News release

Regulator's research shows progress but still more to do to improve diversity in legal sector

We have published research today (17 May) showing that although the legal sector is increasingly diverse, more still needs to be done.

Covering more than 9,000 law firms in England and Wales and 170,000 people working in them, the 2015 survey is the most comprehensive into the sector. Compared to 2014, the survey saw an increased response rate with 10,000 more respondents and 88% of firms responding, up from 86% last year.

The evidence shows that on the surface the solicitors profession is diverse, particularly on gender (47% women) and ethnicity (18% BAME - Black and Asian Minority Ethnic). And more than half the profession (53%) is made up of individuals who are the first generation from their family to attend university.

Looking more deeply at the research reveals that there are still gaps for some groups across the profession when compared to the wider population. These include:

  • a disproportionate number of lawyers (22%) who attended fee paying schools
  • people who identify themselves as disabled (3%) are still under-represented in the legal workforce
  • there is an under representation of Black groups (2%), although Asian groups are over represented (12%)
  • BAME lawyer are twice as likely to work in smaller firms than larger firms

This is the fourth SRA diversity survey. It aims to shine a light on diversity issues. A comparison tool is available so firms can benchmark their own performance in this area. We recognise that collecting this data imposes a burden on firms, particularly sole practitioners. It is committed to understanding the impact on firms and taking a proportionate approach. In order to ease the burden on firms, while still ensuring effective monitoring of trends,we will move to collecting diversity data every two years. This means the next survey will run in May 2017.

Paul Philip, SRA Chief Executive, said: "Encouraging diversity in legal services is not about ticking boxes. It is of course the right thing to do, but it also helps to make sure the sector is as competitive as possible. There should not be any barriers stopping the best people - whatever their background - thriving in law.

"There is a real issue that many small business and individuals cannot or do not access legal services. That unmet need is bad news for justice and the health of the economy. A profession that reflects the society it serves can help deal with that problem.

"Ultimately the evidence shows that diversity in the workplace can benefit the bottom line - there is a 'diversity dividend'. Some law firms are doing some really positive things to tackle the problem and change the culture, but this research shows that there is still some way to go."

The survey findings include:

  • Gender: Women make up around half of all lawyers (47%), but only 33% are partners, with even fewer female partners - 27% - in large firms (of 50+ partners).
  • Social mobility: Compared to 7% of the general population, 22% of lawyers are privately educated. This rises to 37% for partners in large firms. More than half the profession (53%) is made up of individuals who are the first generation from their family to attend university - and this rises to 60% at partner level.
  • Ethnicity: As a group, BAME lawyers are well represented in the sector (18%), but this varies between different ethnic groups. There is an under representation of Black lawyers (2%) compared to economically active people in the wider population (3%), whereas Asian lawyers (12%) are over-represented compared to the wider population (7%). BAME lawyers are also more likely to work in a smaller firm of two to five partners (22%) than in large firms of fifty partners (11%). BAME individuals are less likely to be partners in large firms - for example, Asian solicitors make up 4% of partners in large firms but 16% in smaller firms. Black partners make up 3% in small firms and 1% in large firms.
  • Disability: Only 3% of lawyers say they are disabled compared to 10% of working age adults in employment according to Government Labour Force Survey data.
  • Sexual orientation: although it is hard to compare with the wider population in the absence of reliable figures, there are 3% of solicitors identifying as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual with only small differences by firm size. This compares with Stonewall's estimate of between 5-7% of the wider population.
For more information please see our Law firm diversity pages.