Widening Participation within the UK legal profession
By Marcus Soanes
The press has had some amusement with the concept of the “poshness test” and whether you have the tokens of elitism necessary to get on in the professions.
However, the catalyst for this media silly season, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s report, “A Qualitative Evaluation of Non-educational Barriers to the Elite Professions”, makes for sobering reading. It reveals that barriers to entry to London’s top law and accountancy firms are as insurmountable today as they were 15 years ago for anyone not from a privileged socio-economic background. It forms part of a growing body of research demonstrating that inequality of opportunity of access to and progression in Britain’s professions is a highly complex and stubborn problem.
Some of the statistics speak for themselves. The Qualitative Evaluation report reveals that at leading accountancy firms, typically 40 to 50 percent of applicants have been educated at a Russell Group university and receive between 60 and 70 percent of all job offers. City law firms’ recruitment is no more egalitarian. Even when individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds cross the threshold into these firms they are unlikely to achieve the same outcomes as their posher workmates; ordinary folk’s careers often crash into glass ceilings. There are other barriers to progression, most notably gender, if you’re not a man and ethnicity if you’re not White British. Looking at the pinnacle of the legal hierarchy, the lack of women and Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) judges in the senior judiciary is well-known and is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. It is only right that judicial appointments are made on merit. However, much of the research literature concludes that government-sponsored projects to reconfigure the UK as an education-based meritocracy have had little quantitative or qualitative impact. This suggests that merit as a sole criterion for promotion will disadvantage those who do not conform to the social backgrounds of those already at the top. Unless a wider range of skills and abilities are identified and new ways found to measure individuals’ potential, the existing merit-based approach is likely to sustain conditions that support social closure rather than social mobility.
Sometimes the statistics do not speak for themselves. On 25 March 2015 the Legal Services Board published “Diversity Data Collection and Transparency”, a report that was critical of how the legal profession’s regulators analysed and used diversity data. Although plenty of data was collected, the regulators lacked the statistical sophistication necessary to analyse it in ways that could help to create a diverse legal workforce which reflects the society that it serves. To be fair, there is a willingness to support change. For example, the Bar Standards Board is committed to undertaking qualitative research into why so many women who are called to the Bar fail to pursue a successful career at it. This is a longstanding but not isolated problem. In 2010 a LSB funded report, “Diversity in the Legal Profession in England and Wales” confirmed that the legal profession in England and Wales had become increasingly diverse. The percentage of women solicitors has grown tenfold since 1984, and now over half of those called to the Bar are women. There has been a similar sharp increase in the proportion of BME lawyers, in 2008-9 they made up 13 percent of solicitors on the Roll, 24 percent of admissions to it and 16 percent of barristers. However, there is no room for complacency.
Progression and retention for less empowered groups is getting worse not better. The report reveals an extensive body of academic and policy based literature that underlines the statistical picture of persistent structural inequalities within the profession. Unsurprisingly, the report’s own research revealed that white graduates from higher socio-economic groups are over-represented in large City firms and at the Bar, while BME women from lower socio-economic groups are concentrated in small High Street practices - those which have taken the austerity hits the hardest. New barriers to access and progression within the profession are being erected from the rubble left by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which removed whole areas of practice from the scope of legal aid and introduced tougher eligibility tests for those still within it.
These changes - those made to criminal legal aid and those to judicial review affect most immediately and poignantly individuals who are denied access to justice or forced to employ DIY methods to resolve their legal problems. A further effect of these funding changes will be to inhibit further the social mobility of lawyers who practice in these areas. Last September, the Bar Council reported in “LASPO: One Year On” that barristers who habitually take on publicly funded family and civil work now face economic hardship and research conducted by legal insurers ARAG revealed that 68 percent of solicitors consider that LASPO has had a negative impact on their practice. Inequality within the legal professions is a highly complex phenomenon and not wholly understood. To do nothing is not an option, but nor is merely to investigate it further. Solutions can be found, but they will be as varied as the problems they seek to address.
Experimentation and risk are called for to find new ways of addressing past wrongs. The legal profession and judiciary readily acknowledge that their membership does not fairly represent modern Britain, now they need to put their houses in order. These renovations need to include designing modern wider doors and removing unsightly glass ceilings.
Drawing on research into the barriers outlined above and the legal profession and judiciary’s attempts to remove them, The City Law School has organised a one-day conference to explore these issues and recommend solutions. “Opening Doors and Removing Glass Ceilings – Widening Participation in the Legal Professions” will address topics such as ‘Raising Aspirations to Law; ‘Progression in Law Careers’; and ‘Widening Participation in the Judiciary’.
Please register for the conference at this weblink.
Judicial review is a type of court proceeding in which a judge reviews the lawfulness of a decision or action made by a public body. Examples of the types of decision which may fall within the range of judicial review include: decisions of local authorities in the exercise of their duties to provide various welfare benefits and special education for children in need of such education; certain decisions of the immigration authorities and Immigration Appellate Authority; decisions of regulatory bodies; and decisions relating to prisoner’s rights.