Is the legal sector a diverse employer?

The appointment of Baroness Hale as the President of the Supreme Court in autumn 2017 marked a milestone in the journey towards a diverse legal profession. As the most senior female judge in the United Kingdom, Hale had previously criticised the judicial appointments system for selecting from a pool of predominantly white men from similar economic and academic backgrounds. However, while the legal sector has long held its reputation as an insular and non-diverse industry, recent figures serve to prove that progress has been made in widening access to the profession.  

Today, just under half of all solicitors in England and Wales are female (48%) and one in five (21%) are from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background. As far as senior roles are concerned, one third (33%) of partners are now women, though this figure drops to 29% for firms with over 50 partners. These findings came as part of a study conducted by the SRA which highlighted the headway made by the profession over the last 30 years. However, if the legal sector is to defy its stereotype and achieve recognition as a diverse employer, more must be done to improve equality at every level.  

While Lady Hale’s ascent of the judicial ladder serves to inspire the growing numbers of women in the legal industry, she is still just one of two women of the 11 justices on the Supreme Court. Predictably, the nine male justices do not fall into the BAME category. But gender and race are not the only measures of diversity in the workplace. Education, sexuality and social class should all be factored into the equation to determine how well the legal profession represents the population. Of these measures, the Supreme Court does not fare well: nine of the 11 judges are OxBridge alumni and most received private education. However, when the spotlight is pointed on law firms, the headlines improve. The research found that 57% of partners attended a state school and that the majority of partners (59%) were the first generation in their family to attend university.  

But how does the legal profession compare with the wider UK workforce? According to research from the Department of Work and Pensions, there are an estimated 30 million working age people in the UK today. Of this population, half are said to be female – a statistic which neatly matches up with that of the legal industry. While the government estimates 16% of the UK workforce to be disabled, only 3% of solicitors in the profession claim disability. When it comes to representation of the LGBT community in the practice of law, only 3% of solicitors surveyed identified as being lesbian, gay or bisexual compared to the 5-7% estimated for the wider working population.  

Paul Philip, SRA Chief Executive, said: “I know we will all welcome the progress that is clearly being made in many areas. But there is much more to do to achieve a truly diverse profession that reflects the community it serves, encourages people to access the legal services they need and offers opportunities for the brightest and best from every background.”