Barbara Mills QC, a co-chair of the Bar Council’s race working group, has argued that discrimination is the only identifiable cause for the lack of Black barristers. Findings show that Black solicitors represent 3% of the profession, whereas Asian lawyers make up 10%.

Diversity in the legal profession: The Law

The Equality Act 2010, in England and Wales, makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone on the grounds of protected characteristics such as the following: “age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion/belief, sex (gender) and sexual orientation”. This is the working law; however, it does not always stop prejudice views or behaviour against ethnic groups.

Does discrimination exist within the legal profession?

With no other justifiable explanation, race and systemic discrimination are the main obstacles which hinder Black barristers from progression in the workplace.

Ms Mills said: “The Bar cannot afford to keep looking away. While it may increasingly say it strives to represent equality and inclusivity, it currently does not look like the population it serves, and at the current rate, is unlikely ever to look like that society.

“Active steps will be required to ensure a levelling out of the playing field.”

Although many law firms are undertaking work in the field of diversity, actions to increase diversity and race inclusion in legal services are not being delivered quickly, or not at all in some areas, and more needs to be done.

Ms Mills added that the next “glaring factor” to emerge was that Black applicants were “more likely to be filtered out prior to interview than members of any other group.”

Law Society research has highlighted significant ethnicity pay gaps, urging for targets where there is under-representation.

Diversity in the legal profession: Race pay gap?

Based on 2018 income figures from the Bar Standards Board, Ms Mills revealed that Black barristers had the “lowest mean income band”. Hence, it is not a coincidence that Black barristers are contributing to publicly funded, and therefore unpaid, work. 

According to a recent report published by the Law Society, white solicitors currently earn a third more than their Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) colleagues.

Even though BAME Solicitors work on average 1.5 hours more per week, full-time BAME lawyers earn an average of £27.01 per hour, whereas their white counterparts earn £36.13 per hour, and the figure is particularly higher for white male lawyers. The average annual salary massively differs, including the bonus, highlighting both racial and gender inequalities in almost every group and working level. 

Representation across the legal profession is not good because BAME solicitors are more likely to work at certain sectors and practise areas, at smaller firms, and generally paid lower by every measure, as well as lower levels of wellbeing in the workplace and retention when compared with white solicitors.

Legal news and research identified specific barriers to entry, such as lack of connections and role models, along with an intersection for some BAME groups of having a disadvantaged socio-economic background and had not attended a fee-paying school. 

When it comes to entering a firm, many BAME candidates persevere, though they feel like organisations look for a certain ‘fit’ which often excludes BAME groups. 

Law Society president, David Greene, said: ‘findings show that BAME solicitors face barriers at every step of their career.”

Building a more inclusive profession

Greene said the death of George Floyd in the US and the Black Lives Matter protests highlighted the racial injustices that persistent around the world. He said, “now is the time to act to build a more inclusive profession. 

“We hope our research will give legal businesses important food for thought and a much-needed blueprint for driving equality and inclusion up to the most senior levels.”

“The legal sector stands for access to justice, equality for all and the rule of law. We must ensure that our profession is at the forefront of the fight against racism and reflects the diversity of the society it represents.”

Almost a third of Black African and Caribbean solicitors said they have experienced some form of discrimination or bullying and that the workplace was not felt to be inclusive particularly at larger city practices. A greater proportion of Black solicitors faced microaggressions and the need to fit a certain culture to progress.

Data from DJS research has demonstrated how participants feel like an “outsider”. Majority of participants had experienced microaggression based on their ethnicity, such as ‘othering’ – including pointing out, scrutinising, or mocking cultural differences justified as ‘banter’ – misidentification, such as confusion over names, cultural assumptions, and exclusions, and being mistaken for someone less senior.

For fear of the effect on their careers, BAME solicitors often did not confront these microaggressions. 

DJS added: “Our research shows that diversity is not just about representation in terms of blunt statistics on BAME representation, but also about feeling included within the profession and being given the opportunity to contribute.”

“We urge organisations to consider introducing stronger mechanisms to focus efforts and accelerate change, such as setting clear targets at partner level and key points in the talent pipeline and, where necessary, for different groups within the BAME category (eg for Black solicitors), and tying achievements in diversity and inclusion to senior leaders’ pay and bonuses.”

A useful tool to improve diversity should not only be addressed, but effectively measured through recommendations. These suggestions include targeted action to reach and help BAME students who are likely to face the greatest barrier to entry, fair recruitment practises by blind shortlisting, and more support for professional development through structured mentoring and work allocation programmes. 

DJS encourages all firms to put in place reverse and reciprocal mentoring which promotes diversity and builds a more inclusive leadership (diversity training tailored to staff and confidential methids of reporting racism, bullying or harassment in order to retain BAME staff. These schemes will be one of first to facilitate conversations on championing race diversity and help firms explore how to achieve change within their companies.

There is still work to be done to address the historical imbalances among the upper ranks of law firms, with a key gap in social mobility. Research stresses the importance of firms taking a more data-driven approach to identity problem areas and provide tailored interventions, as well as publishing key metrics such as the ethnicity pay gap and representation in workforce at partner and leadership levels. 

Legal CORE (Collaboration on Race and Ethnicity) launches a new initiative, described as the “first leadership-led, cross-firm collective” targeting a “fundamental shift” across the UK legal sector in terms of retaining and promoting BAME lawyers. 

21 major commercial law firms have joined the project to tackle the under representation of BAME groups.

Head of the Supreme Court, Lord Reed, said he hopes to see a BAME justice on the bench before he retires in six years’ time.