SOLICITORS must lead way when it comes to equality and diversity across the profession, writes Neil Stevenson.
Equality is not just a desirable goal, it is laid down in legislation, and is surely particularly important for solicitors who represent an incredibly diverse range of clients.
In the past decade there has been enormous progress within the profession in relation to equality, which should be celebrated. However, as the Scottish solicitors’ professional body, we are very aware of our duties under current legislation and know that where we have seen little improvement, we have to act.
So following our renewed three-year equality and diversity strategy, published in January, we have introduced ten new equality standards for the legal profession, along with new guidance on equal pay to sit by our other equality handbooks.
Employers already have legal responsibilities in relation to equality – to every employer, not just the legal profession. In addition to dealing with particular issues such as pay, progression, and the composition of partnerships, we also believe that law firms will gain from being seen as leaders on equality by clients, employees and peers.
We were delighted the Scottish Government immediately included the ten standards in a major tender for legal services, flagging them as something law firms winning work should expect to adopt.
The ten standards are designed to apply to firms and organisations of all sizes. While they are voluntary, we are considering making them more formal “guidance” (to be considered when a complaint is made).
The new standards focus on areas where we have seen limited progress – having a named equality lead and creating an equality strategy with measurable objectives and which is informed by monitoring the workforce – and references the protected characteristics (which include gender, race, disability, sexual orientation and others).
They also include providing equality and diversity training for staff, public reporting on the strategy, publication of a statement on equal pay for larger organisations, as well as publication of gender pay gap figures and details for clients on how to access services if they have specific needs around language, formats of materials or in attending a meeting.
We have now undertaken specific equality research for the past decade, including three profession-wide surveys which generated a huge response (more than 3,000 each time).
Additional focus groups and examination of other professions and jurisdictions have formed part of our evidence base and we have carried out work with organisations including the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland and other justice bodies, on access to legal services. From this we could see strong support for developing a more prescriptive set of standards. Development work for the newly launched equality strategy took place over 2013 and 2014, and we carried out a lengthy consultation on having a simple set of core standards likely to drive improvements in key areas and on a framework to assist firms that want to show ongoing commitment. Overall support for the proposals was very positive. On the specific issue of equal pay, we must be robust. After a decade of Society guidance and 45 years of equal pay legislation, there is still a gender pay gap of up to 42 per cent visible in the profession at certain levels. As a profession we cannot ignore that.
The profession is increasingly youthful, with 56 per cent of solicitors under 45. More women than ever are choosing to become solicitors, with an almost equal (51/49) overall male/female split. However, 69 per cent of female solicitors are under 45, so we must continue to address equality issues to ensure both men and women who want to progress in their legal careers, can do so.
We want to empower individuals with information to let them ask their employers if they can guarantee equal pay is being delivered. It’s hard to provide assurance on this without an equal pay audit.
We would be delighted to work with a small number of firms on implementing the approach to create case studies for the profession, so would encourage firms to get in touch. It will be interesting to monitor the impact this has.
• Neil Stevenson is Director of Representation and Support at the Law Society of Scotland, www.lawscot.org.uk/diversity