Smaller practices outperform their larger counterparts in new diversity league table

Cordella Bart-Stewart

First, there are high levels of attrition in the profession among both women and ethnic ­minorities.

Law Society statistics suggest that, on average, 60 per cent of law firms’ intakes are women, while DLT figures show that around 14 per cent are ethnic minorities. This peters out as you move up the pecking order, so that on average around 20 per cent of partners are female and 3 per cent are ethnic minorities.

Second, the more diverse firms also happen to be the smaller ones. The most diverse of the 49 firms surveyed is the relatively ­diminutive trade union and ­personal injury (PI) specialist Thompsons Solicitors. None of The Lawyer’s top 10 City firms by turnover are in the DLT’s top 10 ranking for diversity, with ­Linklaters ­occupying the lowest ranking of the magic circle firms in 39th place.

Third, the firms that are best on ethnic minority advancement are not necessarily as good on female career progression and vice-versa. Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton scores best in terms of ethnic minority partners (24 per cent of the total), but it does not have a single female partner in its ­London office, according to the data supplied.

But what conclusions can be drawn from these initial ­observations?

Cordella Bart-Stewart, chair of the Black Solicitors Network (BSN), which produced the report, thinks it is clear that the efforts to diversify graduate intakes have paid dividends, but that these approaches need to be repeated in lateral hiring and promotion.

“You have to look at initiatives higher up,” she says. “There’s been too much concentration at the graduate level. There are elements on a conscious and subconscious level in deciding whether or not to take someone into the ­partnership. Often, whoever’s doing the recruitment looks for someone that reflects themselves. You’ll probably find there are few BMEs [black and minority ­ethnics] doing the recruiting.”

Smaller firms tend to be more diverse partly because of their practice concentrations.

The firms that do best in the rankings – including Beachcroft, Charles Russell, Russell Jones & Walker, Thompsons and ­Weightmans – are all strong in areas such as employment, family, private client and PI. This is ­largely because these sectors allow for more flexible working ­arrangements, which helps with female retention.

It is no coincidence that those that are more focused on the ­transactional areas of banking, corporate and M&A, such as the Herbert Smith, Lovells, the magic circle firms and Simmons & ­Simmons, do not do as well.

Having high-profile female managers may also make a ­difference. It is probably no ­coincidence that the firm with the largest ratio of female partners – Pannone with an impressive 44 per cent – has had in Joy Kingsley a female managing/senior partner for the past 16 years.

As with many people in his ­position, Pannone’s current ­managing partner Steven Grant stresses that the firm always appoints “on the basis of merit, not someone’s gender”; but he ­concedes that the practice mix and a high-profile female manager may have something to do with it.

Certainly, it helps having diverse role models, and not having a diverse partnership can in itself become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But Bart-Stewart at the BSN cautions that it is vital to look at the type of work being undertaken by those who are traditionally underrepresented in the corridors of power.

“You need to look at what type of work women are being slotted into and allowed to succeed in at a higher level,” she says. “The ­earning capacity of female ­partners is lower because they’re doing traditionally ‘female’ work.”

Notably, UK firms – even those with more women in the higher echelons – tend to score badly on ethnic minority advancement, in direct contrast to many US ­outfits.

No immediate explanation is available for this, but it may be linked to the nature of the ­diversity debate on different sides of the Atlantic, with race given greater prominence in the US and gender (and class) perhaps more at the forefront in the minds of UK ­managers.

Still, there is a clear racial divide – even among those firms that have a greater proportion of ethnic minority partners black lawyers are particularly underrepresented.

This is the first year that the DLT has also asked questions about sexual orientation and ­disability. However, neither of these statistics were included in the overall diversity ranking, because, as a spokesperson described, feedback was “patchy”.

In the case of sexual orientation, this ‘patchiness’ is evident in the number of responses that are ­listed as ‘not disclosed or not known’.

As this week’s Opinion column describes (see page 6), sexuality is harder to calibrate because it is less visible. However, it is ­important to ask the question because without available data no useful policy can be formed.

This year’s DLT, though, is a step in the right direction.