Reflecting on the reasons behind the financial crisis, a senior bank executive suggested to me the other day that the board he sat on was simply too dominated by white, British, middle-aged men. The failure to encourage diversity had resulted in too many like-minded people sitting around the boardroom table, he believed. And, supported by others with a similar background, there was a collective failure to challenge the banking sector orthodoxy. The consequences are familiar to us all.
The Society’s recent research into the experiences of ethnic minority background solicitors in Scotland was far less bleak, though its conclusions should still give us all pause for thought. It found, for instance, that a third of the ethnic minority solicitors who took part felt they had been treated differently or discriminated against within the profession on the grounds of race and/or cultural background. Perhaps an improvement on previous studies, but still a cause for concern.
Likewise, ethnic minority solicitors appear significantly less likely to go on to become equity partners than their white colleagues. And the study also found evidence that some respondents were discouraged from pursuing a career in the law by family members, due to perceptions that it would be difficult to progress or because other professions were regarded as preferable, such as medicine or business.
On the positive side, the research found few examples of overt racism and around two-thirds of ethnic minority solicitors felt their ethnicity had played no part in their professional progress. Examples of good practice were also highlighted, such as anecdotal evidence of an employer ensuring a Muslim solicitor had time and privacy for daily prayer. Despite having some distance to go, there was no doubt that the profession had better embraced diversity in the past decade, according to the researchers. And that can only be good for business.
Subscribing to equality and diversity not only ensures the rights of the vulnerable are protected and the profession attracts and retains the best possible talent – it is also a central element of building a sustainable and profitable business in today’s competitive and increasingly global legal services marketplace. A diverse and vibrant legal workforce better understands the needs of different clients and customers and encourages more innovative thinking.
Not unlike the observation of the banking executive, one contributor to the Society’s research stated that “life is tough in the legal profession if you’re female, Asian and Muslim”. Bearing such concerns uppermost in our minds, the Society will lead the way in striving to eliminate discrimination in all its forms. Solicitors and their clients deserve nothing less.Lorna Jack is Chief Executive of the Law Society of Scotland