The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has decided to drop annual diversity surveys of the profession, and make them biennial, to reduce the regulatory burden on smaller law firms.
The SRA said that while last year’s survey showed that the profession was “on the surface” diverse in terms of gender (47% female) and ethnicity (18% BAME), there were “still gaps for some groups”, including disabled lawyers.
A spokesman for the regulator said it recognised that collecting the data “imposes a burden on firms, particularly sole practitioners” and it was committed to a “proportionate” approach.
“In order to ease the burden on firms, while still ensuring effective monitoring of trends, the SRA will move to collecting diversity data every two years.”
He said the next survey, scheduled for this summer, would not take place until May 2017.
The spokesman described the 2015 survey as “the most comprehensive” ever, with the response rate among firms rising from 86% to 88% and 10,000 more solicitors involved. He said it now covered over 9,000 law firms with 170,000 staff.
The SRA said that overall there had been “little change” in its findings since the last data collection exercise in 2014.
Although women made up almost half of lawyers, only 33% were partners – an increase of 2% on last year. There were fewer female partners in firms with 50 or more partners (27%), compared to those with two to five partners (35%).
Women were under-represented in criminal work (39%) and over-represented in private client work (54%).
Black lawyers were under-represented at 2%, compared to 3% of “economically active” people in the wider population. The SRA said Asian lawyers were over-represented at 12% compared to 7% of the wider population.
“BAME lawyers are also more likely to work in a smaller firm of two to five partners (22%) than in large firms of fifty partners (11%). BAME individuals are less likely to be partners in large firms – for example, Asian solicitors make up 4% of partners in large firms but 16% in smaller firms.”
As far as social mobility is concerned, 22% of lawyers said they were privately educated – 4% down on the previous year. This rises to 37% for partners in firms with over 50 partners, a decrease of 3% on the previous year.
The proportion of corporate lawyers who attended private schools was 33%, compared to only 16% of criminal lawyers.
Only 3% of lawyers described themselves as disabled compared to 10% of working age adults in employment.
Less than 3% of solicitors identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual. This compares with gay rights group Stonewall’s estimate of between 5-7% of the wider population.
Paul Philip, chief executive of the SRA, said: “Encouraging diversity in legal services is not about ticking boxes. It is of course the right thing to do, but it also helps to make sure the sector is as competitive as possible.
“There is a real issue that many small business and individuals cannot or do not access legal services. That unmet need is bad news for justice and the health of the economy. A profession that reflects the society it serves can help deal with that problem.
“Ultimately the evidence shows that diversity in the workplace can benefit the bottom line – there is a ‘diversity dividend’. Some law firms are doing some really positive things to tackle the problem and change the culture, but this research shows that there is still some way to go.”