In 2018, figures from Chambers Student confirmed that City firms were lagging behind the market in addressing diversity within their workforce. However, research has also found that magic circle firms have been investing more to reduce their diversity deficit by taking positive steps such as signing up to RARE, a contextual recruitment platform that seeks to connect exceptional diverse candidates with top firms, businesses and universities.

That is significant, because in 2017 45% of trainees joining leading firms were state-schooled and there was a market-wide bias towards privately educated candidates. By 2019 that percentage had climbed to 52%.    

I was interested to read in the 27 April Gazette that external commercial pressure is being brought to bear by a corporate heavyweight. Telecoms giant BT revealed that 15 firms have been appointed to its panel, consolidated from 40. But the company also announced an ‘added incentive’: the firm with the best diversity and inclusion record across all levels will automatically be offered a slot on the next panel. Measuring how well firms have done will include percentage figures and yearly updates.

BT is a signatory to the general counsel statement in support of diversity and inclusion, which was set up last year by GCs in Europe’s largest companies, as well as the Law Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Charter. Dave Hart, BT’s transformation director, said BT had to feel ‘comfortable’ that its panel firms are adhering to the principles of the charter.

US giant HP, meanwhile, has threatened to withhold up to 10% of costs if law firm partners do not meet minimum diversity requirements. This could potentially result in millions being pulled from largely male and white firms.

There is no doubt BT’s initiative will cause controversy, if the response to Leigh Day’s decision to advertise for black applicants for solicitor apprenticeships is anything to go by. But the contrary argument is the one used time after time - appointments should be about ‘merit’.

I agree that a candidate should get a job based on their ability, rather than their ethnicity, and that can work – but only if there is a level playing field.

A recent study from Nuffield College, Oxford confirmed five decades of previous research showing that ethnic minorities have to send in 60% more CVs than their white counterparts even when they have the same qualifications. This evidence of labour market discrimination has barely changed in 50 years.

A report from the Bar Standards Board, meanwhile, found BAME candidates were less likely to get a pupillage than white students with similar levels of academic attainment.

Coming from an ethnic minority, I had high hopes on entering the roll. I contacted  an agency dealing with prestigious legal firms, but when I provided my background they politely suggested I contact a more suitable agency. Now, 14 years later, I am an established lawyer, shortlisted as Lawyer of the Year at the Law Society Excellence Awards. Yet my annual salary is still less than that of a trainee solicitor from one of the top firms.

Incentives such as BT’s are not only innovative, they demonstrate a commitment to the advancement of not better but equal treatment. Nothing changes if nothing changes.   

Pauline Campbell, Senior litigation lawyer, London Borough of Waltham Forest