John Forsyth: Law society survey aims for sharper picture

Neil Stevenson. Picture: TSPL
Neil Stevenson. Picture: TSPL
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More than 13,000 solicitors and trainees are to be asked to contribute to a major study into the legal profession in Scotland.

The Law Society of Scotland is carrying out the third sweep in its series of equality and diversity surveys of its members. The aim of the ten-minute questionnaire is to collect information on the current demographic shape of the profession and its working patterns. It will ask solicitors for their views on – and experiences of – a range of equality-related issues, including any discrimination they have experienced.

Neil Stevenson, director of representation and professional support at the society, says: “This is our equivalent of the census.

“The legal sector continues to go through a period of rapid change and it’s important for us to be able to collect information about our members to 
ensure that we can represent them properly to government and other interested parties, and also so that we, as our members’ professional body, provide the right kind of support on particular issues.”

The survey is being carried out by independent researchers MVA Consultancy, which will provide a statistical summary and anonymised report to the society in the autumn.

Stevenson says that because it is the third sweep of the research it is likely to be a better indicator of trends: “Inevitably, previous surveys were the equivalent of snapshots. But as we accumulate data we get a deeper understanding of what the bare statistics are telling us about our members and the way they see their place in the profession. ”

For example, previous surveys revealed that women are under-represented as partners and equity partners despite their numerical dominance in entering the profession over the last two decades. Questions in the survey will gather information on how much that apparent discrepancy is due to cultural barriers within firms or practical barriers placed in front of women who have worked more flexibly, or whether becoming a partner is no longer the priority it was 
assumed to be at a time of great change within the sector.

“We need to know whether the 70 per cent dominance of women entering the profession for such a long time is an indicator of barriers to men that need to be addressed,” Stevenson says.

It is the biggest survey so far and for the first time will include individuals who do not have a practising certificate but who pay the permitted nominal fee that retains their presence in the profession.

Previous equality research led to work to combat bullying, a challenge to improve equal pay and changes to policy for those entering the profession.

“We have also been able to put paid to the myth that the legal profession is an old boys’ network. In 2009 only around 6 per cent of all respondents reported that either parent worked in the legal sector,” Stevenson adds.

MVA Consultancy is also carrying out a six-week court user satisfaction survey for the Scottish Courts Service. The exit survey of users, including lawyers, will cover factors including: treatment by SCS staff in terms of politeness and helpfulness; information supplied by SCS staff before attending and while at court; distance travelled and time taken to attend court; time spent waiting to take part in proceedings, or at a service counter; cleanliness and comfort of accommodation and toilets; and adequacy of facilities for people with special requirements.

The survey, which runs until 12 July, will cover the High Court of Justiciary, Court of Session, all sheriff courts and nearly all justice of the peace courts.