Assessing equality in the legal profession – where are the female law firm leaders?

Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Sundeep Aulakh is an Academic Fellow in Work and Employment Relations. Her research focuses on organisation and management practices of professional service firms and the regulation of professions. Andy Charlwood is Professor in Human Resource Management and has research interests in the areas of job quality and well-being at work, employee voice and working time. Jennifer Tomlinson is Professor of Gender and Employment Relations. Her research focuses on understanding patterns of gender and (in)equalities in work, economies and societies. Danat Valizade is a Lecturer in Quantitative Methods and his research interests concern an intersection of institutional labour economics and employment relations.

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Gender inequality remains a key challenge facing the legal profession. Undoubtedly, progress has been made. Nearly ninety-five years after Carrie Morrison became the first woman admitted as a solicitor in England and Wales, entry to the profession is no longer an issue.

Each year since the 1990s, women have constituted more than 50 percent of newly-qualified lawyers and now comprise two thirds of practising solicitors under 35. Yet senior positions, especially in elite firms, continue to be dominated by men. For example, in 2015, just 19 percent of all partnership roles in the top 20 firms were held by women. As one commentator recently observed: “Cohort after cohort of highly-skilled women lawyers reach senior associate grade and seem to hit – depending on your preferred image – a glass ceiling or a cattle grid. Careers stall and some leave the law altogether” (Law Gazette, 2017).

A key issue as for many professional and organisational environments is the ability to combine careers with care work. A joint study undertaken by Women in Law London (WILL) and King’s College London suggests: “Women do not perceive it easily possible to succeed in both their career and other important aspects of their lives (such as having a family or looking after dependant relatives) without some kind of sacrifice in the legal profession” (Law Gazette, 2017).      

But the issue of equality and diversity of the solicitor’s profession is not just confined to the lack of female law firm leaders. Entry to the profession and career progression of other groups, such as those from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background or lower socio-economic groups also remains a serious problem. Latest research by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) shows that there are fewer black law students than most other ethnic groups; there is an attainment gap between white students and BAME students at all levels of legal education; and, on average, white students are paid more during their training contracts. Once qualified, BAME solicitors are less likely to work in higher paid roles in larger firms, and are less likely to progress to partner.

But inequality in access to and progression within the profession is more complicated than just being about one characteristic, such as ethnicity, gender or social background. ‘Intersectionality’ is a key issue that emerges in data and the experiences of individuals. For instance, as reported by the SRA, BAME female trainees are on average paid less than both white female trainees and BAME male trainee.

Over the years, a variety of initiatives have been introduced to tackle the lack of diversity within the legal profession. Some have been instigated by law firms themselves. For instance, it is becoming more common for law firms to use ‘CV-blind’ policies to recruit potential trainees, whilst resource management systems are beginning to be used by many of the top 50 UK law firms to make work allocation amongst associates fairer.

Hogan Lovells has gone even further and is linking diversity outcomes to performance and reward systems of senior partners. Other initiatives, such as The Law Society’s Diversity Access Scheme (the DAS) are designed by professional bodies. Now in its tenth year, the DAS aims to address three key barriers to fair access to a career as a solicitor: finance; professional contacts; and opportunities to gain work experience.

With recording of diversity characteristics made mandatory for law firms since 2012, the SRA has commissioned the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) to analyse how career profiles of solicitors in England and Wales vary in terms of gender and ethnicity. Specifically we ask:

  1. How has the legal profession changed in terms of the diversity characteristics of practicing lawyers?
  2. Are there increasing numbers of lawyers with social characteristics associated with privilege or penalties/disadvantage?
  3. How do social characteristics associated with social privilege and penalty affect careers progression in the legal profession?

To answer these questions we will analyse a longitudinal dataset of approximately 170,000 practising solicitors in England and Wales. Amongst other information, the dataset includes details of the employment profiles of current and past practitioners, location and area of law practiced, as well as diversity characteristics.

The study findings will inform policy and practice, be of interest to international professional and regulatory bodies, and law firms. The authority of the legal profession rests upon its independence – upholding the rule of law and administering justice fairly. A profession that better reflects the demographic profile of the society it serves is critical.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.