BME partners remain in a minority

Just six of the 41 firms that participated in the Black Solicitors Network’s (BSN) latest diversity table had black partners.

Of the country’s top 10 firms, only Clifford Chance, DLA Piper and Linklaters had two or three black ­partners apiece. Allen & Overy (A&O), Eversheds, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith and Norton Rose had none. Ashurst and Slaughter and May declined to take part.

Wedlake Bell, a £22m-turnover City law firm, led the way with 10 per cent of its partners being of Asian descent and 9 per cent of associates and 23.5 per cent of trainees hailing from an ethnic minority.

Wedlake senior partner David Earl is clear. “We don’t have specific policies,” he says. “We just try to take on and retain the best we can. People come here from a very broad range of universities and have also done a broad range of first degrees. We’re very open-minded.”

A quick comparison with society at large is ­instructive. According to 2001 census data, the ethnic composition of London is 71.2 per cent white, 10.9 per cent black, 10.3 per cent hail from the Indian subcontinent, 1.5 per cent are mixed black and white, 1.1 per cent are ­Chinese and 5.2 per cent are from other ethnic groups.

Forty-five per cent of the UK’s ethnic minority ­population lives in London, while Law Society statistics reveal that 9.1 per cent of solicitors in private practice come from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds.

“But how many of them want to work in a City law firm?” asks the diversity partner at a City law firm. “The number of BME candidates in the solicitors’ gene pool is tiny. Agonising over and manipulating statistics is highly unhelpful. Spending money on getting people from deprived backgrounds into the profession is money much better spent.”

But former BSN chair Michael Webster disagrees, saying: “25 per cent of all LPC students are from ­ethnic minorities. Over 50 per cent are women. The idea that there aren’t ­sufficient candidates does not stack up.”

Barclays general counsel Mark Harding thinks the BSN survey is a valuable tool, saying: “I believe the diversity league table offers an unmissable opportunity to raise awareness across the UK profession and provides an invaluable barometer of the success of the collective diversity effort.”

It is understood that the BSN is concerned about the low response this year. Of the firms that took part last year, some 39 – almost half – did not take part this year.

The BSN, a not-for-profit ­organisation, had to charge £1,500 for entry this year to cover costs such as the ­implementation of a new online system, and it is understood that some firms, such as Bird & Bird, CMS Cameron McKenna, Lovells and SJ Berwin, balked at this.

A Camerons spokesperson said the firm’s non-­participation ;was ;an oversight on its part as the firm changed its HR ­managers at a crucial time.
Bird & Bird diversity partner Simon Shooter said:
“As part of our diversity ­programme for this year Bird & Bird is establishing a ­scholarship to fund talented students from schools in socially deprived areas. When considering the ­invitation from the BSN to participate in the survey, Bird & Bird’s diversity committee determined that funding a scholarship candidate was a more effective and longer-lasting use of the money.”

The other non-participants declined the opportunity to comment.
There are signs that firms are embracing change, with Hammonds and Linklaters making their debut appearance in the report this year.

And if you look at the firms’ recruiting efforts at trainee level, there are also reasons for optimism.

Just over a third of ­Clifford Chance’s trainees and 30 per cent of A&O’s hail from ­ethnic minorities, while at Freshfields the figure is just under 19 per cent. Even the fact that only 8 per cent are black at the first two, compared with a miserly 3.33 per cent at Freshfields, represents a serious improvement on the numbers currently in the ranks.