Aspiring and junior lawyers say firms aren’t doing enough to promote D&I, LCN survey finds

updated on 11 April 2023

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LawCareers.Net’s recent early career lawyer diversity survey has found that 76% of aspiring or junior lawyers agree or strongly agree that law firms often contain ‘old boys’ clubs’, while nearly 70% believe firms aren’t doing enough to promote diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the legal profession.

The survey was designed to better understand the experiences and perceptions of diversity in law – how aspiring and junior lawyers feel their background can help or hinder them, and their opinion of law firms’ D&I policies.

Of those who responded, 88% disagree or strongly disagree that people generally have an equal chance at entering the profession and 86% disagree or strongly disagree that people have an equal chance at progressing their legal career how they’d like, regardless of background.

Class was cited as the aspect that most aspiring or early career lawyers felt would have a negative impact on their ability to access the profession and progress within it (67%), with the type of school they attended coming in second (65%). In fact, 80% of state-school-educated respondents said they believe their schooling will negatively impact their chances of accessing and developing a career in law, while 46% of respondents already working in the profession said they feel their class has had a negative impact on their ability to access and develop their career.

The results follow the most recent Social Mobility Foundation’s 2022 annual index, in which Browne Jacobson LLP took the top spot and Herbert Smith Freehills LLP sat in seventh. Law firms made up the highest number of entrants for a second consecutive year, filling more than half of the 75 spots on the index.

Meanwhile, when looking at barriers facing aspiring and junior lawyers from ethnic/racial minority backgrounds, two-thirds reported that they feel their background will have a negative impact, while three-quarters of respondents from a white British background believe their race will have either a neutral or no effect on their career. In a similar vein, one-third of respondents – all female – reported that their sex has had a negative impact in terms of access to the profession and progression within it.

Also notable is that firms’ D&I efforts are overwhelmingly believed to be disingenuous, with 80% of respondents from an ethnic/racial minority background disagreeing with the following statement: “Firms are sincere in their promotion of D&I initiatives.”

This mirrors comments made by a university academic who claimed that law firms’ D&I efforts offer only “the illusion of change”. Law firm graduate recruitment teams, however, refuted these claims. Speaking to Legal Cheek, they said the comments were outdated and didn’t consider the new hiring policies introduced in recent years.

Chair of the City of London Law Society and former partner Colin Passmore responded to the academic’s claims via LinkedIn, saying he was “disappointed” with the comments. Recognising that “change does not happen fast enough”, Passmore hopes the “professor will reflect on her conclusions and perhaps celebrate the fact that some significant and genuine initiatives are well under way that are meant to – and will – effect lasting change”.

The LCN survey also asked whether candidates would seek out information about a firm’s D&I measures and reporting when considering a job. It found that respondents from an ethnic/racial minority background are twice as likely as white British candidates to conduct this type of research, while female aspiring lawyers are five times more likely than male candidates to do so.

Although this survey represents just a small sample of aspiring and junior lawyers, it continues to demonstrate the need for genuine work and progress in this area. In Law Society President Lubna Shuja’s presidential plan for 2022/23, she acknowledges the progress she’s witnessed in her last 30 years as a solicitor, but also outlines her desire to identify “the challenges those seeking to enter and progress” in the profession are experiencing, work on alternative career options, and work with the profession, the Solicitor Judges Network and other stakeholders to “further open up the judiciary, improve the prospects of promotion within it and make it more accessible for all our members”.

Head to LawCareers.Net’s Diversity hub, sponsored by Gowling WLG (UK) LLP, for insights into the ongoing D&I work in the profession.