Diversity quotas: would they be legal, would they make a difference?

Breaking the dominance of the MAWM (middle-aged white man) is even harder than some campaigning groups realise, says Judge John Hack


How diverse — socially, ethnically and sexually — is the UK legal profession?

It is a contentious question that can polarise opinion as quickly as standing at a pub bar in Manchester’s Deansgate and casually enquiring of a fellow drinker: are you City or United?

Many view the legal profession — especially at the rarefied levels of City law firms and Chancery chambers — as still mainly the preserve of a big beast known as MAWM, or middle-aged white man. And that view is not without justification: walk into any Square Mile global legal practice or stroll round the Inns of Court, and you’d have to be pretty unobservant not to notice a significant number of MAWMs lording it in their natural habitat.

However, that demographic is changing — just not quickly enough for some. And the question is: what, if anything, can or should be done to make the legal profession more diverse?

Every so often an answer is mooted that often takes the form of the word “quotas”, which is then tempered with “targets”. Last week, the Black Solicitors Network (BSN) became the latest to invoke the Q and T words, predictably triggering first headlines and then hand-wringing in the legal profession specialist press over the ill and the potential cures.

Both the Law Gazette and the website Legal Futures pointed to a section of the BSN report which claimed:

“…while the economic fundamentals are working in the right direction, the present pace of change seems unacceptable. Firms and chambers need to act now, as there is an increasing willingness to consider the ‘nuclear’ option of quotas”.

But of all people, lawyers will be keenly attuned to the question of what the law itself has to say about that “nuclear option”? Attempts to force law firms and chambers to recruit a specified percentage of any variety of applicants would certainly be destined to fail quickly and spectacularly at legal challenge.

And why single out the legal profession for diversity quotas? What about other professions — should not medics, accountants, teachers, architects, the clergy, bakers and candlestick-makers also be subject to a quota regime if one is concocted for and imposed on lawyers?

Those mooting the idea of quotas realise this difficulty, which is why they qualify the discussion by invoking the possibility that legal profession regulators could publish targets. Presumably, this would involve the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Standards Board gently suggesting that law firms and chambers should aim to reach a certain percentage of gender, ethnic and social diversity in their recruits.

Admirable enough, but apart from making the right noises, would law firms and chambers really take any notice? They are businesses, after all, with law firms especially driven by the bottom line. And chambers are still a collection of technically self-employed individuals, making the imposition of blanket recruitment targets even more difficult.

Moreover, in relation to ethnic and social diversity, any target scheme would have to take into account at times quite sharp regional demographic variations. The ethnic components of London, for example, are vastly different to those of Penzance.

And that’s before addressing the sticky question of ethnicity itself. Some UKIP politicians may struggle with this concept, but all of us in this island nation are a mongrel collection of all sorts of European and wider backgrounds, making the specific definition of an individual’s race and ethnicity a quagmire of interpretation.

All of which paints the backdrop against which many in the profession maintain that not only would quotas be unlawful, but targets would be impractical — and indeed, almost immoral themselves.

As one commentator on the Law Gazette website writes:

“Why should we have quotas and targets? What happened to giving the job to the best candidate? I want to employ the best person for the job and don’t give one hoot what race, gender, colour, creed and sexuality they are as long as they are good at their job and willing to work hard. I would hate to be given a job not because I deserve it or the company think I will be good, but just so that they can tick a box to show diversity.”

Others maintain that approach is too simplistic, with a commentator responding:

“You are wilfully refusing to recognise the social factors in selection. It is too simplistic to focus on ‘quality’ and ‘industriousness’ as these are not entirely objectively measured in practice.”

And indeed, it can be argued that of all roles in life, the legal profession should strive hard to reflect wider society. The factors explaining the lack of diversity in the legal profession are well-rehearsed. And while it may not provide much comfort for those campaigning for faster equality, evolutionary movement is positive, not least at the top of the profession.

Legal Cheek’s own recently-published research shows that 13 of the UK’s top 60 firms have a higher percentage of women partners than the BSN average figure for the 41 law firms of all sizes it surveyed, which stood at 25.4%. Indeed, top of the gender diversity tree in the City is pukka international private client specialists Withers, where nearly half the partners are women.

And 20 of the top 60 firms in the Legal Cheek survey outstripped the BSN survey’s average figure for ethnic minority partners of 5.7%. The top firm in that category being Mishcon de Reya, where one in five of the firm’s partners has an ethnic minority background.

Ironically then, the City of London — the very watering hole and stomping ground of the big beast MAWM — is leading the way in gradually diversifying the legal profession.


De Facto

“What happened to giving the job to the best candidate?” is as convincing and as realistic as Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella saying women should “trust the system” for equal pay.

Ignorance is bliss.

Not Amused

We should trust the market. That doesn’t mean we accept the status quo. But if there is underrepresentation of any group then it broadly has 2 features:

1) state school kids
2) women

Both of these come from nation level problems. Firstly state school is failing its kids. Secondly as a nation we need a solution to child care to allow primary care givers back in to work properly.

No one industry can solve these problems on its own. Anyone interested in the problem needs to address these two issues – anyone who fails to do so lacks plausibility.


Not Amused is entirely correct.

2 problems – one the disadvantaged, the other women.

For the former, colour is a crude measure. The reason that ethnic minorities are under-represented is because they are statistically more likely to come from a disadvantaged background. Improve state education. More state educated pupils will go to the top universities. More state educated pupils will become lawyers.

The universities and firms are not to be blamed – they want the best quality. They both want more state educated pupils in order to appear more equal. The top unis spend millions on improving access. But when over half of state school teachers tell their start pupils not to apply to Oxbridge etc. because they aren’t good enough, because they can’t afford it, etc. (all lies) the children have no chance. Many have a chip on their shoulder against the wealthy, against the ‘successful’, and they allow it to affect how they treat their pupils. The left-wing parties’ general attitude towards the wealthy, the “us v them” attitude on which they rely, is largely to blame for this.

With regard to women, as already mentioned, child care is the problem. Being a lawyer and a new mother is difficult. The profession needs to become more mother-friendly.

Quotas will solve nothing. They will gloss over the deep cracks and prevent true change from occurring.

Sir Viv

Agree with this in part.

I am of the (perhaps naive) view that if you have a double first, BCL etc etc.. it doesn’t matter what colour or creed you are – you will pick up pupillage. For so long as clients believe that the above qualifications are sufficient or even necessary to be a ‘top’ barrister, magic circle sets will recruit candidates with Lord Harleyesque type CVs primarily for window dressing purposes – they could not care less whether Allah, Yahwel or Ganesh is your chosen God.

However, it is the next rung or two down the ladder that there is perhaps a problem. My view is that because there is so little to choose from between highly skilled candidates, some chambers/law firms revert to type when it comes to selection and recruit upper middle class candidates for their perceived “soft skills”. It doesn’t matter how many times the mantra is repeated that ‘diversity for its own sake has its advantages’, traditional chancery sets will (understandably??) recruit to reflect their lay clients and solicitors. High net worth individuals seeking tax/trust advice tend towards being at the whiter and more traditional end of society’s spectrum and so a recruitment committee may unconsciously take the view that X is likely to get on better with solicitors/clients then Y. Although this is self evidently wrong it is not a unique feature to the Bar; i’m sure many other industries operate this way – it seems to be the case that you have to be from Essex and support West Ham to get recruited as a clerk for example!

On a somewhat related point; given that things are so terribly competitive and the likelihood is that you will have to wait a few years before you get pupillage, does this not unfairly favour those with other sources of income? Even those who ‘make it’ will find that cashflow can be so poor at times that things would be so much easier if they had some independent means.

Not Amused

“so a recruitment committee may unconsciously ”

Everyone always see unconscious bias in others and never themselves.

I happen to be of the view that spreading rumours about unconscious bias is more damaging than IF it even exists at all. Far too often the biggest thing holding back poor kids is aspiration. Anyone who goes around telling poor kids that this or that institution or so and so individual (always without any evidence) is bias against them destroys aspiration.

For every poor kid you imagine (emphasis on imagine) is unconsciously discriminated against by a chambers recruitment panel I bet I can find 2 more poor kids who never bothered applying because they were put off by this sort of talk.

I don’t mean you to be offended. I would have said I don’t mean to upbraid you; but that would be patently false. Just if you do actually care about poor kids then this sort of unsubstantiated rumour is far more pernicious – loose lips sink ships.

Not Amused

The left wing is generally comprised of people in public sector employment. Those people generally have an interest in keeping the poor in their place. That way there are more public sector jobs to ‘manage’ the poor.

I’m not advocating right wing politics. But I think the currently fashionable lie that it is the left wing who will help the poor needs to be exposed.


The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) has always attempted to address the wider issue of women in the law, and encouraging social mobility, raised by NotAmused and NCTrainee. Largely ignored by the other two thirds of the profession.

Not Amused

CILEX is just another second rate cul de sac that poor kids are shunted in to.

It is not the answer.


Yes it’s true, leftists want ‘disadvantage’ and ‘discrimination’ to perpetuate because it keeps all those diversity sinecures afloat.

What is this obsession with ‘diversity’ anyway? The Japanese never had any need for it and they haven’t done badly. The politically correct brigade don’t want equality of opportunity, they want equality of outcome, and that’s never gonna happen, not on a level playing field.


As always, the main barrier to entry into the legal profession is money.
Despite coming from a comfortable, advantaged background, there is no chance of me affording the BPTC without a major scholarship. The financial uncertainty in the early years, compared to being funded for the LPC +£7 spending money for the year followed by a decent income for the next few years, makes trying to become a barrister a financially unattractive option for many.

Returning to the point on ethnicity, many at the larger firms will be from abroad. My London vac schemes were very diverse, but the majority of the diversity came from wealthy Asian students. Again, quotas are blind.


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