The legal profession pays only “lip service” to diversity and “there is a lack of action or appetite to pursue meaningful change”, a report for the Legal Services Board (LSB) has suggested.
The qualitative research also found that some law firms were using discriminatory recruitment practices, such as drop-down menus of universities for job applications which excluded less prestigious ones.
The report, by Solutions Research, was based on interviews with 30 legal professionals from under-represented groups who had experienced discriminatory practices in the past three years.
“The testimonies in the study give voice to existing evidence of inequality and inequity in the profession and suggest there may be features, traditions and practices particular to the legal services sector that may hamper efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive profession,” the LSB said.
In The lived experiences of legal professionals: Barriers to getting in, being in and getting on, many lawyers highlighted “growing momentum” in the legal industry in terms of diversity initiatives.
“However, they also highlighted what they saw as token gestures or virtue signalling – such as images on websites, references to cultural events, or being a member of groups or schemes, e.g Stonewall, Disability Confident – rather than action being taken to support inclusive practices within firms.”
Lawyers said they were being “left with the ownership” of diversity initiatives, rather than the senior leadership in their firms.
Some lawyers complained about a “hierarchy of characteristics”, and “predominantly it was felt that there was a focus on women in the law, signalled by the existence of cross-industry networks and internal working groups promoting gender equality”.
People with differences that were “‘glamorous’ and/or less likely to create fear of the unknown – such as tattoos” were more likely to “draw attention” at the expense of “disabilities, diagnosed mental health conditions, transitioning gender identity, ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs”.
Some lawyers with a disability “felt that recent attention on ADHD and autism spectrum disorders was driven by these conditions being felt to not impact on an individual’s ability to complete their billable hours and that attention on these conditions was at the expense of physical disabilities and auto-immune conditions”.
Disclosing disability at the job application stage could lead to “negative experiences”, including not being invited for interview or not getting through the interview stage.
“Several participants had performed their own ‘tests’, reporting greater chances of being invited to interview when they did not disclose their disability versus when they did.”
Other job applicants said law firms were “only accepting applicants from specific universities (through drop-down lists)” and recruitment agencies were not putting people forward from under-represented groups or showing them roles.
Applicants said some law firms “asked non-standard interview questions about a characteristic, e.g. drawing attention to their disability” or giving “signals that a characteristic is a barrier to getting a role, e.g lack of eye contact or comments about not ‘fitting’ the culture”.
Lawyers shared positive experiences of flexible working in the pandemic, where they were “able to be productive yet also better manage their health or responsibilities outside work” when working from home.
The shift back to the office highlighted “the additional issues” created by the office environment and/or daily commute that hindered their productivity or had a negative impact on their health.
The LSB said the research would inform its policy activity on equality, diversity and inclusion, and it would be consulting later this year on a policy statement providing “clear, updated expectations that aim to maximise the impact of regulation in creating a more diverse legal sector”.
Matthew Hill, chief executive of the LSB, commented: “We are committed to ensuring that regulation plays the fullest role possible in ensuring all legal professionals can thrive in their careers regardless of their background.
“The insights provided by this study highlight enormous opportunities to make things better by changing the way the sector does business. We hope anyone serious about inclusion in the legal services sector will use the research to tackle the barriers that lawyers face every day.”