Knocking down the barriers

Do you want to study law but feel it’s not a world that represents you? Don’t despair! There are numerous schemes, societies and initiatives to help those groups that are underrepresented in the legal profession.

  • Last updated 30-Nov-2018 17:51:14
  • Emma Finamore
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Since 2014 there’s been a net increase of just 1% of disabled lawyers, with only 3% self-identifying as having a disability— while 10% of the UK workforce has a disability—according to the Solicitors Regulation Authority in August 2017.

But there are organisations and initiatives working to make the profession more accessible. City Disabilities—founded by Principle interviewee Robert Hunter—aims to put disabled professionals and would-be professionals in London in touch with one another by mentoring schemes. “People find it enormously helpful to speak to someone who ‘gets’ where they are coming from,” says Chris. “Usually we’re able to put people in touch with others with the same ‘disability’ in the same profession. Whether you’re a student or already a professional, do by all means contact us.”

The charity’s website says its aim is to make the City a fairer, more human place for people with disabilities to pursue a career. It offers support through a free mentoring scheme. All mentors either have disabilities or medical conditions themselves, or support colleagues who have them. They include lawyers, bankers, accountants, PAs, civil servants, consultants and more. The charity mentors all types of disability, relating to both physical and mental health, as well as working with employers to improve disability awareness. 

The charity encourages as much participation from those in the industry as possible, which means young would-be legal professionals accessing their services benefit from real-life experience and advice.

BAME backgrounds 

According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority in August 2017, there’s been an increase in the proportion of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) lawyers working in law firms, now one in five lawyers. This is up 7%, from 14% in 2014 to 21% in 2017. In 2015, 11% of the UK workforce were BAME.

This increase is largely due to the rise in Asian lawyers, up from 9% in 2014 to 14% in 2017. Black lawyers make up 3%, which has risen by 1% since 2014 and now reflects those in employment in the UK (3%). The proportion of Asian lawyers in law firms is 14% compared to 6% of the UK workforce. Asian lawyers make up two thirds of all BAME lawyers. 

Unlike the profile for women, there’s very little difference by seniority among BAME lawyers; 21% of solicitors are BAME, compared to 20% of partners.

Principle interviewee Jay Bhayani has this advice for young people from BAME backgrounds accessing the industry: “Contact your local law firms, the local law society and perhaps use LinkedIn as a tool to ask for opportunities. Young people tend not to use LinkedIn but decision-makers in firms do, so it’s vital to understand where to publicise yourself. 

“Check the Law Society’s groups with a focus on ethnic minority and black lawyers: ask them for help. The Law Society also runs a diversity access scheme.” 

The Law Society’s Diversity Access Scheme (DAS)

This is a scholarship that provides awardees with:

• Finance;
• Funding for up to the full cost of your LPC fees;
• Professional contacts;
• A professional mentor to help answer your questions about starting a career in law;
• Opportunities to gain work experience;
• Work experience brokered through the Law Society.

The DAS has helped over 180 students complete their professional education. Previous alumni have experienced time in local-authority care, resisted coercion into arranged marriage, escaped oppressive regimes and battled for access to university with severe physical disabilities. 

Other alumni haven’t had these sorts of extraordinary challenges, but have faced financial and social hardship growing up in households where there was very little money and support to enable them to pursue their studies. 

The Black Solicitors Network (BSN)

The BSN was formed in 1995 to promote the interests of black solicitors, for support and sharing information, to participate in consultations, initiated by the Law Society and other government bodies, in relation to matters that specifically affect black solicitors. It’s committed to achieving equality of access, retention and promotion within the sector. 

The BSN’s principal aims are to:
• Represent black solicitors and ensure that their views are articulated and heard within the profession, the Law Society, media and other relevant bodies;
• Promote equality and challenge discrimination within the profession;
• Provide pastoral care and support;
• Deliver practical educational seminars for all members;
• Provide a series of networking, business and social events;
• To be the primary voice of black solicitors in England and Wales. 

The BSN also has two regional arms. The City Group was formed in 2008 with the aim of focusing on the needs of, and issues affecting, black commercial lawyers (both in-house and in private practice) practising in and around the City of London and Canary Wharf.

BSN City Group objectives: 
• Provide networking opportunities for City lawyers;
• Promote and develop relationships within the profession among in-house counsel and private practice lawyers;
• Facilitate initiatives for professional development and to promote diversity within the legal profession;
• Provide a forum for mentoring and career counselling for City lawyers at all levels.

BSN North was re-established in April 2016 with the aim of raising awareness of the North of England’s talented BME legal community. Its objective is to provide a platform for those with an interest in equality to share and advocate equal access, retention and promotion of BMEs within the profession.

As part of this aim, BSN North has created a student-centred project called Grassroots. It aims to assist aspiring solicitors to fulfil their potential through means of educational workshops, networking opportunities and mentoring support BSN North also provides seminars, social events and other opportunities to enhance people’s experience of the legal sector.

Law Society’s Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division (EMLD)

The Law Society is committed to promoting inclusion in the legal profession, reflecting the diversity of our society. The EMLD was developed to facilitate greater engagement between ethnic-minority solicitors and the Law Society. The division encourages solicitors to use their expertise to support aspiring solicitors or colleagues seeking to progress in law.

The EMLD supports and promotes solicitors and their allies through the provision of career-enhancing events, information and networking opportunities. It provides an opportunity for people to make their voices heard, comply with regulatory and compliance issues, and develop their careers.

Membership of the EMLD is free, and is open to all solicitors and their allies. Those that join benefit from: 

• Specialised events and training;
• Networking opportunities;
• Regular e-newsletters and updates;
• Access to a community of ethnic minority lawyers;
• Voting rights for division seats on the Law Society’s governing council.

Women

Women make up 48% of all lawyers in law firms and 47% of the UK workforce. For the other staff working in law firms, women make up three quarters of the workforce. Differences become more apparent when looking at seniority: in 2017, women made up 59% of non-partner solicitors compared to just 33% of partners (up from 31% in 2014). The difference is greater still in the largest firms (50-plus partners), where 29% of partners are female.

There are a number of initiatives and organisations working to help women access the legal profession, from support networks to mentoring schemes.

Women Lawyers Division 

The Law Society’s Women Lawyers Division supports and advises all women solicitors and aspiring women solicitors, from trainees to retirees. They provide an opportunity for women solicitors to have their voices heard, as well as delivering key news, regulatory and management information, and bringing together services that are relevant to women. 

Women Lawyers Division members benefit from:
• Specialised events and training;
• Networking opportunities;
• Regular e-newsletters and updates;
• Access to a community of women lawyers;
• Voting rights on the Law Society’s governing council. 

The 30% Club mentoring scheme 

The 30% Club mentoring scheme offers cross-company, cross-sector mentoring to women at every layer of the career pyramid: it’s for all industries, not just law, but could be very helpful for those wanting to move into the legal profession. 

Mentors are seasoned professionals with substantial business experience who hold leadership roles within their organisation. Now going into its sixth year in the UK, there are now 1,972 mentors and mentees and 101 organisations taking part. The scheme runs for nine months every year, with the option to extend for a further six months on an informal basis.

How the 30% Club mentoring scheme works: 
• Meetings: one-to-one mentoring takes place monthly or, at a minimum, every six weeks for an hour or two. The organisation encourages monthly meetings in order to build up sufficient momentum over the nine-month period. The onus is on mentees to schedule and travel to meetings.
• Matching process: mentors and mentees are matched by an online system with oversight from the scheme manager. Mentors and mentees are paired appropriately according to key criteria (e.g. professional experience, managerial experience, geographic location, gender, ethnicity and interests) and the system is designed to eliminate concerns over conflicts of interest and confidentiality issues.
• Administrative practicalities: each organisation nominates a senior leader sponsor and a key contact to select and recruit mentees and mentors.
• Events: as well as a number of mentee networking events, the scheme holds three main, central events each year. 

LGBTQ+

According to the Law Society’s 2015 Practising Certificate Holder Survey, 2.6% of PC holders were estimated to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or other, 94.6% were heterosexual/ straight (2.8% preferred not to reveal this information). This compares to 2% in the over-16 wider UK (according to the Law Society’s 2015 Practising Certificate Holder Survey).

According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, 2% of solicitors, 2% of other staff and 1% of partners confirmed that their gender identity was different to that assigned to them at birth. The SRA also reported a fall in the proportion of partners who do not identify as heterosexual in the largest firms (50+ partners), falling from 6% in 2014 to 4% in 2017. 

There are differences in the proportions of gay male partners, gay female partners and bisexual partners in the largest firms (50+ partners). 3% of partners in these firms are gay men, but less than 1% of partners are gay women, less than 1% are bisexual and less than 1% described their sexual orientation in another way. The LGBT Lawyers Division

LGBT Lawyers Division 

The LGBT Lawyers Division is the community for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) lawyers and their allies. They engage with the LGBT legal community and other LGBT groups, and campaign on behalf of LGBT solicitors.

The group shares expertise and experience, and celebrates the achievements of LGBT solicitors – including via innovative podcasts published on the Law Society’s website. The Division also provides ad hoc peer support and works to help LGBT solicitors to overcome isolation. Members benefit from: 
• Specialised events and training;
• Networking opportunities;
• Regular e-newsletters and updates;
• Access to a community of LGBT lawyers;
• Voting rights on the Law Society’s governing council.

LAGLA

LAGLA is the LGBTQ+ Lawyers Association for England and Wales, originally established in 1995 as the Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association. The organisation has regular events where members can meet other LGBTQ+ lawyers in an informal social setting. They also organise lectures, seminars and conferences. Once you have subscribed, you will receive details of upcoming events and networking opportunities. 

The group also has an arm specifically in the North East of England, taking part in events like Northern Pride and LGBT History month, and working with regional police forces on awareness campaigns relevant to the LGBTQ+ community.

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