The legal profession has “a real opportunity to blaze a trail” on diversity, the Lord Chancellor said today.
David Gauke said: “I really want to see things change so that it’s the norm to see women at the very top of their professions, rather than a rarity.”
He was opening this year’s Spark21 conference, the charity behind the First 100 Years project to mark next year’s centenary of women removing the ban on women becoming lawyers.
The figures of more than 50% of practising solicitors being women, and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) lawyers accounting for 21% of lawyers working in law firms, were higher than each group’s representation in the wider workforce, Mr Gauke noted.
“And this isn’t just encouraging because of the financial benefits it no doubt brings, it’s also crucial to maintaining healthy outcomes in justice – because a well-functioning justice system should accurately reflect the society it serves.”
But he said there was still more to do, with representation among the senior leadership of law firms and among QCs far lower.
“Ultimately, turning the dial on diversity in the legal profession requires a joined-up and wide-ranging response from us in government and the profession itself,” Mr Gauke said.
“Some of the figures highlighting the disparities in the profession are stark but I think the legal profession has a real opportunity to blaze a trail on this. And I’m pleased to say that it is already doing some amazing work to address the issue head on.”
He paid tribute to Law Society president Christina Blacklaws for her leadership on this issue, “where she is making women in leadership in law a key theme of her tenure. That drive for change should inspire others to follow suit”.
Mr Gauke concluded: “As we head into 2019 and mark the centenary of women being able to practise law in this country, I think it is absolutely right that we renew our commitment to diversity within the legal profession.
“My message is clear – this isn’t a ‘nice to have’ and we should not be paying lip service to it. A truly diverse legal profession is absolutely crucial to maintaining and improving the performance of our sector.
“When we consider that legal services is currently worth £24bn every year to our economy, it would be remiss of us to ignore how that figure could grow if we encouraged a more diverse workforce.
“The potential for adding billions to the economy by 2025 is too big a prize to pass up – certainly not for the sake of maintaining a tired and outdated status quo.”
In questions after his speech, Mr Gauke said he appreciated that there were “pressures and consequences” on the current level of legal aid fees. “I want to work constructively with barristers to ensure that we have a sustainable system that means we are attracting the people we need to be in the system.”