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Have a look at these statistics

09 January 2012 

61.7% of all legal trainees are women.
46.1% of all solicitors with practising certificates are women.
24.8% of partners in private practice are women. 1

Spot the deliberate mistake?

Well, actually there is none. It really is the case that whilst almost two thirds of new trainee solicitors are women, only a quarter of the most senior positions are held by women.

And these stats are not restricted to solicitors. The picture is the same at the Bar.

53% of students on the BPTC were women  2
32% of self employed barristers were women 3
22.3% of the judiciary is female
1 of 11 Supreme Court Judges is female 4

The higher you go, the fewer women you see.

And if you dig a little deeper then a couple of other interesting trends emerge. 

Black and Minority Ethnic groups (BME) account for 8% of the population, yet only 5% of the judiciary 5. And how about wealth,as an indicator of your chances of succeeding in law?

A survey in 2008 by the Sutton Trust found that more than 50% of partners in the most prestigious law firms attended independent schools 6, in spite of the fact that only around 7% of the population goes to private school. Incredibly, in spite of billions spent on improving state education and increasing social mobility, young partners today are almost as likely to have been educated in private schools (71%) as the older partners of twenty years ago (73%).

To put it bluntly, if you are black, a woman or you went to state school, you are less likely to make it to the top of the legal profession than a white, privately educated, man.

This notion that you have to be a middle class white male to get on in law was reflected in a major survey published in 2010 by the University of Westminster for the Legal Services Board. 7

Take, for example, this quote from a white equity partner in a medium sized firm.

“[I]t’s still very much dominated at the top end by white, middle aged men. And as they die out they will be replaced by younger traditional white middle class men. Partly law encourages conservative, with a small “c” people…that’s very traditional and that encourages a certain sort of person..” 8

Another respondent, a female Asian barrister, talks about how lack of familiarity with the kind of social events which most firms engage in – breakfast meetings, networking events, drinks evenings - can exclude some;

“…socialising is very important and the ease with which you see somebody who’s been born into that set up…compared with somebody who hasn’t had that exposure, that experience, is immense…” 9

So what can be done to improve access to the profession and make it less dominated by any one particular social group?

Well, one radical solution proposed by Nigel Savage, CEO of The College of Law, is to do away with the training contract which you currently have to do to become a solicitor.

“The point for me is that the training contract is the obstacle. Kids are getting on to the LPC but the blockage is the training contract.”

Instead he advocates a system where students complete the Legal Practice Course and are entitled to practice straight away. In certain areas though (for example litigation) they would have to undertake further training before they could do this work, but this would be restricted to relatively few areas of law compared to now.

As he points out there are very few jurisdictions that have retained the 2 year training contract that we have here in the UK;

“Neither Australia nor America asks for a two-year training contract - America’s global law firms only require you to ¬complete the New York Bar.”

The body which regulates solicitors, the Solicitors Regulatory Authority, has also been looking at the way solicitors are trained. They don’t want to go so far as to abolish the training contract but in their review of so-called “Work based learning” they have been looking at allowing other people without training contracts (paralegals for example) to qualify provided they could show they met certain outcomes.

Others think that the issue should be left to the market. The theory goes that in an increasingly competitive environment only those firms which recruit “the best” irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic background will survive.

However, most commentators and large law firms agree that there is an issue and that action is needed.

So what have they been doing?

Some law firms have increased their range of outreach activities in schools to encourage more children from a wider range of backgrounds to consider law as a profession. Others have reconsidered the range of universities they actively recruit from and now include former polytechnics and other universities which are outside the exclusive Russell Group universities.

And there are a number of high profile initiatives, not least the Law Society Diversity and Inclusion Charter.

Firms which sign up to this agree that a “commitment to diversity and inclusion is essential to reflect the society we serve today. It makes business sense because it helps us to attract and retain the best talent, it enables us to understand and meet clients' needs more effectively and so provide a better quality service”.

They also agree to publish annual statistics on the diversity of their workforce, something which in the past has been done in a much more piecemeal fashion.

And crucially, government bodies and companies which regularly buy legal services such as BP, HSBC and Glaxo Smith Klein can also sign up to the charter. This means that law firms that want to work for them will have to be able to show that they are taking “active steps to follow good practice in recruiting, developing and managing staff that help to widen opportunities for minority and other under-represented groups.”10  If they can’t, then they wont get the work.
Law firms themselves are taking the lead in this. 23 law firms have come together to launch their own initiative to widen access to the profession. Called Prime, the initiative aims to create 2,500 meaningful work placements for school aged students from less privileged backgrounds by 2015. Participating firms will work with young people to properly prepare them for the work experience, offer financial support to enable them to take part, and take part in an evaluation of their involvement by the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER)themselves have also come together to launch their own major initiative. (see for full details.)

It’s a bold commitment and it shows the profession takes the issue of diversity seriously. Law as a profession may be perceived as being slow to change but in some respects it’s ahead of the game.


1“Barriers to the legal profession”. Report by Rosaline Sullivan for the Legal Services Board, July 2010
2“An analysis of full-time students enrolled on the 2009-10 BVC”. Report by Dr Jennifer Saubborah, Research Dept. General Council of the Bar of England and Wales
3See General Council of the Bar of England and Wales website
5“Barriers to the legal profession”. Report by Rosaline Sullivan for the Legal Services Board, July 2010
6The Sutton Trust (2009), The Educational Backgrounds of Leading Lawyers, Journalists, Vice Chancellors, Politicians, Medics and Chief Executives website

7“Diversity in the Legal Profession in England and Wales: A qualitative study of barriers and individual choices.” Prof H Sommerlad et al. A report for the Legal Services Board by the University of Westminster 2010
8Ibid p39
9Ibid p44

10Law Society Diversity and Inclusion Charter, Procurement Protocol. 


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