Gender equality has improved in the Scottish legal profession over the last five years, but achieving a reasonable work-life balance is the most important aspiration for many, according to a major survey carried out for the Law Society of Scotland.

Published today, the Profile of the Profession survey carried out earlier this year produced data from over 2,700 solicitors, trainee solicitors and accredited paralegals.

Almost 80% of respondents feel that gender equality has improved in the legal profession over the past five years, and the results show that the gender pay gap within the profession has reduced from 42% in 2013, when the Profile of the Profession research was last carried out, to 23% in 2018.

Achieving a work-life balance was however the most important career aspiration over the next five years for almost a third of respondents. While 73% felt they were, or mostly were, achieving a reasonable work-life balance, this issue was the most frequently given reason by the 54% who stated they had considered leaving the profession in the past five years.

Access to flexible working arrangements is beneficial in this respect; but a lower percentage of respondents reported having such access than in 2013.

While 30% of respondents who were trainees have considered leaving the profession, this figure was 69% for those who have been qualified for six to 10 years; and a higher proportion of women than men had considered leaving at nearly all levels of experience.

Promotion and progression came lower down in the priorities list, with a quarter stating this was their most important aspiration. There continue to be progression issues related to gender and ethnicity, with women tending to take longer to be made up to partner.

Carried out by independent company Rocket Science, the research examined equality and diversity of the Society’s members and highlighted some areas of concern.

A fifth of respondents, at 20%, had at some stage in their career personally experienced discrimination in the profession; 16% had experienced bullying over the past five years, and 3% reported having experienced sexual harassment.

Further, 37% of respondents with disabilities were either not provided with, or were too apprehensive to request, a reasonable adjustment at work.

Along with the report the Society has published a response with 28 recommendations to address equality and diversity issues within the profession. These include:

  • promoting the benefits of flexible working to larger employers;
  • providing unconscious bias training to the profession;
  • hosting a summit of leaders from across the profession to discuss the extent of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment and consider how to effect cultural change across the sector, committing to a zero tolerance approach; and working with other bodies in the Scottish justice sector to eliminate these issues;
  • introducing a service for disabled solicitors to support applications for reasonable adjustments and provide guidance;
  • working with employers to offer work experience opportunities to students and graduates with disabilities;
  • encouraging senior leaders in the profession to take part in an LGBT+ awareness-raising campaign;
  • working with legal employers to support their LGBT+ staff by developing clear policies, training their staff, and ensuring inclusive recruitment practices;
  • using what the Society has learned from the success of the #TheseAreOurPrinciples (LGBT+ equality) campaign and apply it to a campaign to highlight black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) role models in the legal profession;
  • targeting the Society's mentoring programme to groups which are underrepresented at senior levels within the legal profession.

Alison Atack, President of the Law Society of Scotland, commented: "I have mixed emotions about the survey results. Pleased on the one hand that while there is still more to do, we have made real progress in many areas of equality and diversity, but I am also saddened that any member of the legal profession has experienced bullying or discrimination.

"We want the Scottish legal profession to be diverse and fair, accessible to anyone with drive and talent who dreams of joining the legal profession, regardless of their background. We want people who join the legal profession to have a long, fulfilling career.

"That’s why we have worked with law firms and other employers to promote the benefits of flexible working, created equality and diversity standards, launched our wellbeing project and set up the Lawscot Foundation to support young people from disadvantaged backgrounds through their legal education journey."

Ms Atack added: "The #metoo movement has focused minds globally on bullying, harassment and sexual harassment and we have published updated guidance on preventing bullying and harassment. Diversity brings a richer, stronger profession and we have seen solicitors pushing and supporting social change. We will continue to work with employers, representative groups such as the Glass Network and SEMLA, as well as our members to ensure we stamp out bullying and discrimination in the legal profession."

Click here to access the report and the Society's response.