So today I want to talk about diversity – and more specifically the lack of it within the legal industry. This is something I feel strongly about – maybe because I’m a woman, maybe because my name is Houdah Al-Hakim, maybe because my partner is black – there are many reasons but I thought I would say my piece. Not only have I been personally affected but every day I speak to candidates who have become at some stage in their career a victim to the system. I would go so far as to suggest many people do not even realise when they enter the legal profession that they are going to have to fight much harder than their counterparts to reach the top.
Stats will tell you that although junior lawyers are fairly equally split male and female, the senior positions at law firms and barristers’ chambers are overwhelmingly dominated by one demographic – white, middle-class males. Now before I go any further I want to make it very clear that I am in no way suggesting that white middle-class males or any other denomination are not deserving, have not worked hard and are not highly capable lawyers. The point I wish to make throughout is that this is not an equal playing field and in this day and age I would suggest this is now an issue that should be addressed as a priority – first and foremost to protect an industry that is in danger of losing out on top quality talent.
The Law Society’s most recent annual statistics report in 2016 shows that 48.8% of practising certificate holders are women, but still only 29% are partners (dropping even further in the magic circle).
The report also shows that in terms of ethnicity, White/Europeans make up 75% of practising certificate holders compared to:
African Caribbean – 0.7%
Other ethnic group 2.5%
Only 11.1% of partners come from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.
So, why is this? Is it an issue? Does it need to be addressed? Is the legal profession suffering because of this? Are individuals suffering because of this? Some food for thought.
There is a prevailing view among many (yes – there really is) that no action should be taken to combat discrimination, especially gender as this risks undermining the principle that employers should hire the best person for the job, regardless of gender, race or disability. Alongside this runs the notion that there is no ingrained ‘glass ceiling’ in law and that determined women, ethnic minorities and any other class of person that don’t fit the more privileged middle to upper class background – can and do, with the right qualities rise to the top. And as an example, there are indeed many successful women in senior roles in the legal profession, from partners in law firms to QCs and judges. There are also many successful Black, Asian and Middle Eastern lawyers who are gaining high powered positions – but a glance at the statistics show that these people are exceptions to the general rule. This surely then leads to the conclusion that structural inequality must exist if the rest of us are not making it into senior positions in anywhere near the same numbers as Caucasian men?
If so, this is not meritocracy.
ETHNIC DIVERSITY – WHY THE UNBALANCE?
My personal opinion – and a bold statement to make – is that the legal industry discriminates against those people whose parents and/or grandparents were not born in this country. Let me explain.
I personally come from a unique background. My mother is Irish, born and raised on a farm with 10 siblings. My father is Iraqi and came from a relatively well-off background until he was forced to the UK to escape the regime back home. Skip to the 70’s they both abandon ship and end up in Liverpool – both studying – both not a penny to their names and both just surviving. My father studied, completed his PHD and became an engineer and my mother became a nurse. 10 years on I was born.
I grew up in a white area and would perhaps class myself as “upper working class”. I attended a grammar school, went to a “red brick” university (purely on the basis that Leeds had a good party reputation and was close enough for me to drive home at the weekend to get my washing done) and found myself in London years on as a qualified solicitor. It was not an easy route and being that we were just coming out of the recession at the time I certainly struggled to get to that point.
I would class myself as lucky. Lucky I had parents that made good decisions, lucky they brought me up in an area with good schools, lucky to have had the financial, emotional and every other type of support it takes to get yourself through university, law school and a training contract. Not everyone is that lucky. Not everyone’s parents made, or perhaps more accurately, were even able to make those decisions and not everyone ESPECIALLY those from BAME backgrounds have the same opportunities. When people come from another country – whether by choice or not, there is inevitably a period of starting again – starting from nothing and building. There is no financial stability, no networks and more often than not, a lack of institutional understanding.
It is a fact that many 1st and 2nd generation immigrants and refugees (perhaps thanks to Thatcher days) have ended up in certain geographical areas, often attending lower performing schools and placed into an environment with an ingrained sense that opportunities are few and hard to come by – and so a cycle begins. Some adapt quickly but others need more time and this is a fact the industry must understand if it wishes to truly level the playing field.
THE NAME MATTERS
By not recognising the above, the legal industry, whether unconsciously or not, discriminates against those individuals who, due to absolutely no fault of their own, lacked the knowledge, understanding and often resources to get into the “right institutions” and/or build networks in the “right circles”. By continuing to place a heavy importance on what schools and universities individuals attended, rather than judging the individual on their actual merits (which occurs only once they get their foot in the door for interview) the industry continues to fail these lawyers.
In London for example, where competition is fierce, my experience would suggest that applicants with a red brick university or leading grammar school/public school on their CV are almost guaranteed an interview above others who do not. While some firms have sought to address this education bias, the stats are still hard to argue against:
“51% of partners in magic circle firms (educated in the UK) attended independent fee-paying schools” – The Sutton Trust’s report Leading People 2016.
The industry is discriminating against those that did not get into, choose to go to, or simply didn’t realise they should be going to a red brick or established university. This lack of opportunity however has absolutely no reflection on these individuals’ ability, intelligence and/or tenacity to succeed. Because despite of everything they still passed their GCSE’s, they still got their A-levels and they still completed university. They may not have attended the “best” university but they did all of this, with more often than not, a lot less support than their middle to upper class counterparts. Do these candidates not deserve a chance to fulfil the abundance of potential they so obviously have?
Now for some real context. I work for the London market – I am the middle (wo)man. I filter CVs and send those that I feel are most appropriate – my clients (I hope) trust my opinion. My firms want to see candidates’ names, they want to see what university they went to (even I get excited when I get an Oxbridge candidate – because I know they are almost always guaranteed an interview) and they want me, as part of my role to introduce the candidate to them as I have presumably met or spoken to them and thoroughly vetted their suitability. Now it is a fact that there are a number of firms that would not consider a candidate unless they saw top universities on that CV. It would not matter whether in my personal opinion this candidate was the most capable person for the role – without the “names” they won’t even get an interview which means they are given no opportunity to prove what they can offer.
Personally I believe all law firms should have a blind CV policy. If we are judging someone on paper, off their own merits why does their name and/or where they live, went to school or went to university have any bearing? Firms can then use the interview process to fairly judge candidates.
AN (UNDERWHELMING) ATTEMPT AT CHANGE?
In (what should be seen as) a positive move to proactively tackle institutional discrimination, the legal industry introduced an alternative way to become a solicitor, an option for those unable to take the time out for full time university study (which is more often than not, those coming from a working class background).
ILEX. A fantastic option that opens the industry to many more applicants. So why am I even mentioning it? From my experience, those that have gone down the Ilex route are far less well considered – particularly when there is high competition for roles. You would think that someone that balanced studying and working because they were so determined to make it as a solicitor would be favourably looked on? Unfortunately not. In my experience the industry continues to place a strong preference on the traditional trainee route.
WOMEN NEED TO BE MORE PATIENT PLEASE
And now a look at gender equality (or lack of) within the legal sphere.
One of the 12 Supreme Court Judges (only one of which is a woman) and one of the most senior judges in the Country, Lord Justice Sumption, recently advised that women should be patient and that it will take another 50 years to achieve gender equality in the senior judiciary. His argument? That moving “quickly” to address the imbalance would put off talented male lawyers and lower the quality of the UK justice system…
If we contemplate for a moment, that the current gender disparity at the top of the legal profession is due to meritocracy and not due to any obstacles facing women we are implicitly suggesting that gender inequality within the profession is as a result of most women simply not being good enough for (or wanting) the higher position roles. If there is no “glass ceiling” the only logical argument must be that women are just not up to scratch?
A gender biased promotion process?
Now obviously (and if this isn’t obvious to you – you are reading the wrong blog), the reason women are not progressing is clearly not because they don’t have the same intellectual capacity as men. Women constantly outperform men in many academic areas and as above, the entry into the legal profession for men and women is fairly equal – so why therefore why aren’t women progressing? Frankly (in my opinion), institutional sexism most certainly has something to do with this. Sumption’s comments about how a rush for gender parity would have terrible consequences for justice are just one such example of this. His comments basically translate to: women are simply not as up to the job in equal numbers to men.
Women are constantly over-looked when it comes to being promoted to senior positions and (unsurprisingly) it is senior men who are often in charge of that process. Sumption’s view that women should wait another 50 years for equality is exactly what was said to women 50 and 100 years ago and equality still hasn’t ensued! Incrementalism has failed. The reality is – if promotion and career progression is controlled by one particular demographic population then likely we will continue to see minimal change in the coming years. As the current trend continues – and whether it is conscious decision making or not, gender (and race) discrimination will continue.
Children – the end of your career?
I couldn’t even count the amount of times in my career and life in general, I have heard (from both men and women) on news that a female member of staff is pregnant – “this is why I prefer hiring men”. And don’t get me wrong, to an extent, I do get it – yes it may be frustrating (momentarily, I hasten to add), especially for small businesses with limited resources when a member of staff has to take time out, but such is life! The world needs babies – and quite frankly women are doing a great job at making them!
My role at Chadwick Nott, as head of The Alternative Careers Team, means I often speak to individuals, men and women, about wanting to do something different, something more flexible which allows them to balance “A life” alongside work. I speak to more women than men in general as more often than not it is the women that have a balancing act to play (Superman? It should have been Superwoman!) and it is the women that come to me wondering how on earth they are going to balance life, home and kids alongside the career that they are desperate to maintain. And luckily for me and them, I do have some incredible clients – clients that genuinely understand that by offering a level of flexibility they are building a strong and loyal workforce.
Part-Timers are only Part-Committed
The flip side of this is I couldn’t tell you how many times I have sat in law firm briefings being told they won’t consider candidates looking for a 4 day working week or flexible hours because they want someone who is “committed”. What this position fails to understand is the vast majority of people working part time work far harder during those hours and are far more productive during their time than their full-time counterparts. “Work smarter not harder” is a great rhetoric these senior lawyers should understand!
I agree that at the end of the day, a lawyer’s primary job is to service the clients, but I strongly disagree that part-time and flexible working needs to mean a lesser service to clients. Law firms with their vast resources need to step up and put better systems in place to support those working flexibly to ensure there is always a contact available to clients even on said lawyers day off – or during those hours said lawyer has gone to do the school run before said lawyer logs back on after hours. It’s not difficult, it just requires some genuine effort.
Implementing proper flexible working practices at law firms could also become a critical factor in helping more women reach senior roles (or so you would hope). Currently men are twice as likely as their female peers to be promoted to partnership in a given year, and three times as likely to be made equity partners. In reality this likely boils down to the fact that firms are more reluctant to offer partnership to employees working part-time or flexibly.
Law firms should invest in the infrastructure required to make it easier for lawyers to work remotely and adjust performance metrics to allow fewer hours of facetime, both of which promote the message that a 24-hour day at the office isn’t the only way to succeed. An increase in the number of part-time roles available would also improve the working life of lawyers with children, which in turn will only strengthen their long-term commitment to the firm.
The need for ACTUAL change
In my (humble) opinion – there are many things that can and should be addressed. Law firms are more than capable of putting in systems to address inequality and take positive action to drive change rather than merely paying lip service to it. And on that point specifically – just because a law firm has an “equality and diversity” policy doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Having ran my own business I know this is merely a piece of paper – something you can refer to when applying to be Lexcel accredited or something to read off when you host your annual “equality and diversity” seminar – it more often than not does little to create or effect actual change and certainly not to the extent that this industry needs.
Simple changes are capable of having huge results.
RECOGNISE A WOMAN’S CONTRIBUTION
Law firms should have much better options in place for women. Without women there would not be another generation, without women the legal system and in fact the world in general would cease to exist and so the legal industry should be making a concerted effort to prove they value women’s contribution to both the workforce and society in general. Imagine if a law firm offered to pay full childcare costs for women – how many women would then feel more comfortable returning back to full-time work? How many top calibre women would be banging down the doors of that firm to join? Right now as I see it, women are having to sacrifice their career or level of career success due to a lack of genuine support. Many lawyers go in-house or move to smaller firms as they see this as their only option. These same women who have spent years building client relationships only to benefit a firm who now lacks that same commitment.
EMBRACE THE POWER OF OUR DIVERSITY – DON’T JUST TICK THE BOX
We live in a multi-cultural society – our borders have been fluid for some time and this wonderful little country has (amazingly) allowed people from every denomination an opportunity to prove themselves – now I think it’s time to make a conscious and REAL effort to level the playing field. Our work crosses borders and our clients are made up from businesses across the globe. The more diverse our teams the more likely we are to build stronger and more genuine relationships with a broader range of clients. Men and women equally offer alternative strengths, the same as different cultures and races are able to offer alternative perspectives. It is important law firms truly understand this if they want to continue to grow and compete in this market.
At the end of the day a diverse legal profession can and will meet the needs of its clients much more effectively.
A FINAL WORD
As Head of the Alternative Careers and PSL team at Chadwick Nott I have worked with a number of firms that have embraced the importance of diversity and flexible working, but there is still much work to be done across the legal industry and indeed throughout the corporate world as a whole (sorry another blog for another day!). If this blog stirs even one more law firm into action to change their approach towards diversity for the better, then I will consider my effort a success!
If you would like to have a confidential discussion about options for non-fee earning or flexible positions or even more generally about diversity in the legal sector, please contact me – Houdah Al Hakim on tel 0203 096 4559, mob 07468 716441 email firstname.lastname@example.org