The Lack of Diversity in the Legal Sector: A Discussion

Law Firms have not escaped the current recruitment challenges facing organisations across sectors, but with the added difficulties of salary increases and fierce competition, Legal sector recruitment is reaching a crisis point. 

With input from Amberjack’s 2022 Early Talent Insights Reports, actionable advice from GROW Mentoring’s Lucy Cole, and more, this discussion addresses the current state of the Legal Sector, and what can be done to combat the challenges at hand. 

Amberjack’s 2022 Insights Report for Diversity and Inclusion highlights the main areas of focus for employers right now, with Social Mobility, Ethnicity, Gender, and Disability ranking as the top four areas of concern. 

Legal sector data collected for Insights, reveals that using Amberjack’s Model for Potential has helped achieve some excellent results, with 28% of applications coming from BAME backgrounds (4.4% applications from Black candidates, and 18% from Asian candidates), and 60% of applications coming from women. Potential-based hiring seems to provide interesting opportunities for Law Firms, but how does this compare to the industry at large? 

The State of Diversity in The Legal Sector 

Research by the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority in the late summer of 2021, explored 8,782 SRA regulated firms, comprising of 181,333 individuals. They found that: 

  • 52% of lawyers are women, but the seniority gap between female partners and solicitors remains significant 
  • 17% of lawyers are BAME, comprising of 12% Asian, 3% Mixed, 2% Black, and 1% Other 
  • 5% of lawyers are disabled, compared to 14% for the overall UK workforce 
  • 23% of lawyers attended a ‘fee-paying’ school, compared to just 7.5% for the general population 
  • Only 17% of lawyers come from a low-socioeconomic background 

These statistics paint a stark picture. From disability, to social mobility, to race, minority groups are significantly underrepresented in law firms in comparison to the general population. 

When you combine this with organisations such as Clifford Chance, reporting on the ‘social mobility pay gap’ for the first time, revealing a 44% difference in average pay between staff from working class and ‘professional’ backgrounds, it’s clear that diversifying law is an uphill battle. 

In addition to these challenges, staff turnover is on the rise. Before the pandemic, Law Firms operated with a very traditional way of working, and while many individuals wish to return to this, to combat the burn-out of long home-working hours, and the mistrust of their bosses, others want more flexibility and the geographical freedom that comes with working from home. 

With the Legal sector currently battling between welcoming new, more diverse, candidates and trying to retain the talent they already have, we are taking a deep dive into what changes can be implemented to help firms reach their goals. 

A Mandate for Change 

The SRA’s research clearly points to needed changes for the Legal sector. Most significantly, more needs to be done to encourage more disabled, socioeconomically diverse, and Black hires. 

Ethically, focusing on improving diversity is the right thing to do, helping to provide opportunities for minority groups and increase representation in the industry. Additionally, when you consider that law firms with a focus on diversity see increased productivity, and help bolster public trust, pursuing diversity is a simple choice to make. 

This decision is critical to a well-rounded, effective, and resilient organisation. Different perspectives bring a wider range of thinking, providing more strategies and ideas to tackle challenges and growth goals. A variety of backgrounds create more inclusive companies, contributing to a sense of employee belonging and wellness. Furthermore, many clients, working to improve diversity within their own workforce, will want to see that same representation in the legal teams they choose to support them. 

Creating Change 

Creating change doesn’t need to start with huge organisational projects. To diversify your hires, you can take small yet influential steps, or consider overhauling traditional methods, below are just a few examples of the variety of tactics you can employ. 

Let’s start at the beginning; Attraction 

Attracting candidates is a challenge across sectors right now. Our own Insights data revealed Attraction as the second biggest challenge for recruiting graduates and apprentices in the 2021/22 season, falling behind only Diversity and Inclusion. Making attracting diverse candidates a number one priority for organisations right now. For law firms, whose processes are often derived from traditional practices and pesrpectives, expanding the pool of talent you’re targeting is an easy way to start diversifying. 

As the SRA data showed, 23% of lawyers went to ‘fee-paying’ schools, in comparison to only 7.5% of the general population. The selective hiring often used by firms, whether that be by targeting individuals from fee-paying schools or Russel Group universities, is the Legal sector’s vice. 

By considering a larger pool of talent, and targeting non-Russel Group institutions, not only are you providing opportunities to candidates who may not have been able to access you before, but you also improve your chances of hiring the person who is the best suited for a particular opening. 

Analysing how you assess your candidates 

The stages you put your candidates through and how you assess them is another avenue for increasing your diversity. 

It’s key to consider what your recruitment practices look like: are they manual? Where automation helps standardise the assessment for each candidate, manual processes can allow bias to sneak into your recruitment as personal and unconscious opinions inevitably influence decision making. 

How many stages does your process have? Making your candidates jump through hoops not only disengages them, but also harms your ability to find the best talent. Numerical and verbal tests, which take place separately and prior to an assessment centre, might sift out talent on just one skill, when they excel in other areas. A blended assessment such as our Future Potential Assessment can help ensure this doesn’t happen, helping you to assess the whole individual before deciding if they’re right for your workforce. 

This is one of the most effective ways to expand your hiring horizons and recruit a diverse workforce for the future – hire for potential. To use CVs, experience, and place of education as a requirement for your roles, is to hire based on privilege. Individuals from low socio-economic backgrounds may not have had access to opportunities such as internships, volunteering, or fee-paying schools and services, but this doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be a good fit. For example, the Social Mobility Commision found that in seven leading law firms, employees educated at state schools are 75% more likely to feature in the top decile of performers than those educated at independent schools. Subsequently, by limiting the size of the pool you fish from, you limit the talent you have access to. 

Assessing for Potential results in increasing your Social Mobility and Diversity. Amberjack’s Model for Potential helps recruiters identify Grit, Applied Intellect, Digital Mindset, and Creative Force in candidates. These four key pillars are the foundation for finding individuals with resilience, the possibility to grow and progress, and the ability to challenge the status quo. 

Assessment Centres 

Ensuring the diverse hires that you’re attracting can actually make it through your process is key. From your requirements, to what you’re assessing for, consideration at each stage is crucial, and getting diverse candidates through to your assessment centres is the next step.  

An easy implementation for your process is Contextualised Recruitment. Contextualised Recruitment involves taking an applicant’s unique circumstances into account when reviewing their application and assessment scores. 

Amberjack partner with a Contextualised Recruitment Software (CRS) which combine ‘flags’, such as a free-school meal ‘flag’ for Social Mobility, and the candidate’s ‘scores’ in the application process to make decisions on individuals who are on the borderline of ‘accepted score’ for our Future Potential Assessment. 

For example, if a firm uses our Future Potential Assessment, and accepts candidates who achieve a score of 20, they can look to fill up any remaining Assessment Centre spots with candidates who got 18 or 19. If there are candidates who got a borderline score and have CRS flags, a firm can pick them first.  

These CRS tools are particularly useful for organisations looking to contextualise their recruitment for a high volume of hires. 

This is important because gaining top grades at a ‘deprived’ school is likely to have been more difficult than gaining them from an academically selective school, in a wealthy area.  

Contextual recruitment practices reflect how the same level of attainment can signal different levels of talent, dependent on the circumstances in which the grades were achieved.

The Sutton Trust

The TRUST Model 

Our last bit of advice comes from GROW Mentoring’s, Lucy Cole. GROW Mentoring supports students from all backgrounds to help reduce barriers in the legal profession. At RecFest 2022, Lucy introduced the TRUST Model to an audience in the Early Careers Zone, discussing how to engage Gen Z talent at your organisation. 

The TRUST Model looks at steps that can be taken to grow and expand the pool of talent you’re looking to attract. 

T – Team 

  • First impressions count, use them to show your organisation at its best. 
  • Encourage your team to be visible. This goes for team members at a variety of seniority levels; graduate and apprentice talent want to see the environment and people they are likely to be directly involved with. Your team is the centre of your brand. 

R – Representation 

  • Following on from the above points, representing the organisation across levels, and putting them in the room or in content directly available to students is key. 
  • At a student level, showing individuals that look like them, and how they will fit into the organisation is crucial for them to feel like everyone can represent themselves. 
  • Dress codes are important to reconsider. Even though law firms are more traditional in their approach to dress codes, relaxing them slightly will not hurt your organisation. In fact, Early Talent entering the workforce want to feel comfortable when they work, so it may help you stand out among other legal employers! 

U – Understanding 

  • Seek feedback! Understanding the opinions of your audience is an easy route to knowing what they want. This allows you to act on any issues and show you care about the wants and needs of those you might hire. 

S – Social Media 

  • It’s no secret that the new generation of talent use social media. Expanding the content you create to social platforms is a simple way to get in front of them. 
  • Create value-led content pillars. Your potential candidates want to see what you’re all about. Do you actively work on and embody your organisation’s values? Show it! 
  • Highlight your juniors! Showing off your entry-level talent is important, these are the people that new talent considering entering your teams want to see! 
  • Consider multiple formats. From interviews, videos, text posts, and visuals, everything can be used to engage applicants! 

T – Transparency 

  • Providing a transparent breakdown of your recruitment statistics is important to your applicants, especially those from Generation Z. They like to be able to see if you’re committed to diversity and inclusion, and what you’re doing achieve this. For many, the demonstration of an organisation’s commitment to diversity, or not, can make or break whether they will apply to you. 
  • Be open to, and start, constructive conversations. If your statistics don’t currently boast the level of diversity you’d like, can you talk about what you’re doing to change this? It can be helpful to get the opinion of the very people you’re looking to recruit. 

Providing Opportunities 

To conclude, there are many barriers and hurdles to increasing diversity within law, but not every action needs to involve huge change and upheaval. Some steps can be implemented easily, and can help kickstart your organisation’s journey to achieving more diverse hires. 

Providing opportunities for applicants from a variety of backgrounds is not about simply favouring them over other candidates, but it’s about giving them the chance to represent their best self, where they may not previously have had the ability to do so. 


Below we’ve put together a mini hub for you to discover more information and guidance on improving your organisation’s D&I. 

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