All workers at law firms and chambers will be asked whether they are straight, gay or bisexual, about their parents’ educational background and what kind of school they attended as part of the Legal Services Board’s (LSB) push to improve transparency about diversity in the legal profession.
As first revealed by Legal Futures in July, firms and chambers will be required to publish the anonymised results of their surveys, which the LSB hopes will encourage them to take action to improve diversity.
An 11-topic model questionnaire was published today by the LSB in a consultation on its proposals, which also aim to help the approved regulators gather an evidence base about the composition of the legal workforce to help “inform targeted policy responses”. The LSB wants the regulators to evaluate the effectiveness and impact of their existing diversity initiatives as well.
The 11 topics come under the headings of status, job role, age, sex, gender reassignment, disability, ethic group, religion, sexual identity, socio-economic background and caring responsibilities. Other questions include the extent to which the person works independently or in consultation with their supervisor. The LSB estimates that it will take no more than five minutes to fill out the form.
All legal practices will be required to complete the exercise annually, except businesses with fewer than 20 people, which will only have to do it every three years in recognition that their staff turnover is likely to be “relatively low”.
The LSB has lined up a range of equality charities to back the proposals, including: Age UK, MENCAP, the Fawcett Society, the RNIB, Sense, Scope, the Lesbian and Gay Foundation, Operation Black Vote, the Sutton Trust, RADAR and the Disability Law Service.
The LSB said: “Existing data and research illustrates that there are still significant barriers to progression and retention for practitioners, and diminishing representation for lawyers from non-traditional backgrounds at the highest levels of the profession. For example, just 25% of partners in solicitors’ firms are women and 3.5% of partners in the top 150 firms are black or minority ethnic.”
The consultation focuses on the requirement to gather and publish the information, and on the detail of the questions being asked. The topics relates to the new public sector equality duty (age, race, disability, religion or belief, gender reassignment, sex, pregnancy and maternity and sexual orientation), plus socio-economic background.
It will be voluntary for individuals to respond. Legal practices will simply be required to publish the anonymised results of their diversity surveys (even if there is no response or the response is “prefer not to say”) and report it to their regulator, and will be under no obligation to take action as a result.
LSB chairman David Edmonds said: “Whilst there has been positive work on widening access to the legal profession, there are apparent continuing inequalities. Through these measures there will be greater transparency and sharper scrutiny by regulators and consumers based on published data. Appropriate policies can then be developed on the basis of the evidence we collect.”
The consultation adds: “We do not underestimate the scale of the challenge that we and approved regulators face – it is one that has been grappled with since at least the time of the Benson Commission on Legal Services4 in the late 1970s. There is no silver bullet, and the proposals outlined in this consultation paper are not the whole answer. However, we hope that they represent an important and significant step forward in bringing diversity issues into the mainstream and ensuring firms and chambers are held accountable for their progress. If the necessary cultural change can be driven by consumer demand, this is likely to have a far greater impact than diversity initiatives alone.”