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The legal profession's glass ceiling

What is the point of justice if those within it are seen to be treated unfairly, asks Sarosh Zaiwalla?

The glass ceiling still exists for ethnic minorities in the legal profession Nagel Photography

There is a serious problem with diversity in the legal system. For many years the legal profession has been transforming the demographic of its workforce to accommodate students from different backgrounds and creeds, but more still needs be done to ensure that more black and minority ethnic (BME) individuals break through the ‘glass ceiling’.
The most recent research from the 2013 Diversity League Table, published earlier this week by the Black Solicitors Network, revealed that just 0.6 per cent of black solicitors are partners in firms across the UK. This type of statistic does not bode well for many young people that do not have the benefit of an Oxbridge degree or a middle-class background.
This doesn’t just affect race, but also gender, with women less likely to get to the top. For instance, Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, recently acknowledged that the senior judiciary is “monolithic” and not enough members of ethnic minorities and, indeed, women are represented.
Some progress has been made in addressing the issue. Three recent female appointments to the Court of Appeal brings the total number of women to seven amongst the 38 Lord Justices of Appeal. Meanwhile, 30 per cent of Judges appointed to the High Court are now women.
However, no such advancements have been made with the volume of BMEs appointed to senior roles, which has remained relatively flat. Law firms must do more to rid themselves of the profession’s white, male legacy. There have been efforts by professional bodies and regulators to promote equal opportunities with both ad hoc and formal initiatives and policies, but the problems are still far too prevalent.
Perhaps the search for the answer requires looking directly at where the problem lies. The can be attributed to professions, owners and managers of law firms and chambers across the country. It is important that trade bodies apply more pressure to those who are in charge, ensuring they are truly accountable for open recruitment, retention and promotion within their organisation.
It is also my opinion that the Legal Service Board’s (LSB) plan to promote transparency, by requiring law firms and chambers to report publically on the makeup of their workforce, will further shine a light on the issue of diversity, while at the same time rewarding those that already have a workforce that reflects their local community. Diversity approaches need to be consistent throughout an organisation and the league table show the critical role that policies, practices and targets play in ensuring a consistent framework that supports diversity, the report says.
Joining the profession in 1978, I observed a profession that provided very little opportunities to young lawyers who were non-white or from lower socio-economic groups. The profession has come a long way since then both for BMEs and women, and the profession must continue in this manner to truly reflect the society it serves. After all, what is the point of justice if those within it are seen to be treated unfairly?

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20 December 2013

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