Achieving Change Together: empowering and supporting Black lawyers

In July 2020, we launched the Achieving Change Together (ACT) roundtables. Our roundtables create an opportunity for the legal profession to work together in achieving a more inclusive profession for all.

Woman taking place in video conference

Following the Black Lives Matter movement and a desire to have more focused discussions on Black representation and experiences within the profession, we hosted our first ACT roundtable with the subtitle 'encouraging and empowering Black solicitors'.

Representation of Black solicitors

17% of practising certificate (PC) holders who provided their ethnicity identified with a Black, Asian or minority ethnic group in 2019, in comparison to 16.5% in 2017.

Where ethnicity is provided, 3% identified as Black in comparison to 10% of members who identified as Asian.

Black solicitors are more likely to work in house: 3.2% of in-house solicitors are Black African or Caribbean.

Roundtable discussions

The roundtables initially focused on City firms and in-house legal departments.

We invited diversity and inclusion (D&I) practitioners and leads from the top 50 firms, as well as solicitors, D&I leads and HR professionals from our in-house community.

In total, there have been four roundtables.

Below is a summary of the key issues that came up in the discussions, as well as shared ideas and solutions for addressing them.

Collecting representative data is a challenge for all organisations. Low disclosure can be a result of:

  • not having the right HR systems in place
  • lack of trust between the employee and the employer

How to overcome this

  • Make sure you invest in systems that allow for an option to record multiple ethnicity groups, as well as systems that are straightforward to use
  • Staff need to feel comfortable disclosing ethnicity information. Building trust will take time. The best way to do this is to be transparent about:
    • why you're collecting data
    • what you plan to do with the data
    • why accurate data is need to support targeted work that promotes diversity and inclusion

Often, data is presented in a way that lacks granularity and so is of limited use. This is because:

  • it’s common for an organisation with multiple locations across multiple companies to collate all their diversity data and report on global figures, meaning the data does not give a true picture of the issues faced in England and Wales specifically
  • the data does not follow the lifecycle of an employee. You may have data that shows a diverse talent pool overall, but this may only be true at entry level and not at more senior levels
  • collecting data on ethnicity and putting it into a single 'BAME' group can often paint a picture that the organisation is more diverse than it is

How to overcome this

  • Ask if information is based on the right data. For example, when reporting on how many Asian people there are in a firm, is this based on the UK-only data or does it include all international offices?
  • Monitor retention and progression rates, as well as recruitment
  • Where possible, break down and analyse data of Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups (non-White) rather than just comparing White and BAME

Low application and success rates for Black talent

Less progress has been made in recruiting Black talent than from other minority ethnic groups in recent years.

How to overcome this

  • Look at your organisation’s recruitment processes. How diverse are the applications? Are there differential drop-out rates? If a method of interviewing or shortlisting criteria is the issue, consider whether it can be changed
  • Question if you really are getting the best recruits from your usual recruitment routes. Remember the benefits diversity brings in terms of innovation, problem-solving, collective knowledge and insights, and actively recruit for it – the best recruits will be diverse
  • Use a range of approaches, for example: different recruitment agencies, advertising, outreach to different universities, diverse campus ambassadors
  • Be aware of ‘self-censorship’ – candidates thinking they must have gone to a Russell Group University to access the profession and ‘fit in’
  • Provide encouragement and ensure visible Black role models are used in recruitment materials and events
  • Use virtual recruitment events to reach people outside the normal locations
  • Help develop more Black talent – target work experience opportunities, mentoring schemes and paid internships at Black students
  • Use anonymised CVs and remove other identifiers like university names, languages and hobbies when shortlisting
  • Involve a D&I practitioner to help identify where bias may enter the recruitment process and challenge decision-making
  • Consider the interviewing panel – are they diverse? Have they been trained in how to avoid bias?

Retention

Black solicitors are less likely to stay more than two years in an organisation in comparison to their White counterparts.

How to overcome this

  • Consider how welcoming your culture and working environment is to Black talent. Are they likely to feel they belong?
  • Consider what happens outside of office hours and at work events. What kind of celebrations or expectations are there around socialising and networking?
  • Allies are important. Who are the champions of diversity and inclusion when Black people are not in the room?

Less than 2% of partnership consists of Black solicitors. Black solicitors are more likely to become sole practitioners as it's seen as the only way to progress.

How to overcome this

  • Review methods for work allocation and ensure you’re giving the same opportunities to work on high-value matters. It’s hard to progress if you have not had the same level of experience as others
  • Consider sponsorship as well as mentoring (having an influential person who takes an active role in identifying opportunities and recommending Black colleagues for projects or roles)
  • Personal development plans can help. They need to focus on personal and professional goals and build on achievements

There were mixed views on the use of targets at the roundtables. Some thought they had the potential to be divisive and counter-productive.

However, targets were seen as beneficial in monitoring progress and keeping organisations accountable. An increasing number of law firms are setting ethnicity targets.

How to do this

  • Use the data you have on representation to inform the targets you’re setting. For example, if data shows a low proportion of Black men are recruited at associate level, this finding should be the focus of your target
  • Have a clear, overall goal for targets to work and a well-understood business case for diversity and inclusion
  • Monitor the targets regularly to see if change is being made. Evaluate the success of actions you put in place to help achieve the targets, so that you can learn and adapt where necessary

You can find more information on target setting in our toolkit for organisations on promoting race inclusivity in the workplace.

If the culture is not inclusive, you will not fully benefit from diversity and will lose the diversity within your organisation.

Employees must feel welcome and feel a sense of belonging to be their authentic selves at work.

Organisations need to ‘own’ the conversation about race and face up to some challenging issues to make progress.

How to do this

  • This requires senior management buy-in and genuine commitment: not just saying the right words but going to meetings, being in conversations, and driving action
  • Ethnic minority groups and individuals should not be expected to always lead conversations about race equality. It’s a responsibility for all colleagues
  • You cannot fake culture. If you do, people will leave the organisation. If you’re not addressing issues, people will leave
  • Do not accept the status quo if it’s not right. Collaborate to achieve change

Move beyond BAME

'BAME' (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) has become increasingly used to describe ethnic minorities as one homogenous group.

BAME is not an identity. It can also give a false impression of the state of diversity in the profession and the specific experiences of different minority ethnic groups.

How to do this

  • It’s important to discuss terminology and update your use of language
  • We should aim to become more ‘race fluent’ and be comfortable talking about different groups and naming them in the workplace
  • Inclusion and belonging is important. What matters is representation. Labels are not helpful if they do not represent people

Listen to our podcast: Is BAME problematic?

Black solicitors participating in our roundtables described the culture in private practice as “not for me”, which is why many said they had moved in house.

Individuals reported that as they progressed to more senior positions in private practice, networking became more important. Black solicitors said they did not always feel at ease or comfortable with clients and felt pressured to change their personalities to be accepted.

While many believed things were better in house, there were still challenges around culture, career progression and data, as highlighted at our in-house roundtable.

Corporates recruit in-house lawyers from magic circle law firms. Magic circle firms have a low proportion of Black talent, meaning that organisations that recruit from these firms are fishing from small pools.

How to overcome this

  • Start to diversify the pool, looking at a wider range of employers including small and medium firms. Many Black law graduates do not get training contracts at magic circle firms or leave soon after qualifying if they do
  • Recruit Black talent from within. There's a high proportion of overseas qualified Black solicitors doing paralegal roles in-house (for example, Nigerian solicitors). If talent is already within the organisation, look at ways to train and recruit Black employees before going out for external hire