Diversity still a distant dream

The legal profession remains unrepresentative of wider society despite there being a business case for change, reveals an InterLaw survey.


The data is stark, the conclusions are damning and the message is clear – diversity is still a problem in the law.

A comprehensive survey of almost 2,000 law professionals has given rise to what its authors describe as a “wake-up call” for the industry.

The “hard truth”, they say, is that the more an individual diverges from the white male norm, the less well-paid and less satisfied they are with their career progress.

So far, so what, you may say. But the fact that this inequality remains, despite a 15-year period during which  the majority of new entrants have been female, tells us that diversity programmes at law firms are not cracking the ‘glass ceiling’.

The InterLaw Diversity Forum has 1,200 members and supporters from more than 70 law firms. The time is right, says author and CMS head of international markets Daniel Winterfeldt – who is also the firm’s diversity and inclusion partner – to introduce targets and hit managing partners where it hurts – in the pocket.

The survey was split between lawyers and non-lawyers, and the data split between hard facts and perceptions, so the resulting portrait is comprehensive.


Salaries still provide the most obvious measure of the career progress of  groups, and in this the findings are “depressingly familiar”.

The top 10 per cent of white male lawyers earn a minimum of £200,000-£300,000, followed by the top 10 per cent of white women, Asian men and mixed race men who are all in the £100,000-£200,000 minimum band (see infographic).

As Winterfeldt puts it, “Generally speaking, white male lawyers are making the most money and are happiest. Each time you add a layer that  diverges further from this ‘norm’ it shows a disproportionate impact. So, white women are less happy and make less, black women even less, and so on.

“Well over half the people recruited into the legal sector are women, yet there are a lot more men at the top making a lot more money, so the timetable of progression is a real problem. Maternity is a cop-out, an excuse. Many women don’t have children and families now share ­responsibility.

“If a guy went off to climb the Himalayas and came back after a year the reaction would be ‘Wow, a year in the mountains’, whereas if a woman is off on maternity leave it’s like a death,” he adds.

Winterfeldt echoes the report’s interesting findings on sexuality by suggesting that, although the small group of lesbians surveyed are older and therefore more senior than their straight female counterparts,  homosexual professionals have to “overachieve” to progress.

The report also responds to the findings on disability having a negative impact on career development as “troubling”.

“What this report tells us,” Winterfeldt says, “is that young women work hard to support practices and the success of the white male partnership. It’s fine to have women as junior associates – the workhorses and the engine of the firm doing the grunt work – then cast them aside when it comes to moving up the chain.”

The feedback suggests women are given a disproportionate amount of work at junior level which is not client-facing, and when it comes to career development they have not made the same contacts. Yet they’re good enough to get all the work in the first place.

The report adds: “The data […] suggests for instance that women are useful back room workers whose career life is seen as inevitably truncated and therefore while a few are promoted, thereby diversifying the public image somewhat, the majority effectively support the white male partnerships.”

It is a “self-fulfilling prophecy” according to the report’s authors, backed up by opinions on ‘cherry-picking’ and work allocation, which we will come to.

Social mobility

It is still the case that lawyers are drawn disproportionately from private schools and/or Russell Group higher education institutions (the top 20 universities).

The forum results reveal that black men and women – but particularly black men – are least likely to have benefited from an elite education. Although this reflects a societal issue, it means black men are fighting multiple prejudices in their careers.

According to the figures, not a single black male lawyer or legal professional surveyed attended a fee-paying school. Zero black female non-lawyers who were asked went to a top university, compared with 61 per cent of white male lawyers.


There is a clear split with regard to ­career progress satisfaction levels within the same categories, between lawyers and non-lawyers.

For example, white female lawyers (39 per cent) are less satisfied than white male lawyers (47 per cent), but white women in business services are just as satisfied (47 per cent) and more so than their male non-lawyer peers (41 per cent).

Other significant disparities between lawyers and non-lawyers in the same ethnic groups are with Asian men (42 per cent of lawyers satisfied with their level of seniority compared with 24 per cent of non-lawyers), mixed race men (55 per cent versus 17 per cent) and mixed race women (24 per cent of lawyers satisfied against 38 per cent of non-lawyers satisfied).

InterLaw Diversity Forum believes the mixed results highlight important trends, such as that male groups – with the exception of black and mixed race – are less likely to be happy with their progress if they are in business services rather than lawyers, even though evidence shows they reach higher salary bands.

The research shows that most dissatisfied are black male lawyers (14 per cent).

Winterfeldt feels this may be because of problems with support and training. He says black men make less than black women and that firms could do more to address the “social stigma” black men have a hard time overcoming.

Work allocation

An example of the responses on whether firms allocate work fairly sums up the challenge in this section. It reads: “Since returning from maternity leave my commercial clients have been reallocated and I’m involved in lower level retail projects.”

Others complain of senior partners keeping all the profitable work for themselves, part-time employees left out of the loop and those with fewer extra-curricular responsibilities picking up the slack for those who “hide behind childcare”.

Almost twice as many white ­female lawyers (27 per cent) than white male lawyers (15 per cent) believe high-quality work is not allocated fairly in their workplace.

This vast difference in viewpoint is the same among mixed race men and gay women (both 27 per cent) and increases even further among black men (29 per cent), Asian men (31 per cent), and mixed race women (35 per cent).

Again, there are big differences between lawyers and non-lawyers in their perception of fairness, with only 14 per cent of white women in business services roles stating they don’t believe work is evenly dished out.

The group most unhappy about caseload distribution is disabled female lawyers (40 per cent).


Assessment and reward

In a number of linked questions, the survey tackled the issues of assessment, achievement and reward. It found that widespread mistrust and lack of knowledge must be addressed “as a priority” by firms.

Given that more than 1,000 of the 1,900 respondents (45 per cent) believe their employers have transparent promotion and reward policies, it may seem perverse that almost four out of five (79.8 per cent) are satisfied with them.

The report says this area “needs further exploration”, but previous work by the forum on LGBT solicitors reported that they felt “lucky” to have achieved success, rather than feeling  they had earned it.

Yet again the data supports the same patterns – individuals are less likely to be content the further they diverge from the white male dominant group.

Although slightly more than half of Asian men lawyers and non-lawyers (52 per cent) is a similar proportion to white men (51 per cent) in saying their achievements and rewards are fairly assessed, only 27 per cent say the policies are transparent – compared with 54 per cent of white men.

Black men (28 per cent) and black women (30 per cent) are least likely to be satisfied.

The report emphasises that again black men have more negative perceptions that are “remarkably” diverged from their white male peers and that a “great deal of work” was needed to address obstacles the group faces in the legal sector.

Feedback from respondents included the observations that assessment is based on uncontrollable targets such as billable hours for junior lawyers, subjective with regard to having a work ‘champion’ at senior level, and that the management board “does as it pleases while giving the impression of fairness”.

Attitudes such as this, says the report, simply entrench hierarchies.



Mentoring, sponsorship and role model schemes are employed largely by firms to help women and ethnic minorities.

Yet the research finds that male lawyers are most likely to have access to this support, despite it being aimed at helping those with an apparent disadvantage. So those groups that have traditionally faced the fewest obstacles to career progress are most likely to have the additional benefit of a mentor, sponsor or role model.

The data shows that 60 per cent of black male lawyers and 64 per cent of black women lawyers – stand-out figures in the various categories – find that professional network membership has benefited their career.

Alison Eddy, Irwin Mitchell’s London managing partner, head of clinical negligence and on the firm’s ­diversity board, says: “The more ­diverse a practice is, the better it can respond to the needs of its clients, so the business case for diversity is clear.

“There’s been a significant rise in the number of women entering the profession and we’re starting to see more women in senior management roles, but we still need more role models.

“Mentoring would also help and this is something we’re already looking to develop at Irwin Mitchell.”

What can be done?

The forum’s report is keen to provide solutions to the problems it poses because members have a vested interest in the progress of the legal sector.

Winterfeldt says: “Legal services are principally about people and our people are key to what we do, so we need the best talent. We’re not making cars.

“If you’re not promoting the best talent, no matter what group they are from, and if your workforce is not diverse you are not reflecting society.

“Essentially, things haven’t changed much,” he adds. “The research is relevant because our clients are further ahead in this area. While firms are making progress at recruitment level, there’s not the change in culture when it comes to promotion and advancement.

“This report is a call to action. We need to be doing more to change the culture, managing practice and social mobility. In tough times, equality programmes are often where firms can make cost savings, but we’re saying now is the time to invest in this area.”

Winterfeldt says the report shows  that only by addressing culture, management practice and social mobility  can the legal sector achieve a true meritocracy.

“Because of the lack of progress we say it’s time for the legal sector to have targets,” Winterfeldt adds.

He argues that financial penalties and incentives should be introduced  to drastically change the culture. It needs a ‘carrot and stick’ environment because money is what people in management understand, recommends the report.

“Everyone knows they should be tackling diversity,” says Winterfeldt, “but without incentives or being held to account, it’s clear the culture isn’t changing. This is how you drive it.

“Organisations need to set out expectations from management and build this into appraisals. They should address failures in financial terms by smaller bonuses or stalled equity levels.”

Measures to consider, concludes the report, include sickness and absence, employment rates, recruitment, flexible hours, return dates from maternity, progression patterns, employment satisfaction and turnover rates.

Winterfeldt adds: “Firms only really look at hard numbers – billable hours – and these things don’t come into the bottom line. Until you bake them into the core of the firm you won’t see diversity in the senior ranks.”

What the profession thinks


Positive thinking

Most respondents (70 per cent) of the 1,299 male and female lawyers who looked ahead five years anticipate their salary will be higher. Only 4.2 per cent of men and women think it will be lower and a hesitant 8 per cent are either not sure or preferred not to say.

For non-lawyers, three-quarters of men and 64.2 per cent of women foresee a pay rise, with the rest expecting to stay on the same wage.


I can’t get no…

Satisfaction levels in the sector are good among lawyers and evenly split between male and female. Only 12 per cent of men and 16.8 per cent of women are ‘not at all satisfied’ with their level of seniority. The figures are similar for non-lawyers, with a third of women satisfied and 42.2 per cent of men quite satisfied, where as 15.5 per cent across both genders are not at all satisfied.

Perhaps those who are dissatisfied are among the 35 per cent of lawyers and 50 per cent of non-lawyers who don’t expect a promotion. Ever.

Just over 40 per cent of lawyers believe the step up is between two to five years away, with a more confident 18.1 per cent (20.1 per cent men and 16.9 per cent women) saying they are less than 12 months off a pay rise.

For non-lawyers, 40 per cent of men see progress in two to five years compared with 31 per cent women.

Holding the baby

Mothers (29.2 per cent) who work either part-time (22.4 per cent) or flexibly (16.2 per cent) feel it has negatively influenced their career development. And more than a third of female lawyers (34.3 per cent) feel their gender has held them back.

This pattern is reflected among non-lawyers, but to a lesser degree with only 17.2 per cent of women feeling hindered by their gender.

Click below to view larger version: LAWYER SALARY PATTERNS BY DIVERSITY GROUP