Legal profession “five years behind the curve” on diversity

Hill: Legal profession late to the table on diversity

The legal profession is “five years behind the curve” on diversity and inclusion and has “only in recent times” appreciated just how unequal access is, the chief executive of the Legal Services Board (LSB) said yesterday.

Matthew Hill also identified professional ethics as another of the big challenges facing the sector, because it had moved away from “embedding a sense of calling” in legal training and education.

Mr Hill said the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) was “intended to widen access to the legal profession” and he was “keen to see it do that”.

However, it was clear that the ethnicity attainment gap was “very present” in the SQE results, which “of course needs to change”.

The first stage of a research programme on the gap, which took the form of a literature review and was published by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) last month, identified the “myth of meritocracy” as a major barrier.

Mr Hill said that in spring next year, when the second stage of the research was published, he expected the SRA to take “immediate action” to reduce the gap.

Speaking at a Westminster Legal Policy Forum event on education and training, Mr Hill said that while diversity and inclusion was “close to the top of everyone’s agenda” in the profession, it had not been “like that for very long”.

It was only “in recent times” that it had become “widely appreciated” just how unequal access was to the profession and there was always a time lag when developing policy on big challenges that “might take a generation to work”.

The profession had “come late to the table” on the issue of diversity and would have to make a “tremendous effort now” for the results to be felt over the next two or three decades.

Mr Hill said another big challenge was ethics, where the profession had moved away from “embedding a sense of calling in legal education and training”.

He said being a lawyer was “more than just a job”, and what they did could have a “big impact on our society”. For that reason, professional ethics should be “right at the heart” of legal education and training and any LSB statement on the issue.

Mark Neale, director general of the Bar Standards Board (BSB), described the ethnicity attainment gap at the Bar as a “huge concern”.

He said barrister apprenticeships – an idea first floated by the BSB in 2017 – were on the way, with the six-year route to qualifying including experience of clerking and administrative work in chambers.

Answering a question as to why there was so little data on entry to the legal profession via the apprenticeship route, Julie Swan, director of education and training at the SRA, said the regulator only obtained data when apprentices took the SQE or qualified as solicitors.

Mr Hill commented that it was “inescapable that there is a general dearth of data” on progression “across many parts of the profession”.

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