As a passionate advocate for greater diversity in the legal profession, it would be hard not to have some optimism. Along with many others, I have been working towards a more diverse legal fraternity, including through the mentoring programmes I have run to give confidence to young people from disadvantaged and/or minority backgrounds. Throughout my career, I have seen encouraging improvements in diversity of recruitment. There is a better gender balance, and recruitment from ethnic minorities is improving too – albeit slowly and from a very low base.
Anecdotally, colleagues generally agree that there is a sense of progress in addressing diversity. The statistics seem to bear this out.
And yet collectively we may be making an oversight in assuming that initiatives which give training and recruitment opportunities to young people from minorities will, over time, lead naturally to diversity at all levels. The figures do not support this. Very few firms can boast more than 14% BME partners. To the best of my knowledge, no major firm has more women than men at partner level. At the top of our judiciary too, diversity is scarce: there is only one woman and there are no BME justices on the Supreme Court.
The oversight we are making is to conflate diversity in recruitment efforts with diversity in leadership efforts. Recruitment is but the first step in a career-long process of talent management.
The disadvantages that individuals face in getting to the start line do not disappear once in the workplace. A study by the government’s Social Mobility Commission last year showed that a quantifiable ‘class pay gap’ persists in the UK, and may become exacerbated as a person’s career progresses. Law was one field singled out. For women solicitors or those from BME or working-class communities (or particularly if from all three) the informal barriers to progression remain formidable.
And this is a crucial point about diversity – it is not enough simply to look at the workforce participation of people from all ethnic minority backgrounds. We need to look also at the ethnic groups and subgroups that face the highest challenges. A child of refugee parents living in social housing will face different challenges from those faced by a wealthy immigrant family, and yet that distinction would not be apparent just by looking at a broad minority ethnic staff figure. Similarly, some candidates will face multiple layers of starting-point disadvantage – across class, race and gender.
To begin to address this we first need to recognise that talent management does not end with recruitment. Tailored programmes to identify, train and support BME leadership candidates should be considered.
Mentoring is an excellent way to help prepare young people for leadership – and of course the responsibility for mentoring should not only fall to BME partners. All senior figures should consider the kind of future workforce the profession needs and contribute to realising it. The benefits of this are self-evident. A profession that relies on intelligence, talent, training and experience for its continued relevance needs to nurture the best minds from the widest possible pool. It also needs to reflect the society in which it operates, if it is to be properly trusted by the public.
Acknowledging that recruitment policy does not automatically take care of leadership policy is the first step in addressing the lack of diversity in the profession’s senior ranks. It represents the start of a conversation. I would welcome views about further practical steps we could take to train and promote the next generation of leaders in our profession, from all backgrounds. This is a debate we need to have.
Trevor Sterling is a partner at Moore Blatch, Richmond, Surrey