ETHNIC MINORITIES DON’T ‘FIT THE IMAGE’



It’s harder to get on in law if you’re not white, argues solicitor-advocate Sophie Khan

The August riots have forced the debate on whether there truly are equal opportunities for ethnic minorities in this country. Recent analysis by the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office into the background of those arrested have highlighted that a disproportionate number were young ethnic minorities who were unemployed and had been left behind in society.

You may think that the picture is different in the legal profession, but it’s not. From what I have seen over the years in my area of law (public law), it is now harder than ever for ethnic minorities to secure training contracts and pupillages. Not because of their want of trying or due to their abilities, but because many of them do not fit the image that law firms or barristers chambers are looking for in candidates to represent the future of their establishments.

Even in corporate firms, which have significantly increased the number of ethnic minority lawyers they employ, there remains a large underrepresentation of black people relative to the general population.

So why has this issue been ignored, or at least paid insufficient attention, for so long? Apart from one or two surveys that have identified this trend over the last couple of years, which includes the publication by the Law Society in May 2010 of Understanding the Barriers, there have been no active steps taken by many areas of the legal profession to address the increasing difficulties that ethnic minorities face when entering the legal profession.

The compulsory diversity data that all firms and chambers will have to publish by 2012 may be seen as way forward to try and force law firms and chambers to re-evaluate their stance on their employment practices towards ethnic minorities. But I do not believe that this will go far enough to address the issue, as the accuracy of the data will depend on whether the questions are answered in the first place. Many solicitors and barristers may choose not to disclose their diversity information for personal reasons.

In my opinion, this deep-rooted issue has to be tackled top-down if there is to be any meaningful change in the diversity of the profession. The changes will have to be led by partners and senior barristers who play a significant role in the recruitment procedure. They will have to set aside their own prejudices and recognise the strengths of employing candidates who may not fit their image but who fit an image that is widely recognised as the future of our society. And hopefully at some point these candidates will filter through to currently extremely white judiciary.

Sophie Khan is a solicitor-advocate specialising in actions against the police and public law at GT Stewart. She blogs at sophiekhan.blogspot.com and will be appearing on the #RoundMyKitchenTable podcast, hosted by Legal Cheek, this Friday.

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