Law firms need to be held accountable over efforts to improve the profession’s equality, diversity and inclusion, the chief executive of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) said yesterday.
Paul Philip said culture was a “sticky thing” and “if it was easy to change, we wouldn’t be talking about it”.
Speaking at a Westminster Legal Policy Forum seminar entitled Next steps for equality, diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, he said there needed to be an “obvious deterrent” to make lawyers “wake up and smell the coffee”.
Issuing guidance and warning notices “made a difference”, but lawyers were less likely to think about them when there were conflicting business priorities.
“Having guidance in place and setting standards is first base. Seeing that they have teeth and people are held to account is really important. Culture takes time to change, and change has been far too slow. Suitable policies and a demonstrable deterrent are the answer.”
Richard Orpin, director of regulation and policy at the Legal Services Board (LSB), told the event that progress in improving diversity was “insufficient”.
He said the LSB was considering “an evolution in approach” because existing initiatives had led only to “marginal differences around the edges”.
A “top priority” for the LSB as oversight regulator was to ensure that regulation addressed “counter-inclusive practices”.
He said there was a difference between how people entered the profession and how they got on, and the need for initiatives that “disrupt the status quo” on diversity was a “really active area of consideration”.
Data gathering on the issue by the legal regulators “still lacks consistency” and there needed to be more of a focus on evaluating the outcomes of diversity initiatives.
Mr Orpin added that regulation was “not a panacea” and the senior leaders of law firms needed to show “will and determination” to bring about cultural change.
Mr Philip said the SRA’s journey on diversity had not always been an easy one, the two “obvious examples” being the over-representation of Black and ethnic minority solicitors in its enforcement work and their under-performance in educational assessments.
The issues had existed “long before” the SRA was set up. Research had shown that the rate of complaints about ethnic minority solicitors, at 7%, was “much higher than you would expect”.
The percentage of cases investigated by the SRA was even higher, which the regulator was “definitely not happy about”.
New research by the SRA was investigating for the first time the factors, both in society and the legal profession, which resulted in more people reporting ethnic minority solicitors to their regulator. The research team published a literature review in June and the full report was expected in the first half of next year.
Mr Philip said the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) was “never intended” to fix the problem of under-performance in assessments, but it had improved consistency.
“As anticipated”, the pattern of under-performance had continued into SQE and was “most pronounced among those identifying as Black or Black British”. A literature review for this also came out in June ahead of a final report next year.
He added that figures published last year on the SRA’s own ethnicity pay gap showed an improvement year on year, but at over 12%, it was still “far too high”.