The biggest diversity survey of the legal profession yet undertaken charts patchy progress on gender and race – but privately educated solicitors remain vastly over-represented in the senior ranks of the biggest firms.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s third diversity survey, published today, surveyed 170,000 people at 9,000 law firms in England and Wales.

More than half of the profession (53%) is now made up of individuals who are the first generation from their family to attend university – rising to 60% at partner level.

Some 22% of lawyers are privately educated, compared with 7% of the population as a whole, a proportion that rises to 37% among partners in large firms.

Women now make up nearly half of all solicitors (47%), and as the Gazette reported last month are expected to comprise a majority by the end of 2017.

However, the promising picture on gender diversity is marred by the fact that only a third are partners, with even fewer (27%) ascending to the upper rungs of the career ladder in firms with 50-plus partners. This is partly a reflection of the profession’s age profile – Law Society figures show that two-thirds of practising solicitors under 35 are women.

Black and minority ethnic (BAME) solicitors make up nearly a fifth of the profession. However, the SRA says there is an ‘under-representation’ of black lawyers (2%) compared to ‘economically active’ people in the wider population (3%). Asian lawyers are over-represented, at 12% of the total, compared to the wider population (7%).

The survey confirms earlier studies which have shown that BAME solicitors are more likely to work in smaller firms and less likely to be partners in large firms. Asian solicitors make up 4% of partners in large firms but 16% in smaller firms.

Black partners make up 3% of partners in small firms and 1% in large firms.

People who identify themselves as disabled (3%) remain under-represented in the legal workforce.

SRA chief executive Paul Philip (pictured) said: ‘Encouraging diversity in legal services is not about ticking boxes. It is of course the right thing to do, but it also helps to make sure the sector is as competitive as possible.

‘There should not be any barriers stopping the best people - whatever their background - thriving in the law.’

The research comes after the Sutton Trust announced it is to extend its social mobility scheme to GCSE students following a £1m cash injection.

Law Society chief executive Catherine Dixon said: ’Law Society research on diversity in the solicitor profession confirms the SRA’s findings and shows that, while progress is being made, women and those from minority and disadvantaged backgrounds are under-represented high up in the profession.

’The Society believes talent and ability should be rewarded irrespective of gender or background. In order to achieve this we work closely with the profession so that we understand the reasons behind uneven career progression and can put in place support for greater diversity.’

Dixon said the Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Charter enabled it to promote and share good practice. The Society’s social mobility ambassadors programme profiles successful solicitors from non-traditional backgrounds, she added.