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Diversity is still lacking in law firms: research reveals

Using bi-annual data from 2014 onwards from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), as well as national statistics, UCAS data and other related research and studies, new findings suggest that the legal industry has more to do to achieve its D&I objectives.

Research compiled by Specialist lawyers Bolt Burdon Kemp reveals that only 29% of partner roles in large firms are held by women (despite women making up 47% of the UK workforce), only 3% of people in law firms identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, and only 3% of lawyers say they consider themselves to be disabled in comparison to 19% of the UK's working population.

While there are more women working in law firms than men (women made up 69% of all staff in 2019), only 37% of partner roles in law firms were held by women in 2019. This is reflective of the general workforce, with women only making up 38% of managerial roles in the UK in 2019.

However, this gender gap is even more marked when you look at firms with 50 or more partners which see only 29% of women being made partners.

The proportion of court judges that are female stood at 32% in 2019, although this is an improvement from 2014 (24%). The situation is slightly better for tribunal judges, where women made up 46% of roles in 2019 (up from 43% in 2014).

“The lack of diversity in senior judiciary is worrying,” remarked diversity and inclusion expert Chikere Igbokwe. “A group of upper middle-class white men can’t reflect the views and values of a diverse community, and their biases can influence judgements.”

Work to do on LGBTQ+

The research also explored the sexual orientation of lawyers. The majority of respondents identified as heterosexual, with only 3% identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual. In comparison, approximately 7% of the UK are estimated to be LGB by Stonewall and the Office of National Statistics (ONS). Only 2% of lawyers consider themselves to be transgender, but this is one percentage point above the UK average, where 1% are likely to be transgender.

While 2% of partners in larger firms identify as gay or lesbian, 3% of partners in larger firms are gay men, while only 1% are gay women.

Data regarding ethnic minorities in law firms suggest that Asian, Black, and other minority lawyers are finding alternatives to large firms. Only 19% of lawyers in 2019 were from ethnic minority backgrounds but this does represent an increase over the past six years. Drilling down into specific roles, in 2014, 10% of solicitors were Asian or Asian British, and 2% of solicitors were Black or Black British. Six years later, these numbers had risen to 14% and 3% respectively.

The percentage of Asian lawyers and Black lawyers – and Asian partners and Black partners – drop as the firms get bigger:

  • Asian lawyers make up 27% of 1-partner firms, 19% of 2-5-partner firms, and only 8% of staff in bigger firms with 50+ partners
  • Black lawyers make up 8% of 1-partner firms, 4% of 2-5-partner firms, and only 1% of staff in bigger firms with 50+ partners

Harder to be made partner

In 2019, the average age in law firms was 25-44, with the proportion of lawyers in different age groups accurately reflecting typical career progression in the industry. However, yearly trends suggest firms are changing their approach to promotions and that it’s taking longer to progress up to partner status:

  • In 2014, 7% of partners were aged 25-34 and 32% of partners were aged 35-44. By 2019, this fell to 5% and 29% respectively
  • Over the same time period, the percentage of partners over 44 years of age increased
  • In 2014, 61% of partners were aged 45+. In 2019, 66% of partners were aged 45+

Mental health support lacking

Only 4% of respondents to the SRA survey in 2019 said they consider themselves to be disabled. 

This is in stark contrast to the 19% of the UK’s working population who say they’re disabled and is one of the major shortfalls in the law industry’s diversity metrics.

According to City Disabilities, workers in the legal sector may be reluctant to disclose their disability, suggesting there may be an element of underreporting in the survey. Firms need to explicitly state their support for people with disabilities to make them feel more able to be open.

Addressing mental health issues is equally important when it comes to supporting staff. However, the Junior Lawyers Division Resilience and Wellbeing Survey in 2019 found that 48% of junior lawyers reported experiencing mental ill-health, but only 19% stated that their employer was aware of the issue. A whopping 78% of lawyers also said they believe their employer could do more for their mental health.

Report recommendations

The report urges employers in the legal industry to solidify their commitment to diversity by submitting diversity and inclusion data into the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index and making reasonable adjustments for disability as a matter of course.

It also highlights recommendations from Chikere Igbokwe, which includes: changing the workplace culture, paying close attention to individuals resistant to change, and avoiding the acronym ‘BAME’. “The groups of people that are categorised as ‘BAME’ don’t share the same experiences and conflating those distinctive groups in this way means we’re only telling half the story – and it’s usually an inaccurate one,” he says.

You can view the full report here:

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