Black History Month: Report reveals “worrying” barrier to partnership for women and BMEs

Linklaters corporate counsel Paulette Mastin has spent her entire career at the magic circle firm and has acted as chair of the Black Solicitor’s Network (BSN) City Group since 2008.

Paulette Mastin
Paulette Mastin

Here, she comments on the main results of the BSN’s 10th Diversity League Table earlier this year, which showed a mixed set of results.

Since the table was launched, these findings show that the significant gains have been made over the last 10 years. What are you looking to achieve in the future?

The profession has seen significant change over the last 10 years in the diversity of law firms and Chambers.

When the Diversity League Table (DLT) was first published, it was hailed as a ground-breaking exercise in providing detailed analysis of leading law firms’ demographic profiles in relation to ethnicity and gender from paralegal to partner. Over the years, its coverage expanded to encompass chambers and other strands of diversity – disability and sexual orientation.

During this period, the DLT has encouraged firms and chambers to promote diversity by profiling and recognising organisations that achieve high levels of diversity among their staff, and those that still have some way to go, but have put in place a variety of initiatives to support diversity, including policies, practices, support networks and other resource commitments.

The DLT has played an important role in raising awareness and issues across the profession, and challenging firms and Chambers to do more.

The DLT 10-year review is a cumulative analysis of data collected from law firms and looks at what has changed over this period. The report reveals that the number of women and ethnic minorities entering the legal profession has increased significantly. However, the levels of attrition as one progresses up the professional ladder are worryingly high, especially when making the last step up to partner.

BSN now has an opportunity to kick-start the next generation of work in this area. The next phase in our programme of research will encompass analysis of diversity and career progression in the legal profession, taking us beyond annual reporting of diversity issues (via the traditional DLT and other surveys) towards identifying and exploring why such issues exist. We will be working in conjunction with The Law Society and research professors on this new programme and are hoping to engage the support of other professional bodies and key stakeholders.

As the gender pay gap in law is described as ‘above average’, how are you working to close the gap on this issue?

The focus of our work at the BSN is equality of access to the legal profession and the retention and promotion of black solicitors.

This mission is pursued through our many initiatives and programmes, including careers workshops, mentoring and sponsorship programme, professional development seminars, the Diversity League Table, the UK Diversity Legal Awards as well as BSN’s involvement in consultations initiated by The Law Society, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and other government/regulatory bodies in relation to matters affecting BME lawyers.

What work needs to be done to close the gap at partner level?

There is no single approach that all firms could adopt to address and resolve issues of gender and ethnic diversity and equality, particularly within the senior ranks. The findings of DLT 2017 reveal that many firms have implemented diversity policies and practices and still there has been little discernible change in levels of representation at the top of the profession for women and ethnic minorities.

This is happening during a period when more women and ethnic minorities are entering the profession than ever before.  To shift the dial on gender and ethnic diversity, firms can:

  • Demonstrate a clear commitment to gender and BME talent management and progression as a key part of their business and growth strategy that is embedded throughout the organisation at all levels. As well as targeted initiatives (eg sponsorship/ mentoring/ leadership programmes), establish aspirational targets for recruitment, retention and promotion and report against these annually as a measure and driver of diversity success.
  • Encourage conversations, particularly involving key decision-makers, about issues around gender, race and ethnicity and equality as a means of breaking down barriers of structural bias and inequality that pervade organisational culture and stifle innovation and progress.
  • Implement diversity and anti-bias training for all staff, especially those tasked with work allocation, performance appraisals and promotion.

Are there any practice areas that you think need more diversity than others?

DLT 2017 identifies a variety of firm characteristics that are positive for one strand of diversity, but exactly the opposite for the other strand. Notably when considering the pattern of differences across firms according to core areas of practice. The findings reveal the following hierarchy of core practice areas when considering gender diversity (from the most gender-diverse to the least):

  • Employment (including pension and benefits)
  • Real Estate (including construction)
  • Litigation and Dispute Resolution
  • Corporate /Mergers and Acquisitions
  • Banking and Finance

When considering the extent of ethnic diversity, this list runs in exactly the opposite direction.

What this finding illustrates is that there is no single one-size-fits-all approach to addressing diversity issues across these practice areas.  Firm-wide initiatives dedicated to actively nurturing, supporting and progressing diverse talent have their place in addressing and tackling diversity gaps, but it is important to look at the particular circumstances of a given practice area that may be contributing factors.

Are you finding that the imposition of mandatory quotas is unnecessary with firms being more cooperative or prepared to engage in diversity?

There has been a lot of debate on quotas vs. targets as a means of increasing gender and ethnic diversity in the profession.  Given the slow pace of change in the diversification of senior roles within the profession, there is arguably a case for establishing and pursuing diversity targets, provided this is bolstered with a commitment to diverse talent management and engendering a fair and inclusive environment.

What role do the DLT and BSN play when it comes to setting ambitious but realistic targets for firms going forwards?

BSN continually engages with law firms, institutions and professional and regulatory bodies in driving our respective diversity agendas forward. Through initiatives and programmes like the UK Diversity Legal Awards and our careers workshops and mentoring/sponsorship programme we are actively encouraging and influencing greater diversity and inclusion within the sector.

Of importance in the drive to increase diversity within the legal profession is greater transparency around diversity measures and the ability to identify where there are issues and address them.  The DLT has been instrumental in this regard in that it provides a comprehensive analysis of the demographics of many leading law firms and Chambers in the UK across core diversity strands of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and disability. Through this publication, law firms are encouraged to share best practice and are able to gauge progress in the recruitment, retention and progression of diverse lawyers. Many firms now compile and publish the diversity statistics of their workforce as part of this trend towards greater transparency.

Which firms/individuals stand out for championing diversity and inclusion?

I would have to commend the exemplary work of winners of the UK Diversity Legal Awards 2016 and others in championing diversity and inclusion in the profession, including the following firms:

Linklaters established a Diversity Action Team in 2013, a group of legal and business services professionals dedicated to helping the firm implement their D&I Recruitment Strategy. The resulting statistical increase in BME graduates recruited to the firm is a visible sign of their efforts.

Freshfield Bruckhaus Deringer and Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon OBE launched the Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship, a first of a kind race and social mobility scheme to address the under representation of black and black-mixed-race men from less privileged backgrounds in large commercial law firms.

Latham & Watkins has designed innovative professional development programs (the Diversity Leadership Academy (DLA) and the Women’s Leadership Academy (WLA)) to specifically support the recruitment, retention, promotion and leadership development of women and other diverse lawyers.

BLP is profiled in the DLT 2017 report.  Their Social Inclusion and Ethnicity task-group, in particular their initiative, Race for Change, has seen a dramatic increase in training contract applications from black candidates.