Each year, final year students and law graduates from prestigious universities are often under predicament about whether to pursue a two-year training contract to aid in qualifying as a solicitor or follow the path of a barrister. Often lecturers would advise students to pursue the route of a trainee solicitor in order to gain a minimum income but this is inaccessible given the difficulty to secure a training contract or pupillage.
Diversity within the application process: the stats.
Either route has its own perks, nonetheless gaining a training contract with a magic circle firm or an in-house is not an easy task. The application questions by each law firms differ and applicants are expected to be aware of the company’s function and mechanisms. What most likely puts a pause to their application or, in short, to their career would be the aptitude tests. The infamous Watson Glaser test is often implemented to gauge what skills each recruit possesses and determine whether they will fit in. Unless the recruit passes this aptitude test with a grade of 80% high, only then will he/she be called for an interview physically or online.
Is there any difference in the application process to students/graduates from different cultural backgrounds? It depends. Each law firm works in different ways but under an overall pursuit, they prefer white nationals. It is rare for law firms or in-houses to recruit those from diverse backgrounds as they are heavily biased to those who are privileged. As per the survey by Chambers Student, there has not been much change but the percentage of ethnic minor recruits in firms such as Allen & Overy have increased over the years. In 2014, 17% applicants from ethnic minority background were recruited by the firm whereas in 2018, this number increased to 26%. Despite various reforms and measures taken up by law firms, change is slow and dragging which puts graduates/students at a disadvantage especially those who come from the Black Asian Minority Ethnic (“BAME”) backgrounds.
The number of those working in each law firm has increased in ratio such that 1 in 5 lawyers are from the BAME community. This is mainly influenced by the increase of Asian lawyers recruited into law firms which has been up from 9% in 2014 to 14% in 2017, whereas black lawyers make up 3%, which has only risen 1% more since 2014. This area can be further categorized based on gender ratio where applicants from the BAME community to universities are quite higher than those who apply for training contracts in the UK. This evidences that many students from diverse backgrounds still do not progress onto attaining the work experience necessary for qualifications.
A study conducted by the Solicitor Regulation Authority (“SRA”) on diversity in law firms, indicates 48% of the workforce in law firms are made up of women. Compared with the UK workforce, only 47% of women undertake work, including those from law firms. Since 2014, there has been only slight change in either group, but the differences became more apparent when looking at the seniority. In 2017, 59% of the non-partner solicitors are made up of women as compared to merely 33% as partners (31% in 2014). There is a steady increase in women involvement within the legal community, where 52% of lawyers are involved in private client work. There is also a 40% increase of women participation in criminal work within the law firms as compared to men. Change, despite being slow, is evident. The ongoing process of providing opportunities could enable women to achieve higher positions in their career and advance to various fields – as long as the society and its people push forward for a change and provide equal standing to its fellow women.
And now the comparison:
This difference in spectrum can be seen with regards to the involvement of BAME lawyers: 21% make up solicitors as compared to 20% of partners. However, this variation becomes more apparent when looking at recruitment by different law firms: magic circle firms have the lowest proportion of BAME partners, specifically 8% with an increase of 1% since 2014. These proportions have varied across the legal workforce amongst the BAME lawyers depending on the areas of law they choose to pursue. Firms involved in criminal and client work have higher percentile of BAME lawyers with 33% and 37% respectively. With the introduction to various divisions such as the Ethnic Minority Division by the Law Society, it could be said in the coming years that the outlook of a traditional “white, male and stale” would develop more into a multicultural and diverse community possessing different capabilities, putting a front to those who wish to achieve the same.
Does this disparity in numbers actually define the workforce in the legal community in the UK? Statistics show that over the past five recruitment cycles, there is a dip in the number of recruits from the BAME community noticeable in the years of 2017 and 2019, especially with the trainees. When Brexit came in force, the ethnic minorities in the UK have faced racial discrimination with the 2016 European Union Membership Referendum. This cultural shift and attitude weakened the candidate’s faith within the system irrespective of whether they were settling into a position or invited for an interview. In a way, the uncertainty of free movement and working visa rendered many hesitant to apply or work in the UK, as they were unable to analyze how Brexit would shape out in the following years. Despite the increase of magic circle law firms recruiting BAME lawyers, there is still a gap which has prolonged during these five years and have led to numerous reasons as to why the numbers have been disappointing.
Leadership opportunities to become the partner of a firm and to be granted such opportunity would encourage BAME students and graduates to aspire and take initiative in achieving a position that they truly are capable of earning. During the recruitment process, law firms need not be implicitly bias; instead, candidates that can work efficiently and provide the best results without looking into their race, gender or ethnicity should be selected.
Law firms and in-houses apply various schematic questionnaires to understand their applicants’ strengths. Each applicant, at their own discretion, chooses which law firm/in-house they prefer and prepare accordingly. By providing equal opportunity and avoiding racial discrimination against all applicants including those from BAME backgrounds, law firms and in-house outfits will have a diverse pool of intellectuals baring different capabilities. Such behaviour from law firms/in-houses shall prompt future applicants to apply and have the chance to work in a multi-cultural company. By earning their spot, they shall pave their way through various positions and leaderships to stand out and bring forth the qualities that legal institutions saw in them.
The event following George Floyd’s death to this date, shows a slight change in the attitude and acceptance from partners/associates to welcome individuals from various backgrounds by implementing numerous schemes and projects. Despite these changes, it’s still questionable as to what extent regional and national law firms will adapt to the new front and micromanage their work environment to accept recruits from different cultural backgrounds, thus providing a platform to showcase their skillset and gain leadership positions. This requires the UK’s Law Society to take a stand against racial and gender discrimination by providing new opportunities and systems to ensure that all shall be treated based on their capacity, qualifications and eligibility.