The Law Society this week published three research papers highlighting the difficulties faced by women, black and ethnic minority (BME), and lesbian and gay lawyers in the profession.
A study by research group Insight Oxford into obstacles faced by women lawyers found that the profession’s long-hours culture disadvantaged those with family responsibilities. In the research, based on focus groups with around 50 women lawyers, respondents said the biggest barrier to advancing their career was the ‘mindset and values of the senior partners’, adding that there was ‘no real impetus for change from male colleagues’ and that ‘the culture is ingrained of old’.
Measures of success in legal practice were perceived to be ‘male-orientated’, while women who achieved by imitating male behaviours were characterised as ‘ball breakers’ and regarded as ‘anti-role models’, respondents said.
The women respondents called for more scope for flexible working and more transparent policies for advancement within firms.
A study conducted by the Law Society into ethnic diversity in law firms, based on nine focus groups with a total of 42 BME solicitors, found that many believed ethnic minority trainees were ‘pushed’ towards personal injury, legal aid, immigration and family work, which are lower-paid areas in which it is harder to attract new business into the firm. White trainees, by contrast, were typically encouraged towards corporate and commercial work, respondents suggested.
The research found that many BME candidates felt ‘ill-informed’ when embarking on law as a career, and some were so ‘desperate’ to secure a training contract that they agreed to work unpaid. Respondents claimed ethnic minority trainees were expected to be ‘grateful’ for any position or salary offered.
The respondents believed that female BME solicitors faced the ‘greatest disparity in pay’. However, they favoured greater transparency around pay and promotion rather than the imposition of diversity quotas on firms.
A third study, conducted by the InterLaw Diversity Forum and based on a survey of 443 lesbian, gay and bisexual lawyers, reported on a general improvement in attitudes to gay lawyers within the profession.
One respondent said: ‘Bar a few of the dinosaur partners nearing retirement, the firm is very gay-friendly and consistently recruits obviously gay trainees.’
However, 16% of respondents – 71 of the lawyers surveyed – said they had direct experience of homophobic discrimination. One woman said that she was ‘bullied’ out of her job at a City firm, adding that homophobia is the ‘last acceptable prejudice’ in the profession. A gay man reported ‘difficulty working with those with religious beliefs that conflict with homosexuality’.
Sue Nelson, chair of the Law Society’s equality and diversity committee, said she was ‘saddened’ by the findings, adding that the Society would work hard to ensure fairness.
Association of Women Solicitors chair Christl Hughes said firms need to do ‘much more to ensure clear paths to progression that are open to all’.
Law Society chief executive Des Hudson said: ‘These reports are a vital source of information to help identify the issues that need to be worked on across the profession, and we need to keep the pressure on for change. The Society is taking positive steps in drawing attention to the improvements that need to be made at a practical level. However, the next phase must involve working with senior partners, general counsel and human resources professionals in legal practices of every type to investigate how we can build an inclusive profession.’