Studying the changes in law firm equality

'I want to go on and be a role model for my community'
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The Independent Online

Diversity is probably not the first word that springs to mind when people think of law. Imagine the legal profession and it's likely that you'll see white men in white wigs talking in wood-panelled courtrooms.

So it should come as little surprise that new research into the representation of ethnic minority groups at the UK's top law firms confirms what many suspected: that people from non-white groups lag behind when it comes to pay and status.

The study published last week along with a league table (see page 7) by the Black Solicitors Network found that although people from black, mixed race, Asian and Chinese backgrounds made up around 5 per cent of solicitors at the firms studied, they were clustered in the lower ranks.

Although people from ethnic minorities made up more than 15 per cent of paralegals, or legal assistants, they accounted for just 3 per cent of partners, and around a third of firms had no non-white partners. This finding prompted the report's conclusion that "the presence of ethnic minorities in firms generally increases as the seniority of the role decreases".

There were also big differences between ethnic groups. While people with Asian origins made up 1.78 per cent of partners, less than 1 per cent of people working at that level were from black, mixed or Chinese backgrounds. Among associates - qualified solicitors who are not yet partners - 4 per cent were Asian, 2 per cent Chinese and just 1 per cent were black or mixed race.

While there have been steady increases in ethnic minority people entering the profession in the past few years, the Law Society admits that this is almost exclusively accounted for by rises in the numbers of Asian and African students. Those from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds are being left behind.

Yvonne Brown, chair of the Black Solicitors Network, says the research was an attempt to identify problems as a first step to solving them. Although only 53 of the top 100 legal firms responded - to which a further 28 smaller firms were added - she says she is pleased with the outcome.

"We are happy and delighted that so many firms chose to participate because our main concern was that the door would be shut in our face," she says. "We see asking firms to look at where they are at and then track what they are doing as an important first step." She says it was worrying, however, that others chose not to take part, especially as one of the top 10 firms did not conduct ethnic and gender monitoring at all.

Brown says the results backed up the Network's suspicions. "The study confirms anecdotal evidence that black lawyers are to be found predominantly at the lower levels of the profession and are often not represented at all," she says. "Asian lawyers are doing far better but African or Afro-Caribbean lawyers are not doing as well as they should. Over time we hope the firms will address the reasons for that." Previous research shows there are difficulties for ethnic minorities at every stage of training and recruitment. A fifth of trainees are now from non-white backgrounds, but they are less likely than their white counterparts to secure training contracts with law firms - the final stage of qualification after a law degree or conversion and the legal practice course (LPC).

Once employed, they are likely to be paid less and to have fewer chances of promotion. Figures from the Law Society show that around 8 per cent of UK solicitors are from ethnic minority backgrounds but the vast majority are in small, high street practices or at lower grades within the big firms. Another study by the organisation found that twice as many ethnic minority solicitors were dissatisfied with opportunities for partnership as their white counterparts.

Brown says this, coupled with organisational culture, could be behind the revolving door phenomenon which sees so many non-white solicitors get into firms only to leave.

But there are signs that times are changing. Cali Ibrahim from Global Graduates, a networking organisation set up to support ethnic minority students aspiring to a law career, says firms are beginning to abandon their old-fashioned methods of recruitment and promotion.

"We have seen an improvement," she says. "There is an element of recognition that for you to be successful as an organisation you have to speak different business languages. And for you to do that you have to represent the demography of your community." The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 is one of the main drivers of change. The Act requires public bodies to monitor their workforce to ensure that ethnic minorities are not being treated unfairly and has resulted in the law firms employed by such bodies being required to do the same.

The act is also making its presence felt beyond public sector contracts.

Stories about law firms being turned down for work because their diversity credentials were not good enough - a particular issue in the US - have rattled cages. It emerged earlier this year that Barclays is among City banks now asking its legal advisers for their monitoring data.

Ibrahim, who is conducting research into managing diversity in the legal profession to be published this summer, says it is concern over the bottom line that will lead to improvements. "That kind of thing worries firms," she says. "Money has always been the key driver for change in an organisation." This atmosphere means the work of organisations like Global Graduates to engage would-be lawyers from non-traditional backgrounds is being taken seriously. A total of 26 law firms, including all five of the so-called "magic circle" including Slaughter and May and Linklaters, now sponsor the group's work, offering funding, networking opportunities, application and interview workshops, work placements and training contracts to the hundreds of law students on its books.

A number of other organisations are also trying to redress the balance. The Crown Prosecution Service introduced a law scholarships scheme three years ago to help the large proportion of women and ethnic minorities employed at the bottom of the pay scale in administrative positions to qualify in law. More than 500 members of staff have signed up, 35 per cent of whom are from non-white groups.

The Law Society, too, is doing its bit. Last year it introduced a diversity access scheme, which pays for around 14 law students per year to complete their LPC as well as offering mentoring and work placements. This year they received over 150 applications.

Janet Paraskeva, chief executive of the Law Society, says the sheer cost of the course - between £6,000 and £10,000 plus living costs for a year - puts off many law graduates from continuing their training.

"You are 20 times more likely to become a lawyer if someone in your family is a lawyer," she says. "If you come from a group where there aren't many lawyers you do not stand much of a chance. The point of this scheme is to make sure that clever young people who might not be able to pay for themselves get the help they need to make it." Paraskeva says there is considerable evidence that firms are beginning to take diversity seriously. "A few years ago it looked like an enormous uphill struggle but things have changed and firms are giving training contracts to a more diverse group of people," she says. "Firms have generally recognised that there is skill and talent out there that they need to tap into." Among the biggest changes are attempts by law firms to overcome their historical snobbery which meant their recruitment milk-rounds overlooked the newer universities, which tend to have high proportions of ethnic minority students. "They want the best and they have realised that the best doesn't come from one single course," she says.

But she admits that change is slow in the upper echelons - as shown by the Diversity League Table's figures on partners. Although she stops short of calling for positive action, which would favour applicants from certain backgrounds, she does admit that radical action is needed.

"These changes take the time we let them," she says. "We have to look at fast-tracking. We have to take a few risks. We mustn't just sit back on our laurels and say we are doing okay at entry so it will trickle through. We have to make sure that women and people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds get to partnership." Lucy (who prefers not to give her real name), an associate solicitor in a major London law firm whose parents are from China, says it will take time for the top to change. "It takes a very long time to make partner," she says. "Even with intake now which is more diverse it could take six or seven years to filter up." She says the lack of a clear promotional path and the relatively secretive way in which solicitors are "made up" to partner - "you work and work and one day you might get lucky" - could be factors behind the lack of representation at senior levels.

Yet she is uncomfortable with the idea of positive action. "It could also create tensions in such a competitive environment. I would always be second guessing, thinking are they only doing this because I'm Chinese? It would always be in the back of my mind. I think I would prefer to think I was promoted purely on merit."

Niaomi Roberts, 23, from Manchester, was accepted on the Law Society's diversity access scheme last year and is nearing the end of her LPC at Manchester Metropolitan University. She is now looking for a training contract.

I was doing an undergraduate degree in law at Sheffield University when I heard about the scheme through a careers adviser. If I hadn't had this help it would have been difficult for me to continue my studies as my mum died before I started my degree and I'm not in contact with my father. I would have had to support myself and I wouldn't have been financially stable.

At times it's stressful but I feel so fortunate to have won a scholarship and now that I'm putting my legal knowledge into practice I can see light at the end of the tunnel. Being on a course with other black and Asian women makes me realise I can do this. I am as good as everyone else. I want to go on and be a good role model for my community.

There are still problems with diversity but I wouldn't venture into the profession if I didn't think it was possible. Law is such an old profession it will take time to change but hopefully schemes like this one will make firms sit up and take notice. I just hope in future years we won't need to have these schemes.