Elite firms put to shame by smaller practices’ diversity

Law Soc reveals that only 8 per cent of the UK’s top 100 firms’ trainees belong to an ethnic minority.

The average proportion of ethnic minority trainees at the UK’s top 100 law firms lags significantly behind the number of registered trainees across the profession from ethnic minority groups.

The 2006 diversity league table, first revealed in Lawyer 2B‘s sister title The Lawyer on 27 March is a groundbreaking survey of The Lawyer‘s UK 100, the 100 largest firms in the profession. The Black Solicitors Network (BSN) and the Law Society have produced the definitive snapshot of diversity within the profession, and it makes for sobering reading.

Of the top 100 firms, 40 failed to participate and seven more did not provide enough information to be ranked. The firms that did not divulge any statistics included Addleshaw Goddard, Ashurst, Barlow Lyde & Gilbert, Burges Salmon, Cobbetts, Clyde & Co, Denton Wilde Sapte, Eversheds, Halliwells, Irwin Mitchell, Lewis Silkin, Linklaters, Macfarlanes and Stephenson Harwood, among others.

These firms have all been keen to launch a PR offensive to try to explain why they did not take part. However, the firms concerned will have difficulty making excuses.

Each firm was sent two letters. That was followed up with a telephone call. When that did not elicit a response, the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) wrote to each of the firms independently.

At the same time, the Government released a paper entitled ‘Increasing Diversity in the Legal Profession’. In the paper, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of the State Department for Constitutional Affairs Bridget Prentice MP said all firms should comply. She then wrote to the top 100 firms and 30 barristers’ chambers asking them to publish diversity statistics, rather than leave the responsibility to the CRE, BSN or to professional bodies.

Finally, when firms requested deadline extensions, they were granted.

“Anyone who didn’t respond must have been on planet Zog,” exclaimed BSN director Michael Webster, a partner at Webster Dixon. The embarrassment caused by non-participation suggests that the Law Society can expect far greater participation next year.

The BSN is much keener to concentrate on the results it did receive. The firms that took part may want to give themselves a pat on the back, but their statistics will not gain any praise.

The average proportion of ethnic minority trainees in the firms surveyed is 8.09 per cent, but in 2004 19.1 per cent of registered trainees across the profession were from ethnic minority groups. This shows clearly that the country’s largest firms are lagging well behind the smaller firms, which form the bulk of the profession. It also shows that they are falling well behind the Law Society’s 10 per cent target, which was set years ago.

Progress is being made in this area. CMS Cameron McKenna has a 21.87 per cent ethnic minority trainee figure, Clifford Chance has 20.43 per cent, with Simmons & Simmons and Richards Butler close behind. But Bird & Bird has 100 per cent white trainees. A Bird & Bird spokesman said: “The report prompted us to re-examine the data and we’ve found that we did not have the systems in place to provide the correct data.”

Linklaters, which did not take part in the survey, was proud to proclaim that 31 per cent of its 130 trainees for 2007-08 were from ethnic minorities. While these figures were only released as the firm tried to claw back PR ground, it is an encouraging sign.

All firms claim to be widening the net they recruit from – and they need to. A 2005 survey by education charity The Sutton Trust found that 55 per cent of UK-educated partners in the magic circle (minus Linklaters and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, which did not take part) attended fee-paying schools. More worryingly, 71 per cent of partners under the age of 39 were independently educated, compared with 51 per cent of partners who were over 39.

Allen & Overy (A&O) has no partners from ethnic minorities in London, according to the report. The firm claims it could not collate its figures in time for the deadline, but that it does have partners from ethnic minorities and will be publishing these figures when they are completed. Bird & Bird has no black, mixed-race or Chinese associates in London, but 1.25 per cent of its associates are Asian.

It may not be surprising that only 7.84 per cent of Ince & Co‘s partners are women. What is more surprising is that only 10.77 per cent of the Taylor Wessing partnership comprises women and just 11.88 per cent of Simmons’ partners are female.

Fifty-three per cent of partners at A&O, Clifford Chance and Slaughter and May attended Oxford or Cambridge. Meanwhile, 82 per cent of UK-educated barristers at seven of London’s top sets were Oxbridge-educated.

Law firms may have to start paying attention. CRE chairman Trevor Phillips said the legal services are inviting the Government to consider legislation to force it to do better.

Among recent proposals in the Government’s paper is one that should make firms take notice. “In purchasing legal services, public sector authorities should give consideration to inviting tenders only from those firms that publish progression data by gender and ethnicity,” reads the proposal.