The Law Society has been subject to responsibilities under discrimination law since the early 1970s. These include controlling admission to the profession, offering services to the public, handling complaints about solicitors and its responsibilities as an employer. More recently its duties have broadened arising from the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. Under this act, the Law Society comes under a duty to have “due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different racial groups”; there is also a specific duty as an employer to monitor and publish annually comprehensive employment statistics concerning ethnic profiles.
In January the Law Society approved an equality and diversity framework. The Law Society Council decided that it would not just aim to meet its statutory duties under anti-discrimination legislation, but would prepare itself to play a leading role in promoting equality of opportunity among its staff. It is one thing to say that you recognise the importance of diversity and quite another to promote it. The Law Society is putting the issue at the heart of everything it plans as a regulator, as a representative body and as an employer. Whether it is lobbying the Government on access to justice, dealing with a complaint against a solicitor or encouraging new entrants into the profession, every action needs to be in line with this core belief.
When the Law Society's new governing council approved its corporate plan in 2001, it chose to put equality and diversity at the heart of the society's strategy for action over the next three years. It chose to build on the work of its Equal Opportunities Committee, which continues to comment on proposals.
The council would take the work of that committee and put its aspirations to have equality and diversity mainstreamed throughout the organisation into practice. If mainstreaming means anything, it means placing leadership and responsibility for equality and diversity at the top of the organisation and ensuring that every part of the organisation responds, reports and delivers – and that is what has been done. The council has charged the main board with responsibility for the development of the policy and the main board has established a small sub-group of itself to take on the leadership role, with the president as champion. This group has been busy. It first developed the equality and diversity framework, which has been approved by the council, and is now out for wide consultation with the profession and relevant stakeholders. It has embarked on an ambitious training and awareness programme for all staff and the entire council, giving priority to those who work directly with the public, staff dealing with complaints and others developing policy, reviewing legal education and training and, of course, on human resource (HR) issues. Key posts have been added to the staff complement at a senior level: a director of diversity, working primarily in the Regulation Directorate, a manager in the HR unit and an adviser in the law reform unit.
The work of the sub-group, and indeed of the main board, is advised by Lord Ouseley, former chair of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), and the Law Society is cooperating with the CRE in the implementation of the framework.
It is important work that must change things. It must change things in relation to all kinds of discrimination. It is exciting work – sometimes difficult and sometimes fun. Recently, the Law Society Common Room was full to overflowing with 17 to 18-year-olds from three inner-London boroughs, all talking about their aspirations to join the legal profession. The gender, ethnicity and class mix of the participants was matched by the role models who shared some of their experiences as lawyers. Throughout an action-packed day, it was demonstrated just how different the legal profession could be if it were to find ways of changing some of the institutional barriers that continue to make access to, and progression through, the solicitors profession so difficult for some of our brightest young people. Some City firms recognise that talent needs to be sought more broadly and so are actively recruiting more imaginatively and very successfully. The Law Society will do all it can to help many more firms to follow suit. The profession needs to take equality and diversity seriously and the Law Society will take a lead in trying to do that.