Lack of support leads to young black lawyers struggling to survive

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The Independent Online

Today's Legal profession is like the football league of the Seventies. The number of black players in the top division were so few that they could never be regarded as average, as their race and ethnicity, rather than their ability, was the distinguishing factor that set them apart from their white team-mates.

Similarly, the lack of black lawyers within the leading solicitors' firms places enormous pressure upon those who do make the grade, as they are likely to be under the microscope for being a rare breed in a potentially hostile environment. Young black lawyers often struggle to survive in leading law firms as there are insufficient numbers to provide the support mechanism or role models for them to adapt and thrive, where differences in race, ethnicity and background are likely to be a disadvantage. Such is the difficulty for black lawyers to succeed, that among the top law firms the presence of black partners is often non-existent, with firms unwittingly employing a revolving door policy which churns out the few black lawyers who were fortunate enough to have achieved a fingertip grip on the corporate ladder.

The Black Solicitors Network (BSN), the largest group of ethnic minority lawyers in Europe, is at the forefront of setting the agenda for change. BSN has published a survey which has brought into focus the issue of diversity within leading UK law firms. The Diversity League Table provides a demographic analysis of ethnicity and gender from partner to paralegal, within the leading 100 UK law firms. The results of the survey reveal that there are no ethnic minority partners in a third of the firms surveyed. On average, one in five partners are female (even though 57.7 per cent of admissions into the legal profession in 2004 were women).

However, several factors have led to diversity being an increasingly hot topic within the legal profession. For example, client pressure, in particular from US multinationals such as Starbucks and Wal-Mart, have compelled external lawyers to provide not only statistics about the gender and racial composition of their firm, but also to insist that their work, in certain instances, is undertaken by ethnic minorities and women. As the multinational corporations roll out their diversity programmes, many of the leading law firms are being asked for their diversity statistics. Recently, Barclays Bank raised the stakes by demanding statistics on ethnicity and gender from every law firm they use as external counsel.

Government proposals for increasing diversity have also been a key driver for change. For example, the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 requires public sector bodies to promote equality of opportunity. In May 2005, the Legal Services Consultative Panel recommended that in purchasing legal services, public authorities should give consideration to inviting tenders only from those firms that publish progression data by gender and ethnicity. The Government is the biggest spender on procurement and all businesses, including law firms, will be obliged to comply with public sector obligations if they wish to continue to attract work. As a further illustration of how quickly the diversity agenda has developed, in November 2005, the Under Secretary for State for the Department of Constitutional Affairs, Bridget Prentice MP, wrote to the UK's top 100 law firms and top 30 Barristers Chambers requesting details of ethnicity and gender with a deadline of 31 March 2006.

In the long term it is likely that changing demographics will have the biggest impact in reshaping the legal profession. It is revealing to note that in 2004, of students embarking upon a legal career 23.9 per cent were from ethnic minorities and 63 per cent were women. Clearly, for firms to maintain a competitive edge they have to recruit from the widest pool, which means increasingly having to recruit candidates who do not fit the traditional city profile of the white, middle-class male.

The Diversity League Table is merely the start of a long-term project to continue to map the access, retention and promotion of ethnic minorities and women at leading firms. It is only when their numbers have increased to a significant level that their abilities, rather than ethnicity and gender, will set them apart from the crowd.

For copies of The Diversity League Table (priced at £75.00 plus p&p) contact Investart Limited on 020 8885 1421 or write to Investart Ltd., Unit 27, G10, N17 Studios, 784-788 High Road, London N17 0DA. For further information about the Black Solicitors Network, visit www.blacksolicitorsnetwork.co.uk

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