By Grace Etheredge
WHAT ARE THE STATISTICS?
If you are enrolled on a law course at university, the chances are that you will encounter law students from all walks of life: BAME, female, non-binary – the list goes on. You may even observe that there are more BAME and female students in your classes than white male ones and thus assume that the classic line you’ve heard about the legal profession’s accessibility problem is exaggerated, misleading and even outdated.
On the face of it, the statistics show that students identifying as female do make up the majority of those on law courses. Of the UK students accepted into universities, The Law Society reports that 69% are female, 30% are male and 39.6% are from minority ethnic groups. Law thus ranks as the most ethnically diverse of all humanities subjects.
However, the picture begins to change, once the stats on career progression are examined. Despite the numbers of BAME law students, BAME barristers’ number 13.6% across the profession while only 8.1% are QCs and only 20 are black. Although the year 2000 was a turning point in the profession as a 50:50 male/female balance was achieved from those called to the Bar, 20 years later, women still number only 15% of QCs and make up 2/3 of those who leave mid-career.
On the other side of the table, the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s latest report stated that only 33.3% of solicitor partners are female. It highlighted that, on average, white males are five times as likely to become partners than BAME females.
WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON HERE AND WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT IT?
While it is clear that there are multiple factors at play, here are two broad areas I’ve outlined for you:
As argued by Reni Eddo-Lodge, racism has been embedded in UK institutions for centuries and must be addressed head-on. As Harry Matovu QC writes, “I learnt from my clerks in my early years, that I had not been considered for a case because the solicitors felt that their client would not accept a black barrister.” He has not been alone in this as recent stats show that BAME barristers face more bullying than white barristers and, in 2016, 54.2% of female BAME barristers told the Bar Standard Board of their experiences of harassment.
While more must be done to listen to BAME lawyers’ experiences, this must be accompanied by legal professionals’ commitment to anti-racism and to initiatives such as BAME mentoring schemes and solidarity movements. It also demonstrates the need for the introduction of mandatory unconscious bias training, the use of blind or non-contextual recruitment processes for all internal and external vacancies and the use of quotas.
One possible reason underpinning the different outcomes for male and female professionals is rooted in the fact that when female lawyers have children, many of them end up working the equivalent of two jobs – as a legal professional and as the primary carer of the family. This becomes unsustainable and means that that careers are cut short. This reality has come into sharp focus following The Law Society’s research which found that the rate of practising female solicitors drops from 60% to 40% after the age of 35, while the decline in practising men remains modest and evenly distributed right up to the age of 60. A more direct link was explored by the Bar Council which found in 2013 that 57% of women at the Bar with children were primary carers compared to just 4% of fathers at the Bar.
As ChambersStudent.co.uk highlights, one obvious solution to this problem is the introduction of more flexible working arrangements for all employees. These measures could range from the greater introduction of part-time partnership positions to the destigmatisation of more generous paternity leave. However, these would have to be accompanied by a commitment from firms and chambers to a work-life balance, safeguards which prevent their exploitation and contributions to wider lobbying groups and campaigns which seek UK-wide employment reforms.
Although these are just two of the intersecting issues that the legal profession still needs to grapple with, it is clear that there are measures that can be put in place to improve the career prospects of those disadvantaged by the current system. If law firms and chambers are serious about serving their members and the society in which they operate, they must radically rethink accepted practices and go beyond the research that has already been done by putting their money where their mouth is.