How Scotland's law profession is acting to reach good diversity balance

The Law Society of Scotland has, for the first time, collected diversity data to provide the most complete picture of the profession yet.

Picture: Shutterstock
Picture: Shutterstock

Captured as part of the annual Practising Certificate renewal process, the data shows the legal profession in Scotland is becoming more diverse across a range of categories including ethnicity, though at a slower pace than the wider population.

More than 88 per cent of the profession is white, with at least 3.38 per cent of the profession coming from a BAME (black, asian and minority ethnic) background.

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Encouragingly, almost 7 per cent of solicitors aged under 30 now come from a BAME background.

“We are seeing a greater representation of people from BAME backgrounds who are under the age of 30 and on the degree and diploma, which is pleasing,” says Rob Marrs, head of education at the Law Society of Scotland and secretary to its Equality and Diversity Committee.

“The biggest single thing that we hear from people from BAME backgrounds at all levels, from student to partner, is a need to highlight and showcase a wide range of visible role models.

“That means not just having a BAME partner, but also showing there is a BAME solicitor two or three years ahead. That is much more powerful because it is attainable.”

Amina Amin is an associate at Kennedys law firm and a member of the Law Society’s Racial and Inclusion Group.

She agrees that while the numbers are reassuring, more needs to be done so the profession more accurately reflects society.

In ensuring it doesn’t fall behind as the BAME population in Scotland grows, she says that consciousness is key: “Awareness that change is required. Awareness that the topic of diversity and inclusivity is a difficult conversation to have. Awareness that in order for us to move forward we must be able to learn, educate and implement strategies to help promote a diverse profession.”

She also points to having fair representation at the start of the journey, such as a diverse pool of tutors at university, having mentors available to anyone entering or considering a legal career, and firms consciously fostering diversity and inclusion through active strategies.

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“This in itself will help prevent the disconnect between the legal profession and ethnic minority members,” she says. “Tracking and following up on goals is key to shifting diversity and inclusion from a moral to a business issue.

“When law firms embrace a diverse and inclusive culture everyone from solicitors to clients, everyone within the legal profession wins.”

Amin points to the Scottish Young Lawyers Association, saying: “They have done a brilliant job in creating a safe environment to have these conversations.

“They recently hosted a diversity and inclusivity round table to discuss what can be done in relation to representation.

“When we are self-aware we are forced to be more open-minded and conscious of our own emotions.

“This helps us to have more ‘emotional intelligence’ and as a result we are inherently more likely to notice our biases and be appreciative of the diversity that is in our workplace.”

The data also states that at least 4.8 per cent of the profession has a disability and that figure has risen since 2018, where comparison is possible.

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Lois Ratcliffe, internship programme manager at disabled people’s organisation Inclusion Scotland, says the rise is indicative of the profession being more accessible to those with disabilities but also of a better understanding of the definition of the term.

She highlights that the images associated with disability and the language used can create barriers.

She says: “We told the Law Society to use the Equality Act definition, which is quite broad and can include dyslexia or health conditions, such as a cancer diagnosis.

“People don’t often put themselves into that category as they don’t want to be seen as an object of pity or inspiration.

“There is also an issue around the term ‘special needs’. What we are actually needing is just simple adjustments to help people realise their potential so it should be additional.

“Potentially, [the Law Society] has used a better definition and it is about self-definition as well. We try not to use terms such as ‘disclose’, but rather ‘define’ as disabled.”

Inclusion Scotland’s living wage, 420-hour internships are helping the profession be more accessible by shifting the focus from making people with disabilities more employable to “employer ability”.

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“The underlying causes of exclusion are often not specific to an impairment or condition, but to an approach,” Ratcliffe adds.

“If employers can get their approach right to inclusion, they will be better able to respond and meet the needs of disabled people as a whole.”

The profession is also improving in being more open to those who come from less advantaged backgrounds.

The research states that the profession is becoming more state-educated – more than two-thirds – but it is still not totally reflective of the wider population.

Additionally, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to enter into a legal career than those from higher-earning households.

Legable is Scotland’s first online resource dedicated to aspiring lawyers from deprived backgrounds. Its website details the funding opportunities, work experience and mentoring schemes available across the UK.

It was founded last year by Lauren Bowie, a trainee solicitor at Pinsent Masons, who was once told that her dream of becoming a lawyer was unobtainable due to her coming from a deprived area.

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“A big issue with children whose parents are in so-called ‘non-intelligent jobs’ is a lack of self-belief that they can go into a profession such as law,” she says.

“If your parents are in a professional career you will feel you can also achieve that – but it also comes down to what is being taught in schools and how careers advisers are putting information across to people, particularly in deprived areas.”

She praises programmes such as PRIME, an alliance between UK law firms dedicated to improving access to the profession, and charity IntoUniversity, which encourages young people into further education, for helping to bridge the gap.

In addition, Bowie hopes to see solicitor apprenticeships introduced in Scotland, as she struggled to balance part-time work with full-time studying and gaining the required work experience.

“If you can see other people with a similar background to you in the profession, you will believe you can reach that too.

“That self-belief is still lacking and that really is a big pattern among people from deprived backgrounds.”

In addition, the statistics show at least 3.2 per cent of the profession identifies as LGBTQ+ and two-thirds of newly admitted solicitors are female.

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In ensuring the profession continues to be diverse and inclusive, Rob Marrs says: “What we should always be looking to do is make sure the profession reflects the society it serves.

“If someone asked me if the profession is more diverse than it was five years ago, my answer is yes, absolutely. Will it be more so in the next five years? I have every faith that it will be.”

This article first appeared in The Scotman’s Legal Review 2021