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Progress in Some Professional Services Sectors, but Career Trajectories Tell a Different Story

Structural racism in majority white societies emerged from slavery and colonialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These practices no longer exist in the same form. However, outdated racialised thinking and practices have permeated society, the economy, the criminal justice system, and the political institutions of these societies, reproducing racial exclusion in new and destructive ways.

It is unsurprising, then, that there is a gap between ideals and reality when it comes to diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) practices in the professional service sector.

Most of the sector leaders we interviewed for the first of our thought leadership reports on DEI, A Fairer future: Equity and Inclusion in the Professional Services, saw the benefits of a diverse workforce. Moreover, they were taking some actions towards inclusivity. 73% of the firms we interviewed had a formal DEI policy. 67% of the firms had run a DEI initiative in the last six months, and 25% were planning to.

However, research on the sectors of law, accountancy, consultancy and architecture tells a different story. As we note in A Fairer Future, in 2020, only 0.4% of partners in the UK’s largest eight professional services firms were Black. In this blog, we will dig further into this research, looking at what has been achieved and what more is needed.  

In a previous blog, we looked at race and ethnicity in architecture as a case study. In this blog, we will focus on law in the UK.  

The DEI policy and reality gap in law

Of the sectors we interviewed, law was the highest performing in DEI activity. 86% of our respondents said they had run a specific DEI initiative in the past six months. Our research found that law firms were active in the DEI thought leadership space, with plenty of discussions, blogs and workshops. The UK’s Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has a searchable database of law firms’ diversity figures, greatly assisting an understanding of progress made. So, we see positive signs of action following conversation.

The SRA’s statistics show that 17% of lawyers in law firms are from an ethnic minority background compared to 13% in the workforce. 2% are Black (compared to 3% in the workforce, although Law Society figures put the proportion of Black lawyers at 3%), 3% mixed ethnicities, and 12% designated Asian by the SRA (7% of the workforce).

Superficially, the legal profession is statistically broadly representative of the UK population as a whole. However, as the Law Society argued in its report Race for inclusion: the experiences of Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic solicitors: ‘Focusing just on overall representation in the profession can be misleading, and a more nuanced perspective is needed looking at the experiences of different ethnic groups, across different parts of the profession.’

Career trajectories

The Law Society’s report revealed that the proportion of people from an ethnic minority background is lower in larger firms, and they are less likely to reach senior positions. Only 8% of people from an ethnic minority background are partners in firms with over 50 partners, up by only 1% since 2014, compared to 20% in single-partner firms. In the top 50 law firms in the UK, twice as many white solicitors as those from an ethnic minority background reach partner status.

The Law Society found that black and minority ethnic trainee solicitors were ‘pushed’ towards personal injury, legal aid, immigration and family law. In contrast, white trainee solicitors were encouraged to do corporate and commercial work, which is highly lucrative.

Respondents reported a high degree of unconscious bias, with personal fit with the (predominantly white) culture of the company seen as critical. In a study by the Bridge Group, 53% of partners at leading English law firms had gone to independent schools (only 5.8% of pupils in the UK go to private schools). On average, lawyers from an ethnic minority background took two more years to progress to partner than those who identified as white.

Almost all the Law Society research participants said they had experienced microaggressions in law firms. As one Black female solicitor said: “When somebody says, ‘you speak English so well’, and you want to explain to them why that is racist, they are more upset about being called racist than they are about the actual racism itself.” Umar Kankiya’s account, published in the Law Gazette, reveals his own experiences of entrenched racism in law firms.

And it all has an impact on pay. On average, the Law Society found a £20k gap between white solicitors and those from an ethnic minority background.

‘Actions not words’

This year’s theme for Black History Month was ‘Time for Change: Action not Words’. Outgoing president of the Law Society, I. Stephanie Boyce , said of the theme: “Black people often experience racism and discrimination. Then they are expected to fix it. This must change.”

Too often, those working in the professional services sectors are expected to ‘manage’ their own career trajectory with little organisational acknowledgement of how structural discrimination affects them.

We published A Fairer Future because we wanted to highlight the gap between aspiration and reality and outline the areas on which professional services firms will need to work. As our analysis of racial discrimination in the legal profession shows, formal DEI policies can make some changes, such as fairer recruitment.

However, the sector needs to do more to track the cumulative impact of discrimination on an individual’s career, including career pathways, corporate culture, behaviours and how to be an ally, ease of access to lucrative sectors of law, and becoming a partner: an individual’s qualitative journey through their profession, in other words.

As diversity advocate and trainer Vernā Myers said: “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

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