The legal profession has undoubtedly become more inclusive, but has it gone far enough, asks Kate Hilpern

Not so long ago, it would have been hard to find a more conservative profession than the law. The legal world was essentially run as an “old boys’ network”, complete with ingrained social and class prejudices, says Alan Baker, chairman of Leeds Legal, who used to chair the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) committee on education and training.

Rumpole Of The Bailey wasn’t a stereotype, it was the truth – and solicitors were also largely white, male and public- school educated.

“There was a frequent assumption of the non-sustainability of female entry and a lack of educational opportunities for successive waves of arriving immigrants,” explains Baker. “Obtaining training contracts and pupillage was more often a case of who you knew, not what you knew, with the result that ‘nice but- dim’ applicants often prevailed over the merit and endeavours of those who were less socially advantaged.”

The transformation has been extraordinary, he says. “For some years now, more females have been admitted to the Solicitor’s Roll than males and non-white entries now punch well above their demographic weight as educational opportunities have widened and past traditional prejudices have broken down,” says Baker.

While part of this is due to changing social attitudes, legislation has also had apart to play. Both law firms and chambers are simply no longer allowed to offer training contracts and pupillage – a key part of the final training stage – without adhering to strict criteria around equal opportunities. This goes for disability, sexual orientation, religion, social class and age, as well as ethnicity and gender. The business case for diversity has been significant too.

“Recruiters are realising that for their organisations to have the best chance of flourishing, the operation of meritocracy is essential,” says Baker.

Outreach programmes in schools, inclusiveness training, mentoring schemes andeven concierge services for lawyers juggling their work with parenthood are just some of the initiatives that modern law firms and chambers have put in place. In addition, there’s a whole range of organisations and initiatives specifically committed to ensuring law is open to all. These focus on providing workshops, open days and work placements, while diversity league tables carefully monitor progress across diversity strands such as ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender.

“Entry into the legal profession is unrecognisable from when I came in during the 1980s,” says Moni Mannings, partner and head of the finance group at Olswang. “I decided to become a barrister while I was at university studying a law degree, but quickly discovered that the Bar was impenetrable for someone of my background. I was brought up and educated in England, but I’m a woman from a Pakistani background with no history of lawyers in the family. I was married and didn’t go to a public school. I did manage to get a pupillage and won some of the highest awards, but getting a permanent position as a tenant in chambers was impossible. When I learned that solicitors firms were recruiting very heavily, including from other countries and that there were some genuinely meritocratic firms such as Clifford Chance, I decided to become a solicitor instead. Thankfully, things have changed now.”

The traditional routes into law haven’t changed, however. For solicitors, this involves doing a law degree or, if you do a non-law degree, a conversion course on top. Then you’ll need to do a legal practice course, followed by two years of practice-based training, known as a training contract. The majority are in private practice but they’re also available in local and central government, commerce and industry, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Magistrates’ Court Service, and other approved organisations.

Barristers will also need a law degree or conversion course. This is followed by the Bar vocational course and a one-year pupillage, the barrister’s equivalent of a training contract. Pupillage can be undertaken in chambers or another organisation approved by the Bar Council, such as the Crown Prosecution Service or a legal department.

While this remains the only route to the Bar, pupillages are now paid – as are training contracts for trainee solicitors –which has hugely affected accessibility. There are also scholarships and loan schemes in place for those who need funding. The ILEX (Institute of Legal Executives) route to becoming a lawyer –which removes the need to go to university – can also make study cheaper. Through distance learning or studying at a local college, ILEX members can fit their studies around family life, at a flexible and affordable pace.

But there is still a long way to go. Both the Law Society, which represents 120,000 solicitors in England and Wales, and the Bar Council have particular concerns about tuition fees undermining recent positive action around diversity. “They will disproportionately impact on people from disadvantaged backgrounds,” says Jerry Garvey, minority lawyers coordinator for the Law Society. “If a bright kid from Tottenham, black or white, realises they may face £40,000 worth of debt at the end of their legal studies, they may well think twice. We are very worried about this.”

He adds that the economic situation has led to fewer training contracts and pupillages, creating a tighter bottleneck. Retention and progression, particularly of women, is a further issue. “More women are doing law degrees than men and are doing very well at entering the profession, but there’s still a ceiling, with women struggling to get promotions. There’s a worrying dropout rate further up the ladder,” he says.

There are similar problems for female barristers, says Kim Hollis QC, chair of the Bar Council’s Equality and Diversity Committee, who has an additional concern about barristers from ethnic minorities being over-represented in publicly funded work – the most likely to be cut in recession. Certainly, white, Oxbridge-educated males still dominate the senior ranks of the judiciary, with just one woman sitting in the Supreme Court and none appointed since 2004. Out of 37 judges at the Court of Appeal, only four are women and there are no ethnic-minority judges in the two highest courts.

One of the things Justin Kopelowitz, director of legal recruiter DMJ Recruitment, would like to see is a greater mix of lawyers within ethnic minority groups. “We are seeing more of a representation from the Asian community, but there are still nowhere near enough lawyers coming through from the African Caribbean community, for instance,” explains Kopelowitz.

There also remains a shortage of lawyers who dress in traditional ethnic clothes. “As someone who dresses in shalwar kameez – traditional Asian clothes – I know some people thought that I must be shy and retiring and not aggressive enough in court. However, that myth was soon dispelled when I was seen in action, and many of the clients I have today have been extremely loyal to me and have instructed me for many years,” says Naeema Choudry, partner at Eversheds. “In many ways, my gender and ethnicity made me stronger and even more determined to succeed, and I became the first Pakistani female partner at Eversheds six and a half years after I first qualified.”