University of Westminster research for the Legal Services Board (LSB) and the Law Society has contributed to a fundamental shift in the way in which the legal profession engages with diversity and equality issues. From 2013, the LSB can require legal employers to remedy long-term diversity problems.
Researchers at the University of Westminster were commissioned by the Legal Services Board (LSB) – the legal profession oversight regulator – to conduct a qualitative study to examine the barriers and individual choices facing women and black and minority ethnic (BME) lawyers in England and Wales.
The team carried out socio-biographical in-depth interviews with 77 lawyers and would-be lawyers including solicitors, barristers, legal executives, law graduates and law firm diversity managers drawn from the north and the south of England. This research, building as it did upon their previous Law Society research, indicated the need for the legal profession to engage with inequality of opportunity as regards entry and progression within the profession.
One of these recommendations was that diversity monitoring should be introduced to highlight areas of positive progress and areas that require further attention as regards diversity and equality issues. Following a LSB consultation in 2011, the Board issued statutory guidance that now requires all law firms and chambers to collect diversity and equality data on age, gender, ethnicity, disability, socio-economic status and sexual orientation by role, and to make this available to their frontline regulators.
Aggregated data will be made available to the public, and the LSB reserves the right to require the frontline regulators to remedy diversity problems within firms and chambers, where they persist over time.
This work has also shed light on the segmentation of the profession, and it has led to the further development of a range of diversity initiatives that seek to encourage pupils from minority and lower socio-economic groups to aspire to a career in the legal profession.
These initiatives have the potential to change the demographic make-up of the legal profession and have already improved opportunities for BME and women law students and lawyers in England and Wales.
The research demonstrated that much progress has been made in the legal profession but there is more to do to ensure that suitably qualified people are appointed and promoted regardless of gender, ethnicity or background.Professor Lisa Webley