There need to be more women and ethnic minorities at senior levels of law firms and taking silk, the Lord Chancellor said yesterday as she pledged action to “force the pace of change” in improving diversity in the legal profession.
Liz Truss also issued “a call to arms” to increase diversity on the bench, announcing new measures to encourage experienced lawyers from all fields – and especially solicitors – to seek senior judicial roles.
Speaking at the Spark 21 conference – organised by the First 100 Years project – Ms Truss said that “if English law is to continue to evolve, innovate and lead the world, we need to make use of all our talents”.
She continued: “This is not diversity for diversity’s sake. It’s about talent for talent’s sake… And that will take a change in approach. We cannot wait for change, we must work together to make change happen. And to force the pace of change we must tackle both the practical barriers and a mind-set that can sometimes prevent talent from breaking through.”
She said there needed to be more firms like Obelisk Support, set up by former Linklaters lawyer and First 100 Years founder Dana Denis-Smith to match largely female ex-City lawyers with companies and law firms looking for part-time and flexible legal advice.
Ms Truss said: “Obelisk is successfully challenging the old-fashioned culture of ‘jacket-left-on-chair’ presenteeism. Dana’s approach of flexible outsourcing means that success is measured by results, not hours spent grafting in the office. A real boost for all working parents.
“I want to see more women and ethnic minorities taking silk and I am working with the Bar Council to take action. Currently only 13% of our QCs are women and 5% are BME; both rates have been stagnant for five years.
“I want to see more women and ethnic minorities in senior levels of law firms. I’ve had positive meetings with the magic circle, the silver circle and the Law Society on how we can widen the talent pool to people from all walks of life.”
But most of all she wanted to see more women and ethnic minorities in the judiciary, Ms Truss continued. In an oblique reference to the furore over her response – or lack of it – to the media attacks on the judges who handed down the Brexit ruling, she said: “This week’s events show the importance of the judiciary in our constitution and our free society. Our independent judiciary is vital… I can think of no higher calling than joining the judiciary.”
Laying out four proposals to aid this, Ms Truss said the emphasis was on “legal knowledge, integrity, intellect and drive – not how many hours you have put in on the circuit or spent in the courtroom”.
First, it will simply be the best 100 candidates who succeed in the next recorder competition, expected to launch in February 2017. “No longer will they be required to have experience in any particular type of law, be it crime, family or civil. Nor does it matter where they live, as applicants will no longer be bound to a specific location.”
Second, the next recruitment exercise for the High Court will open the door to a wider pool of ‘direct-entry candidates’ who have not had previous judicial experience.
Ms Truss said: “These may be academics, in-house counsel or perhaps magic circle solicitors who spend more time in boardrooms than courtrooms.”
Third, a fast-track process will be introduced to allow deputy High Court judges to apply for full High Court office as soon as they are ready. “The process of selection will be more straightforward. While merit and ability must always be paramount, experience as a Deputy High Court judge will carry far greater weight than at present.”
Finally, the assessment of merit in selecting judges will include an assessment of potential. “I think that future recruitment campaigns should make clear to all candidates that their potential counts. You should not be put off just because your career so far hasn’t taken you into a courtroom because we will offer training and support where that is necessary.
“What matters should be your potential to preside as a judge in court – to develop your ‘judgecraft’ as it is known.”
Ms Truss also handed the Inspirational Women in Law Award to Keily Blair, who she described as “a solicitor, a passionate advocate for young female lawyers and the founder of the Fractio Vitri network whose aim is to break the glass ceiling”.
The network’s prime objectives are “to build and sustain the female talent pipeline and to address the issue of attrition of women working in the City”. It does this by hosting networking events, providing skills seminars and creating an online community.