Law firms, individual lawyers and other stakeholders in the legal profession are now far more aware of the benefits of diversity. The drive for diversity is not new but changing the face of an entire profession was always going to require considerable effort over a prolonged period of time. Even at the beginning of the 21st century there was a glaring lack of balance in the make-up of lawyers whether the consideration was women, minorities or even age groups. How much has changed?

Changing attitudes

Certainly attitudes have changed. The Equality Act 2010 is the most prominent example of this, enshrining the values of diversity into law by tackling prejudice and discrimination in relation to a number of protected characteristics. A number of those discriminatory practices had been legislated against as far back as the 1970s, with the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Race Relations Act 1976 for example. However, changing attitudes has taken far longer than changing the law.

The Law Society itself is now a flag bearer for diversity having made the business case for it on the basis of changing client profiles, the profession itself changing and the positive effects of inclusive policies such as widening the recruitment pool and retaining staff more easily. Top law firms too have heavily publicised their intentions to improve diversity with initiatives such as those to increase the number of women partners.

Changing statistics

Changes in attitudes and changes to the law have had an effect over time but it is interesting to observe how far they have actually come. Gender disparity and the inclusion of minorities have been the most prominent diversity issues for law firms for a long time but recently age discrimination has also become more frequently discussed in HR circles.

Graph of Practising Certificate Holders by Gender
Analysis based on Law Society data

The chart above shows that the legal profession has experienced considerable movement in the balance of male and female lawyers since the early 2000s. Overall the percentage of female lawyers is now almost equal, at around 48 per cent, to the percentage of male lawyers. It is notable though that Law Society figures estimate that females make up around 60 per cent of trainees, but less than 30 per cent of partners, so there is some way to go before a proper gender balance is struck.

Graph of Practising Certificate Holders by Ethnicity
Analysis based on Law Society data

The second chart shows that the ethnic makeup of the legal profession has not changed in such a pronounced way, as it has done for gender, but there has been a noticeable increase in the proportion of Asian lawyers from around 4 per cent in 2003 to around 7.5 per cent in 2013. The latter figure means that the number of Asian lawyers is reflective of the Asian population in the UK according to the 2011 census. In overall terms, the number of minority lawyers practising in the profession, at around 12 per cent, is slightly less than the ethnic minority population, at around 14 per cent. More importantly for the topic of diversity, the Law Society estimates that only around 6 per cent of partners are from ethnic minorities.
Graph of Practising Certificate Holders by Age Group
Analysis based on Law Society data

The age data for law firms is interesting for the fact that the percentage of lawyers over the age of 60 has increased from around 4 per cent in 2003 to around 7 per cent in 2013. Meanwhile the percentage of lawyers aged 30 or under has fallen from around 18 per cent, to less than 15 per cent. Older lawyers appear to be prolonging their careers at the expense of younger lawyers coming into the profession as jobs are rebalanced between the generations. It is important to note that this particular change may be related to economic factors more than firms’ diversity policies, as graduates entering the market have had fewer jobs available to them and older lawyers have postponed retirement following the financial crisis.

Conclusion

Graduating lawyersDiversity data in the legal profession does show that changes are afoot with the most progress having been made in the balance of female to male lawyers. The data also shows evolution in other areas such as ethnicity and age but more work needs to be done to make the profession truly diverse. In addition to the factors considered, awareness of the proportion of lesbian, gay or bisexual employees in the workforce is also becoming more pertinent for legal HR professionals.

For specialist advice about equality and diversity issues in legal recruitment email or call 020 7400 2000.