“It’s promising to see firms taking steps to improve diversity”

– Joianne Als-McClean

Diversity and Inclusion is a term that is used by several law firms across the UK who aim to increase the representation of aspiring lawyers who are of ethnic minority background, female, LGBT members, low-income backgrounds and those with disabilities. Several City law firms have made rigorous diversity efforts to recruit and retain those who fall into the underrepresented groups. Firms are looking towards having a diverse workforce to improve client services and having a more efficient workforce. As a black woman who attended a state school and who is an aspiring commercial solicitor, it is promising to see firms taking steps to improve diversity.

The struggles of a non-Russell Group student

Some City law firms have implemented several initiatives ranging from networking events to scholarships and utilising Rare’s contextual recruiting methods to level the playing field between privileged and non-privileged applicants. Over the past few years, some firms have removed A-level entry requirements as part of their application process with more firms following suit amid the flawed A-level algorithm fiasco this summer. As several lawyers have been privately educated, have wider access to resources and connections to get their foot through the door, the same cannot be said for the majority of applicants who are state school educated and/or from low-income backgrounds. Several firms have embraced the idea of recruiting prospective lawyers from several universities and not solely from Russell Group universities, to attract the best talent irrespective of their background. As a law graduate from a non-Russell Group university and with no connections to the legal profession, it was particularly challenging accumulating legal internships during my degree and building my professional network, a struggle which many aspiring lawyers with no connections are faced with.

Lawyers falling under BAME

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, some firms and recruitment agencies have designed internships exclusive to black aspiring lawyers. However, for qualified lawyers, according to recent statistics provided by the SRA, 21% of solicitors in England and Wales identifying as BAME with only 20% of partners identifying as BAME. Corporate firms particularly those that are international have the lowest proportion of BAME lawyers. Regardless of initiatives firms are using to improve diversity, the growth of ethnic representation remains slow in 2020 with the ethnic pay gap remaining wide. Additionally, retaining BAME lawyers sometimes leave the firm they trained at post-qualification due to cultural isolation and hardship to attain partnership. This August, Raphale Mokades from Rare Recruitment reported that black solicitors are leaving private practice ‘very, very early on’ in favour of in-house work, because of issues surrounding race, specifically unconscious bias. This provides rationale as to why there are so few Black trainees and partners. A more inclusive and supportive working environment is necessary to help retain black lawyers.

Gender pay gap

Although the numbers of female trainees, associates and partners have increased over the past few years, partnership remains overwhelmingly male-dominated. As a result of the UK government implementing compulsory gender pay gap reporting, law firms have been scrutinised for excluding equity partners (as they are not salaried partners) from their reports. Thus, high-earning men were omitted from these reports. The gender gap unfortunately has continued to grow. Many aspiring women lawyers consider their gender as an impediment to pursuing their legal career particularly those who face problems of childcare and parental leave when raising families. Some firms have demonstrated their commitment to implementing flexible working policies and support networks targeted at women (and carers) to help increase female talent and promotion.

LGBT representation

City and regional law firms have been recognised for their inclusivity efforts to recruit and retain LGBT lawyers. Although the numbers of LGBT lawyers are slowly increasing, LGBT networks have fostered more inclusive communication in professional working environments and the provision of safety of LGBT staff when they work abroad. However, in senior positions, LGBT representation is still lacking due to unconscious bias. With the implementation of the Law Society’s new LGBT Lawyers Division, hopefully, the increased representation of LGBT lawyers will be seen sooner rather than later.

Lawyers with disabilities

The recruitment process across several law firms has been made far more inclusive to accommodate those with disabilities and long-term health conditions in line with the Equality Act 2010. However, the reality on the office floor can somewhat differ. For current lawyers with disabilities, adjustments such as reduced working hours and flexibility in some areas of, particularly in commercial law, are difficult. There is often confusion with disability meaning inability and some disabled lawyers feel burdened by having to do extra work to prove themselves to employers. Firms with an open-door policy and support networks implemented have improved disability-inclusive measures, but more needs to be done to create an inclusive culture and understanding the differences between how able-bodied lawyers work compared to disabled lawyers.

Over the past decade, firms have made a conscious effort to improve diversity in the legal profession across all underrepresented groups. However, more needs to be done considering that the profession is predominantly made of white middle-class men who were primarily privately educated. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing firms to quickly adapt their services to applicants, staff, and clients, firms will hopefully start to implement or improve their strategy to be more inclusive for all backgrounds.

Joianne Als-McClean

Joianne is a recent law graduate from City, University of London. She is a newly recruited Legal Assistant at a financial services company in the City and is also an aspiring commercial lawyer. She is passionate about diversity and inclusion, having co-managed the Brent Buddy Programme to introduce secondary students from low-income backgrounds into university. She is also a Brand Ambassador for the ‘Black Interns Matter’ initiative founded by Samuel Clague to help black students and graduates secure legal work experience.

Joianne Als-McClean