Equality via the profession's wallet

Last week the Law Society received the second in a series of research reports by the Policy Studies Institute on patterns of entry into the legal profession. The research follows 4,000 law students from starting university to the end of their first year in practice.

The survey has reached the point where students are applying for training contracts. The main finding is of bias – indeed discrimination – against ethnic minority students. The report tells us that when academic merit is the same, the two factors most likely to adversely affect success in securing a contract are being of non-white ethnicity and having attended a new university.

The report has been presented to the society's training committee which I chair. How will we respond?

Let me say what I do not want us to do. I do not want this to become a finger-wagging exercise nor one in allocating blame. The solicitors' profession is committed to the wider service ethic, therefore we must start with raising awareness. The Law Society must make solicitors aware of the problems the report highlights.

For the training committee, it is a hearts and minds job. We have got to engage people's interest in doing something about the situation. And the best form of persuasion is to demonstrate the business benefit.

Good recruitment procedures ensure firms recruit the most suitable and most able people for the jobs. Fair recruitment practices are much more likely to produce the people who are going to be most successful in the job. This is an entry point into a virtuous circle. Recruit good people and they will do good work. Good work attracts more business.

There is another way in which good opportunities practice makes good business sense. It has the potential to make the profession more inclusive. If the profession becomes more attractive to all communities and sectors of society, it will open up more opportunities to solicitors.

People who would not have thought of consulting a solicitor will do so if they see the solicitors' profession is more representative of them. If the profession is more widely drawn from the community at large it is more likely to win the confidence of the whole community.

The fact of the matter is that if solicitors want to win more business from trade unions, from local authorities, from central government and increasingly from multi-national business they will have to demonstrate qualities and abilities as good equal opportunities employers.

The training committee is keen to encourage local initiatives. Examples are the Liverpool Law Society mentoring scheme and the City of London scheme for helping ethnic minority students.

Another scheme is one which my local law society, the Bristol Law Society, is discussing with the Positive Action Consortium in Bristol. This scheme is still in its infancy but it is hoped it will involve a little bit of financial help to firms who might not have otherwise thought of taking on a trainee solicitor. The condition will be that the firm recruits a trainee from an ethnic minority background – still a person of ability and potential but against whom bias might otherwise have existed.

At the heart of the initiatives must be the encouragement of good modern management practice. The training committee wants to encourage more law firms to adopt the national training and development standard in Investors in People (IIP), seen as highly valuable by the Commission for Racial Equality. IIP addresses the issue because it requires a business to have robust recruitment systems. I am sure it could be useful to the profession, making us include people of high ability from all backgrounds.

The training committee is also pursuing the development of management training and development for solicitors modelled on the Management Charter Initiative (MCI) management standards.

These initiatives must be concentrated in the area of continuing professional development – in this field we can and must make the most impact on the profession's management practices.

There is one other important finding in the Policy Studies Institute report. By and large students are pleased with the LPC. Its emphasis on skills and competence-based training puts it in the same league as the IIP and MCI standards.

Students are getting a good grounding in the skills which will make our profession a more inclusive one – better managed, motivated and more broadly recruited.