Progress through struggle

Back in 1987 it was not possible to give any accurate statistics as to the numbers of African, Caribbean and Asian solicitors and barristers, owing to the fact there was no ethnic monitoring in either branch of the profession. It is known, however, that minority lawyers tended to choose to become barristers rather than solicitors, partly to make access to home jurisdictions possible, and also because British nationality was a requirement if you were to obtain a practising certificate as a solicitor prior to 1973.

By 1997, however, the proportion of ethnic minority solicitors had risen to 4 per cent and barristers to 6.7 per cent, with trainee solicitors at 18.5 per cent in 1995 (the most recent year for which there are figures) and pupil barristers at 17 per cent. But the rising figures disguise continued difficulties for minority lawyers.

A study (conducted in 1992 by the Society of Black Lawyers) of 200 black and white law students found that ethnic minorities faced a five-to-one disadvantage when applying for training contracts.

Applicants with an Asian or African name were less likely to be invited for interview, but more likely to be employed if called for interview.

So what has changed in the past 10 years to improve the lot of ethnic minorities trying to enter the legal profession?

The long-awaited Legal Services Act of 1989 closed the loophole in the Race Relations Act and brought both branches of the profession within its ambit. Successful litigation in recent years by solicitors such as Jenny Lindsay against a Leicester company, and by Chineme Nwoke against the Government Legal Service and Appointments Board, has exposed the discriminatory malpractice conducted against ethnic minority solicitors on a regular basis, particularly in recruitment.

In 1994 the Bar adopted in full Equal Opportunity codes of practice, followed by the Law Society in 1995, and the respective Equal Opportunity officers have begun to help shift the culture of discrimination certainly present at the Bar.

There have been a number of dramatic successes. Asian and African Caribbean lawyers are to be seen in the top City firms, as Queen's Counsel and in commercial law, planning and shipping – areas of practice that have been historically blocked to minority lawyers. But their numbers are still small.

The late Rose Thompson not only entered the profession as a second career, but she also played a leading role in the community in Birmingham, founding the West Midlands chapter for the Society of Black Lawyers in the process.

The late Grace Higgins, the leading protagonist in the fight to obtain equal treatment by the Council of Legal Education, led the Ad Hoc Students Group in its successful legal challenge. As a result, the CLE lost its monopoly on teaching the Bar Vocational Course and was forced to accept the necessity of granting re-sits to all students.

The picture requires constant monitoring, however. The failure rate for black students at the CLE has fluctuated dramatically from 46 per cent in 1991, to 20 per cent in 1994, and back up to 42 per cent in 1996. With results being consistently less favourable for black students than for white, the fluctuations do not suggest a fair and consistent teaching environment.

The unevenness of the figures is mirrored in the world of employment. The property boom of the late 1980s led to a temporary improvement in the employment prospects of black solicitors in particular. But the ensuing recession underlined the precarious position of minority lawyers – they were all too often the last to be employed and the first to be let go.

Ethnic minority lawyers have survived because of their own persistence. There is a greater tendency for African, Asian and Caribbean solicitors to be sole practitioners, in an effort to avoid the subtle discrimination of the high street or City firm.

With an ethnic minority population of some three million legal consumers, and increasing growth in minority businesses, the socio-economic argument for a drive for diversity in the legal workforce is convincing. Partnerships between barristers and solicitors, perhaps leading to a fused profession, would enable minority lawyers to access their largest potential client base in their own communities.

A move by the public and private sector, led by local authorities, trade unions and government legal departments, should lead to the achievement of employment targets already set by both branches of the profession. For instance, it would be desirable to see the London Borough of Ealing distributing its legal work to reflect the ethnicity of its population.

A similar approach by Ford UK, British Gas and the insurance and banking giants could transform the career prospects of minority lawyers. The next 10 years should see a continued growth in African, Caribbean and Asian barristers and solicitors in large practices and in all branches of the profession.