Sponsored column: Progress is being made in legal sector diversity but more has to be done

As the home of a large and thriving legal sector, Leeds has a particular interest in how law firms and their workforces change over time.

Jennifer Tomlinson, Professor of Gender and Employment Relations University of Leeds
Jennifer Tomlinson, Professor of Gender and Employment Relations University of Leeds

Leeds’s unofficial reputation as the UK’s second centre for law outside London was reinforced in the summer with the publication of a report based on Office for National Statistics data which showed that the number of legal jobs in Leeds grew 20 per cent between 2010 and 2015, compared to 5 per cent growth in London over the same period and a 7 per cent decline in Manchester.

We have recently published research on diversity in the legal sector, which shows that while progress is being made in creating a more diverse profession, women and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) solicitors still face barriers to career progression.

Sign up to our Business newsletter

Our research was commissioned and published by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and is the most extensive of its type.

Sundeep Aulakh, University of Leeds Research Fellow

Working with colleagues from the Universities of Leeds (Prof Andy Charlwood and Dr Danat Valizade) and Newcastle (Prof Daniel Muzio), we analysed anonymised data for more than 194,000 solicitors between 1970 and 2016. This study is unrivalled in scope and accuracy because it also linked individual data to more than 10,000 firms, allowing for analysis of how diverse different firm profiles are, as well as what the partnership prospects are for those entering these different types of law firms.

We found that the proportion of women and minority ethnic solicitors entering the legal profession has risen significantly during this 26-year period. Around 10 per cent of entrants were female in 1970 compared to 60 per cent in 2016. Around half of all solicitors are now female.

We also found that there has been a large increase in the proportion of minority ethnic solicitors over the last three decades, from 0.25 per cent in 1982 to 16 per cent today.

 However, career progression in particular remains an issue. The research shows that partnerships remain male dominated. Just one third of partners are female, indicating that while women are entering the profession in greater numbers they are not progressing to the top.

Sundeep Aulakh, University of Leeds Research Fellow

Minority ethnic women are the least likely to make partnership and face what is known as a double disadvantage or penalty.

While some of these findings are fairly well-known in academic circles and those working within the profession, what was particularly innovative about our research is that we were able to show how progression for men, women and minority ethnic solicitors varies by firm profile, as we modelled progression according to firm profile including features such as size, geographical location and type of work (corporate or private practice).

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 minority ethnic females. The best opportunities for females of all ethnicities to become a partner exist in small regionally based firms which are more likely to undertake private client work, as is the case for minority ethnic men.

While there has been much progress and important initiatives to widen participation, the challenge that lies ahead is how to make partnership profiles more representative of the wider solicitors’ profession.