As Black History Month comes to an end, the issue of ethnic diversity will start to fade from the limelight. Yet data reveals serious and persistent problems around BAME participation in elite law firms. Despite creating initiatives and policies to address the gap – firms have a long way to go to tackle the ethnic diversity gap, especially at a partner level.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) diversity survey in 2017 found that at all levels of lawyer, 21 per cent are from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background in the 9,000 firms surveyed in England and Wales.

Differences become apparent when the SRA broke down the data by firm size. Larger firms have the lowest proportion of BAME partners – only 8 per cent. This contrasts with smaller firms, where just over a third (34 per cent) of partners are from a BAME background.

There is also a disparity in the proportion of BAME lawyers according to the type of practice a firm has. There are more BAME lawyers at firms who have criminal (33 per cent) or private client (37 per cent) practices, than a firm who is doing mainly corporate work (19 per cent).

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This data is evident at the magic circle– out of the 779 London partners, there are 69 (8.9 per cent) who identify as BAME, compared to 710 (91 per cent) who either stated they are white or did not disclose ethnicity.

US firms fare a little better – Kirkland & Ellis, Latham & Watkins, White & Case and Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan have a combined 421 London partners. Of them, 47 (11.2 per cent) are BAME. However, none of the US firms formally declared ethnic diversity data.

The disparity is stark when compared to the number of ethnic lawyers at an associate level. Of the 2,605 associates working at the magic circle in London, 501 (19.2 per cent) identify as BAME, while 2,092 (80.3 per cent) identified as white or did not disclose.

There is clearly a retention problem at the magic circle, which struggle to keep and promote diverse staff. It is evident from data that firms get diverse candidates through the door but then fail to keep BAME lawyers at the firm long enough to be made up into partners.

From associate to partner – a lack of role models

There is a vicious circle: BAME associates rarely have role models to look up to in the partnership, which may, in turn, discourage them from seeking career progression at their firms.

The lack of role models is evident from partner promotion data gathered by The Lawyer. Since 2016, Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Linklaters have together promoted 140 associates to partner in London. Of them, only 18 (12.9 per cent) BAME lawyers have joined the partnerships, compared to 122 white lawyers.

Slaughter and May is by far the worst in terms of partner promotions. The firm has not promoted any BAME associates in the last four years. It has promoted 19 partners between 2016 and 2019, all of whom are white.

“Speaking generally, a lack of role models throughout the city at all levels can be disheartening for individuals who join firms when considering their own career aspirations,” says Slaughters partner Nilufer von Bismarck. “If they can’t see diversity at the top, they question their chances of success within that environment.

“We make concerted efforts to ensure that we recruit from the broadest possible talent pool. By recruiting broadly at trainee level and ensuring that the culture of a firm is inclusive, we would hope that a diverse talent pool all the way to partner level becomes the rule and not the exception.”

Linklaters’ Kate Richardson-Moore

In comparison with Slaughters, Linklaters has promoted the most BAME lawyers to its partnership. It has added 35 partners between 2016 and 2019, eight of whom are BAME – constituting 22 per cent of the overall promotions. 16 per cent (five out of 31) of Clifford Chance’s promotions were BAME. Freshfields promoted 21 associates to partner, three of whom are BAME – meaning 14 per cent – while 11 per cent (four out of 34) of A&O’s promotions were BAME.

Global head of talent and engagement at Linklaters, Kate Richardson-Moore says: “Our method is to encourage people to think of the diversity of role models. We break it down by looking at recruitment and then career progression. Recruitment has taken a long time and the numbers at a partnership level will take time to come into effect.”

The magic circle added five per cent fewer BAME partners than US firms – which promoted 100 partners in the same time frame, 17 of whom were BAME. In total, 18 per cent of US firms’ promotions were from an ethnic background.

Chinwe Odimba-Chapman, Clifford Chance

Clifford Chance employment partner Chinwe Odimba-Chapman points out that BAME associates are constantly having to blaze their own trail.

“If you’re a senior BAME lawyer looking to progress your career, you can’t look up and see many of those role models,” she says. “A lot of focus is at the graduate recruitment level but there hasn’t previously been much focus on giving BAME lawyers a sense of belonging during their journey.”

Global head of inclusion at Clifford Chance Tiernan Brady argues that at junior levels the picture isn’t as bleak. However, this success isn’t being matched once BAME lawyers are through the door. “We need to create greater support for the lawyer population from BAME community,” Brady says. “So, we can turn the figure at the top to reflect the current population at the bottom. We need to work harder.”

This view is echoed across Freshfields, Linklaters, Slaughter and May and A&O. Freshfields partner Deba Das says that there are fewer people who “look like you” and this could alienate people, leading to a situation where ethnic lawyers see partnership as something they cannot achieve. “Firms need to nurture the talent,” he says. “There has been diagnostics of issues but not resolutions.”

The overall view from the magic circle is that passive non-discrimination does not work – firms must be active. But will these words translate into action?

Creating a sense of belonging

A lack of diversity in senior positions is clear from the data. Linklaters has the highest percentage of BAME partners in London, boasting only 23 BAME partners out of 198 partners. This means that 12 per cent of the firms London partnership is from the BAME community.

Linklaters is the only magic circle firm that posts a double-digit percentage of ethnic minority partners. A&O, Clifford Chance, Slaughter and May and Freshfields all have single-digit percentage figures for partners.

Freshfields has the worst ethnic diversity within its overall partnership, with 5.1 per cent of the London partnership identifying as BAME – seven partners out of a total of 137.

Slaughter and May’s ethnic diversity isn’t much better. It has five ethnic minority partners out of 92, making up 5.4 per cent of its London partnership. There are 12 ethnic and 150 non-ethnic partners at Clifford Chance, giving a 6.8 per cent ethnic minority figure for its London partnership.

A&O has reported the second-best figures, with 9.7 per cent of partners stating they are ethnic minority, which equates to 19 BAME partners in London out of 195.

So what can firms do on a practical level? Given the small number of role models, partners from outside the BAME community must step up to champion diversity and create an all-welcoming working environment.

Deba Das, Freshfields

“I was lucky to have a very supportive senior associate as my mentor,” says Freshfields’ Das. “He wasn’t from the same background as me but was someone who was open minded and tolerant.

“I don’t think you need to be from the same background to champion diversity. I was lucky to have partners who were more interested in my abilities as a lawyer – that is something I hope the firm does across all departments. It is important people can reach their potential and are given the platform to do so.”

All magic circle firms have implemented reverse mentoring schemes. This is an initiative in which senior members of staff are paired with and mentored by another employee, often a junior lawyer, to learn about issues of diversity.

BAME lawyers are paired with senior white partners to educate them about ethnic diversity – all the firms agreed that reverse mentoring is an effective way to have frank and open conversations about diversity. At A&O managing partner Andrew Ballheimer is reverse mentored by a junior BAME lawyer about ethnicity issues. 80 per cent of partners at Slaughters are involved in its mentoring scheme.

Yet these initiatives are too early to show whether they will have any impact.

“Firms shouldn’t hide behind the time lag and make sure the proper support is provided,” says Brady.

The intersectionality conundrum

One key issue which is rarely addressed is intersectionality. The legal sector continues too split diversity and inclusion data by gender, race, religion and sexuality but firms do not report how many BAME women they employ.

From data gathered by The Lawyer, there are 174 female partners at the magic circle in London – of that only 20 are BAME. Clifford Chance has the most BAME women – six, while Linklaters, A&O and Slaughters all have four BAME women. Freshfields only has two women who identify as BAME.

All the firms acknowledge that intersectionality is important – but as Odimba-Chapman says, “There is a slight danger of trying to tackle too much, these are complex issues for people to grapple with and it helps if you can focus on particular issues.”

Brady adds: “The challenge is that you’re trying to rebalance what wasn’t there before. When you get it right you will end up with a diverse brilliant law firm that looks like the society you’re standing in. There is a huge crossover on LGBT, gender and ethnicity. Transparency drives action and we have worked internally to build up intersectionality.”

Falling foul of poor targets

Law firms have introduced policies to rebalance workforces to reflect their clients and society. Eversheds Sutherland announced new racial diversity targets last month, with the ambition that 14 per cent of its UK team, including partners, will be from a BAME background by 2022 – the figure currently stands at 11 per cent.

DWF followed suit, targeting 10 per cent BAME representation across senior leadership positions by 2022.

All the firms apart from Linklaters fell below the self-set targets established by DWF and Eversheds Sutherland, with Clifford Chance, A&O, Slaughter and May and Freshfields falling below the lowly 10 per cent mark set by DWF.

Nilufer Von Bismarck
Slaughters’ Nilufer Von Bismarck

The magic circle does not have formal targets but there are plenty of networks in place. Odimba-Chapman set up the BAME network at Clifford Chance while she was an associate, while Freshfields, A&O and Linklaters have similar groups.

Das is a member of the graduate recruitment panel at Freshfields and is an advocate for the Stephen Lawrence Scholars Programme, which is focussed on addressing the under-representation of black men from less socially mobile backgrounds in the city.

Linklaters launched its ‘Inspire’ programme in 2018, targeted to support BAME staff in advancing their career and to help the firm overcome progression barriers.

Slaughters has entered into an exclusive partnership with social mobility charity, upReach, to launch the Law Springboard, a programme designed to improve access to the legal sector for high potential undergraduates from less-advantaged backgrounds.

One issue A&O has identified is the disparity in BAME students taking up a career in Law. A&O’s diversity and inclusion manager Jo Dooley says the numbers reflect the populations going to university and law school. She identifies the black community as one which has unique challenges that may not be seen in other groups. As part of the firm’s recruitment, the firm is focussing on encouraging more young black students to study law.

Das adds: “A lot of the issues of ethnicity is about getting people to the starting line, giving BAME students training contracts and supporting diverse backgrounds getting into legal education.”

BAME lawyers struggle to positions themselves to influence policy in organisations and implement change. Despite the initiatives and schemes the magic circle has introduced, unconscious racial bias is alive and well.