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Are Law Firms Truly Embracing Diversity?January 2, 2024
Article by Christianah Omobosola Babajide
Reading time: five minutes
The legal profession is entrusted with upholding justice and advocating for fairness. However, the stark underrepresentation of Black lawyers raises concerns.
A profession that mirrors society provides reassurance that it is fair, impartial and held accountable to everyone, irrespective of their racial or ethnic background. This goes a long way in enhancing the public’s trust in the profession and its credibility.
However, if the legal system lacks diversity, it risks overlooking the unique perspectives and experiences of marginalised groups, which can result in biased decision making and unequal access to justice.
October marks Black History Month in the UK, which is a good time to look at the importance of Black representation in the legal profession, and how mentoring can make a big difference in empowering Black lawyers and Improving diversity at all levels in the legal sector.
By actively helping and encouraging future Black lawyers through mentoring, we can make the legal profession fairer and more open to everyone.
Mentoring is not just invaluable for aspiring Black lawyers, but also diversifies the legal community that can benefit from the mentees’ unique perspectives and shared experiences.
Racial Disparities in the Legal Sector
Minority groups, specifically Black people, remain underrepresented in the legal field at all levels.
According to data published by the Solicitors Regulation Authority this year, Black lawyers represent a mere 3% of the legal profession, up from 2% in 2019. This stands in contrast to white lawyers, who make up 78% of the sector.
In addition, the statistics show that 12% of the legal workforce is Asian, 3% is from multiple or mixed backgrounds, and 1% of lawyers are from other minority groups.
While law firms and barristers’ chambers have introduced programs aimed at improving the representation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, Black and Asian lawyers remain significantly underrepresented, particularly within midsize to large law firms.
Legal Services Board Chief Executive Matthew Hill said at a recent Law Society summit that the lack of diversity at the partnership level at the biggest law firms “ought to be a national scandal.”
Mentorship programmes thus play a pivotal role in providing aspiring Black lawyers with the support and motivation they need to succeed in a profession where there aren’t many visible role models.
Race at the Bar Report
The Bar Council’s “Race at the Bar” progress report, published in November 2022, outlined the actions being taken to address race inequality across the Bar:
- The Bar is making it easier for Black students to kickstart their legal careers through programs like mentoring, work experiences, and outreach work in schools and universities;
- Barristers’ chambers and legal organisations are running initiatives to help Black barristers stay at the Bar, including by checking how the work is divided among people and offering support for well-being;
- The Bar is working to help Black lawyers advance into senior positions by monitoring earnings and work allocation, providing mentorship, and trying to have more diversity in leadership roles; and
- The Bar is trying to build a more inclusive environment and make sure everyone feels comfortable and valued, which includes providing training creating and reviewing policies to stop bullying and harassment, organising events to celebrate different cultures, and running awareness campaigns.
Chambers and organisations to improve access, retention, progression and culture within legal organisations.
Mentoring: A Good Starting Point for Changing the Status Quo
To support and retain Black professionals, law firms and barristers’ chambers should recognise the need for change.
Organisations that have a diverse workforce can market their businesses more effectively to a diverse range of clients who reflect the larger community.
The legal community should show its commitment by endorsing and participating in effective mentorship programmes.
For instance, the Qualified Black Lawyers Matter mentoring scheme, launched in July, pairs qualified Black lawyers with senior lawyers from various firms to support the retention of Black lawyers and enhance their understanding of the challenges they face.
Firms and barristers’ chambers should also promote reverse mentoring by encouraging senior lawyers to learn from aspiring Black professionals.
Mentoring has the potential to strengthen the leadership abilities of experienced lawyers by enhancing their capacity for active listening and effective communication, which ultimately boosts the overall productivity of their legal departments.
Furthermore, mentoring helps senior lawyers understand the challenges Black professionals face, enabling them to provide tailored support, which is especially valuable for those starting their training contracts or pupillages.
A good mentoring scheme not only boosts the confidence of Black mentees, but also builds stronger connections within and across law firms and organizations.
For example, the Black Solicitors Network’s Creating Pathways mentorship and sponsorship programme pairs mid-level Black associate mentees with partners at various firms or senior In-house counsel.
These mentors offer personalised guidance and career coaching to their mentees, and include regular check-ins to track progress and provide continuous support to both mentors and mentees.
This serves as a prime example of how effective mentoring can provide accomplished Black lawyers with the assistance and direction needed to elevate their legal careers.
Such a programme also helps with retention, which is important as research has found that Black lawyers often leave the profession at various career points, with most leaving before they’ve hit the seven-year mark.
Planting a Seed for the Future
It is also important to offer mentoring to support aspiring lawyers. This is because mentoring provides valuable guidance for individuals trying to enter what might seem like an exclusive profession.
By enhancing career advancement, the legal profession can lay the foundation for the growth of the next generation of talented Black lawyers within the race, ethnicity and cultural heritage community.
Successful mentoring schemes can kickstart the careers of aspiring Black lawyers across the country.
Black students can benefit from paid work experience at prestigious law firms and barristers’ chambers by having access to resources like customised masterclasses covering topics such as developing a personal brand, pathways into the legal profession and meeting client expectations.
Effective mentoring can enhance the retention and promotion of Black lawyers and increase their representation at all levels in the legal profession and business market.
Furthermore, mentoring provides Black lawyers with access to valuable information and opportunities within the legal field.
Mentors can offer insights into the nuances of the profession, including job openings, internships and invitations to exclusive legal events.
Mentoring can help individuals from marginalised groups have an equal chance to reach leadership positions and recelve fair treatment.
For example, the Commercial Bar Association student mentoring scheme encourages individuals from groups that are underrepresented at the bar to pursue a career at the commercial Bar. Mentoring schemes offer Black students an opportunity to build their peer and professional networks and develop their soft skills.
A Collaborative Effort
Mentoring is not just a tool for diversity; it is a pathway to a more inclusive and equitable legal profession.
Law firms and barristers’ chambers that invest in mentoring and fostering an inclusive environment will reap the rewards of enhanced employee engagement, improved retention rates and a developed culture of knowledge sharing.
By investing in mentorship to create a culture that supports the retention and progress of lawyers from various racial and ethnic backgrounds, we can collectively move closer to justice and fairness while marketing our businesses effectively to an increasingly diverse range of clients.
We all have a role to play in the fight for diversity, and the benefits of mentoring speak for themselves. As they say in Latin: Res ipsa loquitur.
This article was originally published as Expert Anaylsis on Law360 in October 2023.