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Ethnic minority City lawyers still under-represented at the top

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Only a handful of internationalist firms reflect diversity of the general UK population

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The partnerships of City law firms continue to be dominated by white lawyers, despite a more ethnically diverse intake at associate level.

Legal Cheekā€™s 2016 Firms Most List demonstrates a comparatively high intake of ethnic minority associates, but this pattern is not reflected at senior level.

According to the most up-to-date figures from the UK census, approximately 14% of the population is of an ethnic minority background. In London, where the majority of top commercial law firms are based, that percentage is closer to 50%.

43 law firms disclosed their associate workforce data to us, and none come close to reflecting the London figure. However, many firms do reach, or nearly reach, the national average — 15 out of 43 firms employ between 10% and 14% black and minority ethnic (BME) associates.

Meanwhile, 13 out of 43 firms (30%) surpass the standard figure of 14%, with magic circle firm Linklaters topping the list at 28%.

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At some firms, this trend continues into more senior positions. There are a number of major commercial firms that pride themselves on their internationality and diversity, and whose UK ethnic diversity statistics are more in keeping with national figures. Cleary Gottlieb, for example, has a strong presence of ethnic minority lawyers both in its junior and senior workforce at 25% and 14% respectively. Similar figures are evident at Mayer Brown and Clyde & Co.

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These firms are, however, in the minority: across the board, most law firms have far less ethnic minority lawyers in their partner positions than 14%.

42 firms disclosed their partner workforce data to us. In 35 out of 42 of our law firms (83%), the percentage of partnership positions filled by non-white lawyers does not hit 10. Four out of 42 firms (10%) do demonstrate an intake of BME partners higher than the national average, but a similar number — three out of 42 (7%) — do not have a single partner from an ethnic minority background.

For some firms, the junior position and senior position stats are at odds. Take Herbert Smith Freehills and Slaughter and May, for example. As far as associate level positions are concerned, the diversity stats exceed the national average, at 17% and 19% respectively. But the percentage of ethnic minority lawyers in partner roles at these firms is low — 2% and 6% respectively.

These firms may be described as transitioning — their emphasis on ethnic diversity came largely after the turn of the millennium, so BME lawyers are still filtering through. If this is so, we can expect to see more and more non-white lawyers moving into positions of seniority in years to come.

In other firms, white lawyers dominate positions at all employment levels. Five firms — Bird & Bird, CMS Cameron McKenna, DWF, RPC and Travers Smith — do not have a 5% stronghold of ethnic minority lawyers as associates or partners.

But the very fact that they make this data openly available is encouraging, and implies a willingness to become more representative of the general population. Hopefully the 18 firms that were unable to provide full ethnic diversity figures will be more forthcoming in the years ahead as the commercial branch of the English legal profession changes to better reflect its surroundings and the international clients it serves.

Further reading:

The 2016 Firm Most List