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Beating the drum for diversity: An interview with David Lammy

David Lammy, The Shadow Foreign Secretary talks about the role equality and inclusion is playing in the legal industry and politics.

David Lammy has been beating the drum for diversity throughout his career. Verdict’s research ahead of our chat with the Shadow Foreign Secretary turns up an interview about “being black at the bar” from 1995, when Lammy was a fresh-faced pupil at Serjeants’ Inn. His subsequent barristerial career was all too brief: the Tottenham native became the area’s MP at a by-election in 2000, aged just 27.

The bar’s loss was government’s gain – and Lammy kept pushing his former profession on diversity. As a junior minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs in 2004 (now the Ministry of Justice), he spoke out about slow progress, pointing out that a diverse legal system is “not just about equality, it is good for business”. It’s a theme he returns to now, but with a Brexit twist: Lammy tells Verdict that British firms hoping to do more business with the likes of the USA and India, as the UK becomes less economically entwined with Europe, will find that clients there expect -- even demand -- diversity.

“If you walk into an American boardroom, very often you find vice-presidents who are African-American or Latino. That will definitely have a blowback here in the United Kingdom”, Lammy predicts. That international perspective reflects the Londoner’s experience of lawyering abroad, having studied at Harvard Law School and then worked as an attorney Stateside.

“The diversity I encountered in the law firm I worked for in California was much more considerable than here in the UK”, Lammy recalls. “And in fact, I found Harvard to be an extraordinarily diverse place. One of the reasons why, as universities minister, I was raising the net a bit on Oxford and Cambridge because I couldn’t quite believe how diverse Harvard was”. While there’s no denying the “historic and perennial issues around race in the United States”, Lammy believes that “diversity in the United States is generally better than you find in European countries - and that includes the UK”.

One possible reason is that the US is a much more diverse country to begin with. 24% of the US population is Black, Asian, indigenous or mixed-race - rising to over 40% if you include Latinos - compared to around 15% in England and Wales. If you take that as the benchmark, our legal professions do look pretty diverse.

A recent Bar Council report, for example, showed that the proportion of pupil barristers from ethnic minority backgrounds roughly matched their share of the population. But that’s not the full picture. People from ethnic minorities make up a far higher proportion of pupillage applicants than their share of the population would suggest. The same Bar Council report found that Black, Asian or other minority ethnic groups accounted for two in every five pupillage applicants but only one in five successful pupils.

Black and brown faces remain rare in senior echelons of the profession. Lammy singles out

judges: “the fact that only 1% of our judiciary are Black lags significantly behind the Black population as a whole”, he points out. “Here in London, I’m not aware that there’s a Black woman sitting in our Crown Courts at the moment. That’s worrying, really, when you consider that Black women have been qualifying as lawyers for at least 40 years”.

Lammy isn’t impressed by the selection process. The fact that well qualified ethnic minority candidates are applying for judicial jobs but aren’t getting past the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) shows that “there may well be institutional discrimination”. In the old days, judges were famously appointed by a more informal “tap on the shoulder” system: the Shadow Foreign Secretary isn’t sure that what we’ve ended up with is much better, diversity-wise.

“We’ve come up with a whole bureaucracy, the JAC, and I’m afraid ethnic diversity has not significantly moved. That’s why I think it’s in need of reform”. He takes inspiration from Canada, where the equivalent organisations were recently given an explicit mandate to recommend candidates “from a wide range of backgrounds and practice areas, with a view to having a judiciary that reflects the diversity of Canadian society” (in the words of Canada’s Department of Justice). June 2021 saw the first person of colour appointed to the country’s Supreme Court, Kenyan-born Mahmud Jamal. As he told Labour’s last party conference, Lammy also wants “targets to bring in more women and more ethnic minorities to the most senior positions in our courts”. This reflects his view that today’s diversity challenge now is “not really about entry. It’s about progression, about people making their way to senior leadership roles”.

Crucially, slow progress on diversity doesn’t just disadvantage the individuals held back. “There’s now lots of evidence that organisations make better decisions when they have diverse opinions around the table”, Lammy says. “That’s not just diversity in terms of race, it’s diversity in terms of gender and in terms of social equity and socio-economic background. You get better judgements made when you move beyond a mono-cultural position”. The commercial case for diversity goes on and on; Lammy also points to “a fresh perspective; a different way of thinking and operating; increased commercial opportunities which comes from standing out from the crowd, bringing in new clients; being seen to be socially responsible; a much stronger understanding of the needs of clients”. And with society as a whole becoming gradually less white, the business case only gets stronger.

 

This article was first published in our Verdict magazine – Read our Equality, Diversion & Inclusion Special now.