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Legal profession making ‘significant progress’ on diversity — but top roles remain a problem

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Lawyers disproportionately likely to come from privileged backgrounds, report finds

The legal profession continues to make significant progress in terms of diversity and inclusion, but this has yet to make real gains at senior levels, a new report has found.

According to TheCityUK’s 2020 legal services report published this week, law firms, chambers and the judiciary are “eager” to draw upon diverse talent in the UK.

Indeed, we have seen in recent weeks and months various recruitment drives across the sector to increase the diversity of new hires. Several major law firms featured in this year’s social mobility employer list while some have set ethnicity targets for trainee solicitors. On the other side of the profession, there have been concerted efforts to tackle the bar’s diversity problem: six of the country’s leading commercial law sets recently united to mentor under-represented bar hopefuls. Meanwhile, the head honcho of the Supreme Court, Lord Reed, said he hopes to see a black, asian and minority ethnic (BAME) justice on the bench before he retires in six years’ time.

TheCityUK’s annual report cites 2019 data which shows women make up 49% of all lawyers in law firms and 38% of practising barristers, and 55% of pupils, in England and Wales. Further, BAME lawyers represent 21% of the workforce in law firms and make up 13% of practising barristers.

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However, it goes on to say that there is still work to be done to address “historical imbalances”, namely among the upper ranks of law firms and chambers. According to the study, only 33% of partners, and 16.2% of QCs, are women. This trend is more marked in the UK’s 100 largest law firms, the report continues, where only 29% of partners are women. For equity partners, this figure drops down to 24%.

The lobby group’s report further finds that social mobility remains a challenge for the profession. Lawyers are still “disproportionately likely” to come from privileged backgrounds, with three times as many (21%) having attended fee-paying schools than the national UK average (7%).

TheCityUK said partners are more likely to have attended fee-paying schools (23%), and privately educated lawyers are more highly represented still at firms that mostly do corporate work (46%).

This follows another major report finding that over half (53%) of City law firm partners attended private school. The report, which was commissioned by and analysed ten top London law firms, found that partnerships at their firms are “deeply lacking in diversity and most acutely by socio-economic background”. Law Society president Simon Davis said at the time that although “law firms are doing great things and have made good progress, more can and will be done”.

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