Diversity in the profession

29 October 2019

Why this risk matters

More needs to be done to improve the representation of all groups especially in senior roles. A representative profession will support and maintain the public's trust while delivering effective administration of justice.

Who is at risk?

Despite decades of action, the senior levels of the profession do not reflect society. And large firms are the least representative. For example, a third of all partners are women but in firms with five or more branches, this reduces below 30%. And 20% of partners are black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) across all firms, but only 8% in large firms.

Firms without workplace cultures that promote equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) have the highest risk of not treating staff and clients fairly or not making the best decisions for their business or clients.

The impact

Research shows that some members of the public do not trust the legal system to give them a fair outcome and that this is linked to a lack of diversity in legal professions.1

An unrepresentative legal profession can negatively impact:

  • the administration of justice, as a diversity of views and approaches supports an independent justice system and maintains the rule of law
  • standards of service, as allowing the most talented people to become solicitors and progress in their careers helps to maintain high standards
  • access to services, as some people might feel that the legal system is not accessible to them if solicitors do not share some social or cultural characteristics with wider society.

Spotlight on disability

Disability can affect anyone. For example:

Under the Equality Act 2010, you are disabled if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a 'substantial' and 'long-term' negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities. This definition includes visible and non-visible disabilities and long-term health conditions.

Disability status is under reported in the profession – only 3% of solicitors and partners said they had a disability in 2017, compared to 10% of everyone in employment. 

Some people make assumptions about disabilities which create barriers to progression in all professions.2 Therefore some people do not speak out about their disability or poor mental health.

There are different barriers for different groups in terms of entering and progressing in the profession. And some disabled people face multiple barriers.

We asked firms about the support available for disabled staff. We found:

  • only 20% had an action plan for disability inclusion and 3% had any disability initiatives
  • some solicitors were uncomfortable about saying they had a disability for fear of bringing attention to themselves or being judged as not being able to cope
  • some solicitors were unsure about what was defined as a disability.

Your firm can improve inclusion for disabled people. For example:

  • encourage staff and job applicants to ask for support and reasonable adjustments
  • create a culture where people feel able to talk about all disabilities
  • offer flexible-working and home working to help the work-life balance of all staff, particularly those with a disability and caring responsibilities
  • collect and monitor data on disability, along with other EDI data
  • give disability-awareness training.

We recommend

To help you and your firm comply:

Know your obligations

The Equality Act 2010 protects people from discrimination. And our rules encourage equality of opportunity and respect for diversity. You and your firm have an anticipatory duty to make reasonable adjustments for existing and potential clients and staff. You can read our guidance to find out more about your EDI obligations.

If your firm has 250 or more employees, you must meet the gender pay gap regulations.

Your firm must collect, report and publish data about the diversity of your workforce.

Have the right controls

Your firm needs to make a continued effort for wider representation in senior roles, for example by putting everyone on a level playing field. You can make sure that your recruitment and progression processes and practices:

  • combat indirect biases and discrimination
  • allow recruiters to judge candidates on their skills and experiences, independent of their protected characteristics
  • support an inclusive profession, for example mentoring schemes allow senior managers get to know and help different people with the talent to progress.

How your firm advocates for and practises inclusivity and diversity, including how you handle harassment, bullying and discrimination and how you support people from all backgrounds, underpins your workplace culture.

For best effects in creating a culture of acceptance and support, your firm needs an intersectional approach to diversity. For instance, the experiences of BAME men and BAME women vary considerably. Your firm should therefore consider:

  • having initiatives that include all groups of people
  • evaluating the success of the initiatives.

You could review the EDI data you collect and ask staff about their backgrounds and experiences to better understand how to support everyone to progress in their career, maintain high standards and best meet the needs of your clients.

Understand your clients

Diverse firms can better understand and respond to the experiences and needs of a wide client base. Asking people about their needs is the first step to improving accessibility. And making small, proactive adjustments can have a huge impact on reducing barriers for disabled people.

Find more information

Our resources on disability in the workplace gives real life examples about how to support staff.

LawCare is a free and confidential advisory and support service to help lawyers and their immediate families with mental health problems. And our wellbeing resources have more information about the support available.

The Law Society have information and opportunities through their communities and networks, which can help your professional development.

What we are doing

Regulating based on evidence

EDI is considered throughout our Corporate Strategy and our work. And we are addressing our gender pay gap, which is much lower than the national average.

We have increased our understanding of how to improve diversity at work. Our work in this area informs our regulations, supports our staff and sets a positive example for others. For example, we:

  • have moved up 48 places in the Stonewall Index
  • are working towards becoming a Level 3 Disability Confident employer and conducted two research projects into disability
  • held events for Black History Month, International Women's Day, Pride 2019 and have raised staff awareness of disabilities and intersectionality
  • participate in the Legal Professions Wellbeing Taskforce to support good mental health and wellbeing so everyone can maintain high standards.

We regularly collect and publish data about diversity in the profession through our Firm Diversity Data collection exercise. We also provide an online tool that allows firms to compare their profile with that of others.

Looking ahead, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) means that everyone will meet the same high professional standards regardless of route into the profession. This should widen the talent pool, as people who choose 'earn as you learn' ways of becoming a solicitor will be able to enter the profession on the same terms as those choosing more traditional routes.

Taking appropriate action

We can take enforcement action when there is evidence of victimisation, discrimination or harassment by someone we regulate, both against colleagues and the public.

We have set up a dedicated team to investigate the reports we receive about harassment in the workplace.

Helping the public

The recommendations and case studies in our independent research into the experiences of disabled people in legal services support firms to make their services more accessible. As part of this, we hosted an event to hear from charities about the reasonable adjustments that firms can make for the public.

On the horizon

Diversity continues to be a focus for the Government. This includes:

You and your firm should keep up to date with the legislation and best practice in this area.

  1. The Lammy Review An independent review into the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the Criminal Justice System, 2017
  2. "Presumed incompetent: Perceived lack of fit and gender bias in recruitment and selection" in Handbook of Gendered Careers in Management: Getting In, Getting On, Getting Out, M. Heilman, F. Manzi and S. Braun, 2015; “Editorial: Researching Gender, Inclusion and Diversity in Contemporary Professions and Professional Organizations” in Gender, Work and Organization 19, no. 5, D. Muzio and J. Tomlinson, 2012