Law firms should consider setting diversity targets for BME lawyers and staff, just as some have done with women, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has said.
The SRA said that “one of the most significant changes” to help cut the disproportionately high number of BME solicitors caught up at various stages in the regulatory process, from reports about conduct to interventions, would be an increase in diversity within medium and large firms.
The SRA was responding to an independent report on the issue by Professor Gus John, published in March, which concluded that, although there was no evidence of direct discrimination on the part of the SRA, the regulator should look urgently at the way it treated small firms.
The SRA said today: “For as long as the profession and firms recruit and promote in ways which lead to disproportionate numbers of BME lawyers being concentrated in sole practices and in the smallest firms, then the issue of disproportionate outcomes is likely to remain to some extent.
“The SRA cannot address this issue on its own. Therefore, we feel it is right for us to set a challenge for the profession itself to consider the report and look at what actions it needs to take to ensure that there is no bias in the way firms make decisions in relation to work experience, training contracts, recruitment and career progression
“We have seen that when firms show willingness to address under-representation then changes are made, such as with the ‘30 plus’ initiative to increase women at partnership level.”
Paul Philip, chief executive of the SRA and formerly deputy chief executive of the General Medical Council (GMC), said doctors from BME backgrounds were over-represented at all stages of the disciplinary process, in “exactly the same” way as solicitors.
“The GMC commissioned quite a lot of research, and what it has done to tackle the problem is similar to what we are doing now,” he said.
Mr Philip said that although Professor John’s report had not found evidence of direct discrimination, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.
He added: “We will take this issue seriously, review our processes and provide as much support as possible, particularly for small businesses, as we can.”
The SRA accepted that disproportionality must be the result of internal factors such as culture and training, as well as external factors, such as the tendency of BME lawyers to set up their own firms earlier in their careers.
Among the actions the regulator said it would take in response was improved internal quality assurance, an enhanced programme of engagement and continued efforts to recruit staff, the board and committees from more diverse backgrounds.
The regulator’s diversity monitoring report for 2013, also published today, showed the extent of the disproportionality between the proportion of BME lawyers in various sizes of firm and the numbers caught up in the regulatory process.
Just over a fifth (21%) of BME lawyers regulated by the SRA work in sole practices, yet they featured in 30% of reports received about misconduct for firms of this size.
Just under a quarter work in firms with two to four lawyers, yet they accounted for a third of misconduct reports received by the SRA for such firms.
Worse still, more than half the interventions for firms with two to four lawyers involved individuals from BME backgrounds. The statistics for investigations leading to a complaint being upheld against a BME lawyer told a similarly disproportionate story.
However, there was a drop in the proportion of BME solicitors referred to the SDT for the third year running.
In general, 17% of investigations were upheld for BME lawyers, compared to 12% for those from a white background. The proportion was 9% higher among Asian solicitors (22%) than for those coming from a black background.