Actions to improve race inclusion in the solicitors’ profession are not delivering change quickly enough, Law Society research has found, highlighting a significant ethnicity pay gap.
“Many law firms are doing a lot of work in the field of diversity, but change is coming too slowly or not at all in many areas and more needs to be done,” it said, urging targets where there is under-representation.
Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) solicitors are working longer each week but, at an average of £65,000, earning 25% less than White colleagues (£86,000).
DJS Research was commissioned by the Law Society to review both the representation and experiences of BAME solicitors.
It did this by conducting a secondary analysis of existing data along with primary qualitative research – mainly roundtables with BAME lawyers and HR professionals, as well as in-depth interviews with leading BAME figures in the profession.
It argued that focusing just on overall representation in the profession “can be misleading”; on the face of it, ethnic diversity in the profession is in line with UK society as a whole and has been improving over the years, but this hides differences between groups.
Black solicitors, for example, represent 3% of the profession, whereas Asian solicitors make up 10%, which is nearly double the proportion in the working age population.
In addition, BAME solicitors are more likely than White solicitors to be in smaller firms and certain, generally lower-paying, sectors and practice areas: “Representation across the profession is not consistently good.”
The research identified specific barriers to entry, such as a lack of role models and connections, along with “an intersection” for some BAME groups of having a disadvantaged socio-economic background and not having the opportunity to attend an independent school.
“Many do persevere though, only to find that, when it comes to entering a firm, it feels like organisations are often looking for a certain ’fit’ of candidate, which often excludes BAME groups,” DJS said.
The culture of law firms, particularly larger City practices, was not felt to be inclusive. “Research participants frequently reported feeling like an outsider and not being given the opportunities their white colleagues are.”
Almost all participants had experienced some level of microaggression based on their ethnicity, such as ‘othering’ – pointing out, scrutinising or mocking cultural differences in the form of ‘banter’ or jibes – misidentification, such as confusion over non-western names and being mistaken for someone less senior, and cultural assumptions and exclusions.
BAME solicitors often did not want to confront these microaggressions for fear of the effect on their careers.
DJS went on: “Additionally, when BAME solicitors do try and speak up on these issues, they feel disheartened that the only ‘safe’ environments in which they can do so, such as diversity and inclusion forums or events, often just become talking shops.
“There are noted to be few opportunities to raise these issues amongst those at the top of organisations who are in positions to make real changes.”
BAME solicitors reported lower levels of workplace wellbeing compared to White solicitors, the research went on, while retention rates were lower than for white colleagues in larger City firms as career development was felt to be slower.
“Many feel that they have to work much harder than their white counterparts and do not feel as comfortable in their work environment.”
As a result, representation at partner level was poor, particularly in the City, and has not improved significantly over the years, despite more BAME solicitors at junior levels. In the top 50 firms, more than twice as many White solicitors as BAME solicitors achieved partner equivalent status. Just 8% of partners in the largest firms (50+ partners) are BAME, up by just one percentage point since 2014.
“Our research shows that diversity is not just about representation in terms of blunt statistics on BAME representation, but also about feeling included within the profession and being given the opportunity to contribute,” DJS said.
“We urge organisations to consider introducing stronger mechanisms to focus efforts and accelerate change, such as setting clear targets at partner level and key points in the talent pipeline and, where necessary, for different groups within the BAME category (eg for Black solicitors), and tying achievements in diversity and inclusion to senior leaders’ pay and bonuses.”
DJS noted that targets around gender diversity seemed to be more reasonable to set for some, predominantly because they were perceived to be more achievable.
“Many claim that ethnicity targets are just not feasible or indeed popular amongst senior staff, either due to the size of the firm or the lack of available BAME candidates.
“However, given that some firms are unwilling to reconsider their position on academic attainment and attendance at specific universities, it may be that they are unnecessarily shrinking the BAME talent pool.”
But the general consensus on targets amongst the solicitors who took part in the research was that they were “a useful tool to help ensure that improved diversity is not only addressed but effectively measured”.
Other recommendations included targeted action to reach BAME students who are likely to face the greatest barrier to entry; fair recruitment practices such as blind shortlisting or contextualised recruitment; and more support for career development through structured mentoring and work allocation programmes, as well as a more systematic approach to partner selection.
DJS also encouraged firms to put in place reverse and reciprocal mentoring to help build more inclusive leadership; diversity training tailored to different staff, “including on how to be an ally”; and confidential ways of reporting racism, bullying or harassment, and microaggressions.
It stressed the importance of firms taking a more data-driven approach by analysing metrics to identify problem areas and design tailored interventions, as well as publishing key metrics such as the ethnicity pay gap and representation in workforce and at partner and leadership levels.
Law Society president David Greene said: “Now is the time to act to build a more inclusive profession. We hope our research and recommendations will give firms and legal businesses important food for thought and a much-needed blueprint for driving equality and inclusion up to the most senior levels.
“The legal sector stands for access to justice, equality for all and the rule of law. We must ensure that our profession is at the forefront of the fight against racism and reflects the diversity of the society it represents.”
Research from the Bar Standards Board  last month showed that BAME barristers were likely to earn less than White counterparts by every measure.