Time to bring discrimination to an end

In the light of the Policy Studies Institute's latest report, the Law Society must take immediate action to eradicate discrimination in the profession, says Hannah Wiskin. Hannah Wiskin is chair of the Trainee Solicitors Group.

The Fourth study commissioned from the Policy Studies Institute (PSI) by the Law Society has finally been published. Once again, while the conclusions it reaches make for depressing reading, they come as little surprise to those who are working closely with law students and trainees.

The study, which follows the progress of 400 law students, gives weight to the long-held concerns about the obstacles to entry to the profession caused by financial hardship and the widespread discrepancies in the quality of legal training. I am confident that these issues will come under close scrutiny by the Law Society Training Committee as part of its review of the training contract that was announced in June.

However, despite recent widespread coverage of the findings of the PSI study, it is not clear how the Law Society proposes to tackle the very damning statistics concerning discrimination both at the point of entry to the profession and in daily practice.

The study has found widespread bias in the allocation of training places against women and students from ethnic minorities – bias that exists regardless of academic performance.

For example, trainee solicitors recruited to City commercial firms are 16 times more likely to have graduated from Oxbridge than from a new university. And the discrimination does not end on starting work: 11 per cent of female respondents admitted to having been sexually harassed during their training contract. While these figures are significantly lower than those for the Bar, they clearly cannot and must not be treated with complacency.

The figures raise fundamental questions about the make-up of our profession, and are a potential source of embarrassment for those of us who are committed to equal access and opportunity for all.

These are huge issues, and call for determined action on the part of the Law Society. The time has come to stop talking about the fact that discrimination exists, and to start taking positive action to eradicate it.

In the past the Law Society has been quick to set up high-profile initiatives to tackle difficult problems, and it should not be slow to do so now.

A task force is now needed to monitor the applications process and the treatment of women and ethnic minorities at work.

The task force should also be exploring the opportunities for offering work experience, given the clear evidence that this experience plays a significant role when it comes to obtaining a training contract.

Mentoring schemes should be set up to encourage applications from the ethnic minorities and to provide support to trainees who are experiencing discrimination. And guidance should also be sought from the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality, both of whom are represented on Council, and acted upon.

It is hoped that the new President and his officers will make this a priority. I am certain that in doing so, they will have the backing of the profession. The PSI report is proving to be the most valuable source of data about trainees available, and it is high time that action is taken to buck the trends that it is revealing within the profession.

But the discussion about the PSI study findings raises another issue. Yet again, it is falling to the Trainee Solicitors Group to campaign for a change in working practices within the profession. But, the interests of the youngest members of the Law Society are in the hands of an influential group that has only limited powers to participate in the decision-making process at Chancery Lane.

Having represented the interests of its members through reasoned debate over many years, the case is now clearly made for granting the Trainee Solicitors Group equal status with other Law Society interest groups by allocating it a seat on the Council. This will enable trainees to participate fully in the political process, and will put an end to the situation whereby a highly influential group is able to play only a limited role in decisions about key training issues.

It will also mean that, for the first time, issues as important as those discussed above do not need to be strewn across the legal press before action can be taken. This would surely be a development welcomed by all in the profession.