04/09/2017 How diverse is the legal profession?

How diverse is the legal profession?

With the welcome appointment of Baroness Hale as the new President of the Supreme Court, it seems like as good a time as any to assess how well the legal profession is doing in terms of diversity.

Starting right at the top of the profession, Baroness Hale is already the most senior female judge in the United Kingdom in her role as deputy president of the Supreme Court. She is also the only woman out of the 11 justices on the Supreme Court. However, gender is not the only measure of diversity in a profession. Education, social class, ethnicity and sexuality are all important indicators as to how well the legal profession reflects the population it seeks to serve. On these measures, the Supreme Court is not doing particularly well either. Nine of the 11 justices were educated at either Oxford or Cambridge, a majority were privately educated, and all are white.

Of course, the Supreme Court is only one part of the legal profession. The gap here may be largely generational; Baroness Hale is 72 and entered the legal profession when far fewer women and people from ordinary backgrounds went to university, let alone became lawyers. However, the upper ranks of the judiciary leave those hoping for a more representative court with little to look forward to: a report by Geoffrey Bindman QC and Karon Monaghan QC discovered that 71% of those in senior judicial positions were educated privately (the figure for those educated privately is estimated at 7% of the population).

The picture is much better when it comes to law firms, although certain groups are still over-represented. The Solicitors Regulation Authority collects regular data on diversity, providing a treasure trove of information as to how firms compare to the wider population. The data finds that women make up 47% of all lawyers, but this number falls to 33% when considering partners. Chambers Student found that women make up a majority of trainees, although this figure is higher for regional firms than it is for London ones. This chimes with my own experiences on the GDL and Accelerated LPC, where over half the cohort are women. Individuals from ethnic minority backgrounds account for 18% of all lawyers (they are 13% of economically active people) and there is very little difference in terms of seniority.

One area where the profession is not so diverse is social class, especially at the top end of the spectrum. A 2014 report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found that intelligent, working-class applicants are excluded from top City jobs, with as many as 70% of job offers going to those who had been educated at selective or private schools. A large part of this is a function of which universities law firms recruit from: the Russell Group universities, and Oxford and Cambridge in particular, have a high proportion of students who were educated privately. For Oxford and Cambridge, the figure is slightly lower than 50%. However, another less obvious factor is that many of the traits which are sought by employers – confidence, good communication skills, drive – are those traditionally found in candidates from more well-off backgrounds.

How can this be rectified? It is easier said than done, as many of the factors which lead to a lack of diversity occur a long time before the recruitment stage for law firms and chambers. It is easier to run debating workshops, for example, in a school with small class sizes and abundant resources than it is in a mainstream school. Some firms and organisations do valuable work in this area, but it is not enough. Part of the problem is that recruiters tend to recruit in their own image – people who look, sound and have similar experiences to them. Another is funding; a career in law requires expensive postgraduate qualifications in the form of the GDL, LPC or BPTC. The availability of firm funding, compared with a lack of available resources for pursuing the Bar, was an important factor for me in deciding to become a solicitor rather than a barrister.

Finally, does any of this matter? Is the current make up of the legal profession simply the result of meritocracy? The answer to the first question is yes, and the second answer is no. It is important that people have access to careers in the legal profession, regardless of their backgrounds. Opportunity should not be in the hands of the few, and justice can only really be seen to be done if lawyers reflect the population.

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