- Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change
The scope and endurance of complex inequalities is one of the most important challenges facing societies. Gender and wider social inequalities are also a key challenge facing contemporary professions.
Progress has certainly been made in recent decades. For example, since the 1990s, women have accounted for over 50% of newly qualified lawyers each year and now comprise two-thirds of practising solicitors under 35. Most minority ethnic groups are also well represented, proportionate to their share of the working age population.
Increasingly, law firms and associations such as the Law Society are concerned with, and signed up to, social mobility pledges and action on diversity and inclusion. Yet senior positions, especially in elite firms, continue to be dominated by men and those of white ethnicity. This impacts different individuals’ sense of career prospects, their progression within firms, and can route individuals into different specialisms which vary in prestige and pay.
Our research, commissioned by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), takes an intersectional approach to studying careers in the legal profession. A key contention of many intersectional scholars researching inequalities is that social categories (such as gender, ethnicity, class, age and dis/ability) carry privileges or penalties, and their intersection helps or hinders the life chances and outcomes of individuals.
It is also the case that certain characteristics may carry more powerful or enduring advantages or disadvantages relative to others, and that this may vary across contexts, for example whether these social relations are examined in the home, workplace or civil society. The impact of these different intersections will also vary cross-nationally.
Very little research to date has looked at the interaction between gender and ethnicity using a large-scale dataset over successive decades. Through the scale and power of our dataset, we are able to show how white women, minority ethnic men, and minority ethnic women fare in comparison to white men and, importantly, each other in the profession.
While we might anticipate from previous foundational research on intersectional scholarship that women from minority ethnic backgrounds fare least favourably (given they experience both a gender and ethnic penalty), we can track the relative success of white women and minority ethnic men (each experiencing one characteristic associated with penalty and one associated with privilege), which presents a unique opportunity to contribute towards intersectional scholarship on inequalities in the professions.
Our analysis is based on administrative records of the entire solicitors’ profession, 1970-2016. The Legal Services Board (the oversight regulator for the entire profession) now requires law firms to record diversity characteristics and the SRA commissioned researchers in the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change at Leeds University Business School to analyse how career profiles of solicitors in England and Wales vary in terms of gender and ethnicity.
Analysing this dataset, we can see that in England and Wales – the jurisdiction of the SRA – the solicitors’ profession has increased ten-fold over the last fifty years and with its expansion, women and minorities have made significant inroads into many practice areas. Women have been the majority of new entrants to the profession since 2000, and as of 2018, women outnumber men as registered practising solicitors.
In the context of the rapid growth and significant demographic in the solicitors’ profession, we set ourselves three research questions, the first two of which are discussed in this blog post.
What is the gender and ethnic composition of career profiles in the legal profession and how, if at all, have these changed over time?
To what extent have women and solicitors from minority ethnic backgrounds integrated into prestigious career profiles previously dominated by white men?
How do characteristics of gender and ethnicity (intersectionality) interact over time?
Our analysis of the SRA dataset using Latent Class Analysis (a statistical method for identifying subgroups of individuals based on a pattern of answers and observed variables) identified four types of career profile, distinguishable in terms of geographical location (central London based or regional/outside central London), type of practice (personal or commercial law), and size of law firm.
Our career profiles were also distinctive in terms of gender and ethnicity. It is important to note that our analysis reveals the outcomes of individuals careers, not the extent to which they were determined by working-life choices and preferences or structural factors such as working conditions, job demands, and/or discriminating tendencies (employer preferences in hiring and promotion).
The four types of solicitors careers are:
This group of solicitors tend to work in small, regional firms doing a significant share of private client work. They are likely to be a more modestly remunerated career profile in the profession, and may feel the impact of declining conditions at work due to cuts in legal aid and other adverse regulatory and funding changes.
Solicitors populating the high-street profile have a high probability of working in firms based outside of central London. This is a career type associated predominantly with female solicitors, and these solicitors have a low probability of progression to partnership.
The City Solicitors career profile involves commercial law in central London based firms. This group of solicitors also has a low chance of progression to partnership within the standard timeframe. This type of legal career is likely to be well paid but subject to high demands in terms of working hours and workloads.
In-house solicitors tend to undertake corporate work which is typically available in central London and large regional cities where large organisations’ head offices are located. Overall, this is a white and female (though the share of white men is also significant) dominated career profile characterised by work undertaken by solicitors who tend to work for private or publicly listed corporations who have their own legal counsel in-house.
Research indicates that women may find in-house work more compatible with sustaining a legal career as these positions may have greater predictability in terms of working hours, client demands and (after hours) schedule.
Solicitors populating the ‘corporate fast-track’ career have a strong probability of working for central London based firms. They are likely to be working in international, city or large national law firms with a premium UK and overseas client base. Those solicitors located outside central London are likely to be located in key regional city locations with strong presence of professional services.
Of the four career profiles, this is the most lucrative in terms of pay and promotion opportunities, and arguably most prestigious in terms of firm characteristics. The corporate fast-track is a white, male dominated career profile with significant chances of attaining partnership in commercial areas of law. Increasingly minority ethnic men are making in-roads to this profile, more so than white or ethnic minority women.
Through an analysis spanning five decades, we demonstrate how the composition of four career profiles in the solicitors’ profession, each with different opportunities and rewards, are gender and ethnically distinctive.
We can also show how the composition of these career profiles change over time. Historically, white men were best placed to secure fast track careers. A first step towards greater diversity occurred in the 1980s with a substantial proportion of white female entrants. From the 1990s we see a gradual influx of minority ethnic solicitors as the proportion of white males who had previously dominated admissions, decline in share.
Our analysis also shows that in a period of rapid expansion, the city solicitor profile that contains some elements of prestige but affords much lower probability of progression has grown considerably and now mirrors the gender and ethnic composition of new entrants.
The diversity of the city solicitor profile may reflect the investment in diversity programmes and initiatives which tend to be more pronounced in London and large city-based firms. This may have a greater impact on diversity in terms of entry to a firm rather than progression within it. Hence, equal opportunities and diversity management policies, particularly when they focus on recruitment or entry, are not alone enough to ensure women and minorities experience career advancement within the most prestigious firms, and change gender dynamics at the top.
What is most stark is the relative status of white women and minority ethnic men. Despite female solicitors having a more established profile in the profession and dominating entry to the profession to the extent that they outnumber minority ethnic male solicitors five to one, they are much less likely to route onto fast-track careers leading to partnership in prestigious areas of corporate practice.
Based on this research and other analysis of the dataset (Tomlinson et al 2019) we made a number of recommendations to the SRA which have fed into their EDI strategy, analysis and toolkit. These include:
Future research to understand the plausibility and ways to facilitate moves between career profiles and specialisms with a view to widening and improving the career outcomes and progression of women and minority ethnic solicitors.
Better mapping of the wide variety of initiatives undertaken by firms, professional bodies, practitioner networks as reported in various academic studies and the legal press, and their relative success as to what works and under which conditions.
Evolving beyond a siloed approach to diversity monitoring of protected and other characteristics (eg socio-economic background) to more effectively explore the experiences and outcomes of those with multiple intersecting protected characteristics.
This blog is based on forthcoming research, which will be published in Work, Employment and Society 2023, titled: Gender and ethnic intersectionality in solicitors’ careers, 1970 to 2016, Work Employment and Society. Authors: Danat Valizade, Jennifer Tomlinson, Daniel Muzio, Sundeep Aulakh and Andrew Charlwood.
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