the literature, wherein minority ethnic individuals tend to experience disadvantages, having to try harder compared to their white and/or more privileged peers. As a result, they may allocate fewer resources to legal professional assessments.”
This will be among the hypotheses tested by the project. This initial review examined 215 academic articles relating to the ethnicity attainment gap, and 43 practitioner-focused reports.
The academics found that the legal profession was seen as “elite and stratified”, with barriers to entry including the high costs associated with qualifying.
There was a “lack of acknowledgment that factors other than merit influence progression” and a “continuing influence of social class, privilege and whiteness in career success and progression”.
It identified the “myth of meritocracy” as a major barrier to ethnic minority students.
“The use of ‘merit’ as a gateway to employment and the way that merit is usually assessed, which is linked to prior achievements and social traits respectively, negatively impacts disadvantaged groups.
“This is so because those who are already in positions of power define merit based on assumptions of neutrality in education measures. This approach results in a system of social stratification particularly prevalent in the legal profession.”
Other factors influencing exam outcomes included earlier educational experiences, the availability of support in education and work for minority groups, the experience of being part of one or more minority groups, and life circumstances, such as families’ socioeconomic status and neighbourhood.
The researchers will now use data analysis, interviews and surveys to test whether and how the various potential factors explain the issue and to understand people’s lived experiences.
The SRA said: “The final report will bring us closer to understanding what we and others can do to address the differing outcomes by ethnicity.
“Given the complexities set out by the researchers, it is likely to need several activities and changes, potentially from many different organisations. And any improvements will take time. In commissioning this research, we are committing to playing our part in bringing about lasting change.”
Paul Philip, chief executive of the SRA, added: “What is clear, even at this early stage, is that the factors influencing the outcomes for candidates are complex and beyond the control of the individuals themselves.
“Getting a greater understanding of the specific situation in the legal sector is an important next step in the research, so that we can help to consider what can be done by us and others, to make the difference we all want to see.”
Dr Greta Bosch, an associate professor at the University of Exeter’s School of Law, added: “This is the first systematic literature review to provide extensive cross-disciplinary analysis of differential outcomes in legal professional assessments.
“Its findings will allow us to identify a set of potential relationships between ethnicity and performance in legal professional assessments that we will go on to test in the next stage of our research.”
The research is expected to be completed by the end of 2023, and the final report will be published in spring 2024.