“Partnership penalty” of lower socio-economic background laid bare

Miller: Progress has been too slow

Solicitors from lower socio-economic backgrounds take around 18 months longer to reach partner at major City law firms than those from higher ones, a major study has concluded.

Being female and/or from a non-white background “amplify the inequalities in rates of progression”.

Commissioned by and analysing 10 leading practices, the study found them “deeply lacking in diversity”, most acutely on the basis of socio-economic background.

It challenged the view that the problem would reduce over time as initiatives to improve access to the profession take hold, highlighting the ingrained cultural issues of big firms.

The research on how socio-economic background affects progression to partner was conducted by not-for-profit consultancy the Bridge Group.

Nine of the City’s largest law firms commissioned it – Allen & Overy, Ashurst, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells, Linklaters and Slaughter and May – along with the comparatively tiny Towerhouse, which specialises in acting for regulated industries.

More than half of partners employed across the participating firms attended an independent school (53%), and the talent pipeline suggested that limited progress would be made over time, with the figure only a little lower, 46%, among associates.

This is higher than that of the subjects in Who’s Who (45%), and much higher than amongst senior professionals across several sectors analysed in the government’s Elitist Britain report last year (39%).

Nationally, 7.2% of school children attend independent schools, rising to 15% of pupils aged 16 and over, and 9% of undergraduates.

Compared to senior associates from “the dominant group” (white males from higher socio-economic backgrounds), those from lower socio-economic backgrounds took a year and a half longer on average to reach partner, while women took nearly a year longer than men, the Bridge Group found.

Those who identified as white progressed to partner nearly two years more quickly compared with those from other ethnic groups.

Black employees were much more likely to be from lower socio-economic backgrounds (23% of black female employees attended independent school, compared with 52% of white male employees, and 60% of Asian males).

“This evidence, compounded by the lack of diversity at more junior levels within firms, suggests that increased diversity will not simply happen over time,” the study said.

The qualitative data from interviews with 60 solicitors from across the firms highlighted factors that contributed to this, such as a “non-inclusive culture” within firms and processes for progressing to partner that were in part opaque and in part indirectly disadvantaging colleagues who were not white men from higher socio-economic backgrounds.

Other prevalent themes included “frequently tolerated microaggressions” and normalised expectations about unhealthy working hours and life balance.

The Bridge Group identified a contradiction within interviewees’ views about the extent to which client demands were helping or hindering law firms’ investment in diversity and inclusion.

“We heard how clients are increasingly requesting diversity in teams (typically relating to gender and ethnic group), but we also heard how clients expect 24-hour access to legal teams, and of sensitivity amongst partners for ensuring clients meet the ‘right people’ (often connected to socio-economic background).”

While objective criteria such as winning new business, high billing and client relations and “broader cultural fit” were seen as key to becoming partner, many of those interviewed considered these to be “a construct of working long hours; mobilising familial, professional and social networks; demonstrating authority and gravitas in daily exchanges; and engaging proactively with the demanding and opaque process of being ‘on track’ for partner”.

Many interviewees pointed to the “customary practice of recruiting and promoting in one’s image”; given the need for would-be partners to have sponsors, they felt that sponsors were “often more likely to sponsor someone who feels similar to them”. This also meant lateral hires made little difference to diversity.

Senior associates and partners from lower socio-economic backgrounds described the “excessive energy” spent in assimilating to the dominant culture, but still having ‘imposter syndrome’ and “a feeling that, despite their efforts to assimilate, they are still outside the dominant culture”.

The report also highlighted the potential for Covid-19 to lead to firms deprioritising diversity and inclusion.

The report made a series of recommendations, including lobbying for socio-economic background to be a protected characteristic in law, formal mentoring programmes and “interrogating criteria for progression to partner, making this more transparent and directly linked to the competences required to do the job well – and including the process for identifying prospective partner”.

Firms should at least ensure they have “robust measures” in place for collecting and understanding data relating to socio-economic diversity and inclusion

Nik Miller, chief executive of the Bridge Group, said: “There is much commitment in the law sector to this critical matter, but progress has been too slow for too long.”

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