Diversity in the solicitors’ profession

Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Dr Sundeep Aulakh is an Academic Fellow in Work and Employment Relations. Sundeep’s research focuses on the organisation and management practices of professional service firms, the regulation of professions, professional workers, and professionalisation strategies. The research project referred to within this article was commissioned by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

Photograph depicting a board meeting

Mapping advantages and disadvantages: Diversity in the Solicitors’ profession in England & Wales

Members of the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change (CERIC) published a report in October 2017 on solicitor career progression and how it is influenced by gender and ethnicity. Professors Jennifer Tomlinson and Andy Charlwood, and Drs Danat Valizade and Sundeep Aulakh, along with Professor Daniel Muzio from Newcastle University Business School, undertook a study on solicitor career progression and how it is influenced by gender and ethnicity. The project was commissioned by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) - the regulator for the solicitors’ profession.  

In order to share their research, the study team and SRA have organised an Ideas in Practice seminar in London on Monday 30 April. Kirsty Bartlett, Global Co-Chair, Women’s Enterprise Group, Squire Patton Boggs will give a welcome address prior to the launch of the report by the research team. The seminar will bring together policymakers and a wide range of representatives from across the legal services market, including professional bodies, regulators, legal practices, charities, campaign groups and reporters from the trade and national media. A panel discussion with leading members of the legal profession and associations will explore the challenges associated with improving diversity in the legal profession and opportunities for inclusion.

How is career progression affected by social characteristics?

The number of women, and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) solicitors has increased fairly dramatically in recent years. For instance, even up until the 1980s, women made up less than 10% of the solicitors’ profession. Fast forward a few decades and more than half of newly qualified solicitors each year are women. Numerically at least, that’s a huge turnaround. A similar pattern is evident when we look at the ethnic composition of the profession, which is currently around 16%, rising from less than 0.5% in the early 1980s.

Of course entry to the profession is only part of the story. What happens next in terms of workplace inclusion is equally important. We know that women and minorities continue to face career progression challenges despite the profession becoming more gender balanced and ethnically diverse. The chances of women and minorities working in the elite firms, in prestigious specialisms, and/or reaching leadership positions remains low.

However, the interaction of gender and ethnicity characteristics and how this affects career progression is a dynamic we know much less about. As an example, are the career outcomes for white women, the same, better or worse than a male solicitor of African-Caribbean descent? When we combine gender and ethnicity, which groups fare well and which not so well?

It was these issues that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) wanted to get a better handle on so that it could better support the legal community in its approach to recruitment, retention and progression. Specifically, the SRA asked us to address the following:

  1. How has the composition of the profession changed? What’s the balance between lawyers with social characteristics associated with advantage and disadvantage?
  2. Do social characteristics associated with advantage (male-gender, white majority ethnic status) and disadvantage (minority ethnic status, female-gender) affect career progression prospects?

Study findings

We were given unique access to a large-scale dataset, allowing us to undertake sophisticated analysis of gender and ethnicity dynamics. The study presented a detailed profile of the composition of the solicitors’ profession, noting changes over time. Most importantly though, the study provided evidence to show career trajectories are not random, but impacted by social characteristics associated with advantage and disadvantage.

1. Changes in the profession

  • The number and proportion of women solicitors has increased dramatically. From less than 10% of newly qualified solicitors in 1970, this rose to over 60% in 2016.
  • The increase in the number and proportion of newly qualified BAME solicitors has largely taken place over the last ten years. However, the increase is not consistent across all BAME solicitors, with practitioners of African-Caribbean descent particularly under-represented.
  • The number of Asian solicitors entering the profession has been double that of all other BAME groups since the mid-1970s, increasing to two-thirds in the last three years. In 2016, Asian solicitors accounted for 19% percent of newly qualified practitioners.

2. Career progression of different groups varies by firm type

Our analysis revealed that solicitor firms fall into five types, varying in their size, geographical location, and type of work (corporate or private practice). These five types are:

  • City-boutique
  • High-street
  • Regional-niche
  • Large corporate
  • Regional mid-tier

Our findings show that employment and career prospects differ greatly by firm type. It could be argued that this is to be expected in market economies, however vast differences in employment and career prospects becomes a problem when the chances of working in more prestigious firms or lucrative specialisms are, if not equal, much more random.

Backed up by robust statistical tests, we found that employment across the five firm types varies by gender and ethnicity, with different groups likely to be represented in one firm more than another. For instance, we found that white men are more than three times more likely to become a partner in large corporate firms (the type of firm typically located in central London) than white females, and six times more likely than BAME females.

Put differently, the study was able to show that gender and/or ethnicity influences the type of firm in which practitioners end up working / find employment.

Career progression

In the legal profession, ‘partnership’ is a marker of career progression and typically the pinnacle of success. With such a title typically comes greater status, authority, and earnings. Yet, despite the increase in female solicitors, the study shows that partnership remains male dominated.

Moreover, white males are more likely to become a partner than any other group, across all firm types. Inequalities within the profession are exposed perhaps most vividly when comparing the prospect of a female BAME solicitor becoming a partner (13%) with a white male (75%).

There are signs, however, that progress is being made, as illustrated by the rise in the proportion of BAME males becoming a partner, especially those of Asian origin. On the other hand, drawing on our knowledge of the legal sector, this could be indicative of the ongoing, often invisible barriers (such as access to mentors and allocation of work) hindering progression in a corporate firm and, essentially, pushing BAME males to set up their own practices, work in smaller firms, and/or those owned by BAME solicitors.

Our analysis of the data also showed that, despite (relative) rarity and notoriously intense competition, 70% of existing partners operate in large corporate firms. This is significant because the prospect of reaching partnership in the other firm types is low, further suggesting that the career advancement of women – and BAME female solicitors especially – lags substantively behind white males and male practitioners from other minority ethnic groups.  

What happens next?

The SRA is looking forward to discussing this research at the Ideas in Practice seminar on Monday 30 April, and is continuing with its work to better understand and promote diversity in the profession.

Access to the report

The study report can be accessed by clicking on this link.

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