In 2015 Byfield Consultancy, in partnership with Funke Abimbola, conducted research into social mobility in the legal sector – this is an enduring topic. In February this year The Times reported research based on data collated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), which found that more than half (57%) of all partners in solicitor’s firms were state-school educated, and a third were women.

Across the profession as a whole, 48% of all solicitors were female and just over a fifth (21%) were from a black or ethnic minority background. However, larger City or regional firms – with more than 50 partners – were found to be less diverse than average, with women comprising just 29% partners, and at only 8% had a much lower proportion of black and ethnic minority partners than sole practitioners (38%). 

In our research, Byfield found a number of significant insights into law firm diversity amongst the top 50 UK law firms:

  • Less than a fifth of trainees (19%) did not attend the elite Russell Group of universities.
  • Women comprised a majority (58%) of firms’ new trainees, but only 24% of the partnership at these leading firms.
  • Just 10% of trainees were black or minority ethnic, a figure which drops to 4% at partner level.

However there were positive indications that firms are working to improve their diversity figures. 95% of respondents had in place a formal diversity and inclusion policy, and 86% carried out unconscious bias training.

It is clear that the legal profession, particularly in elite firms and in senior positions, is still less diverse than many would hope. However firms are aware of the need for change and are working towards this goal. Broadening the means of access to the profession at entry level is often cited as an effective method of boosting social mobility within the profession, and there is evidence that legal apprenticeships are gaining momentum.

Last year a number of leading firms linked with academic institutions to offer apprenticeship programmes, including Gowling WLG and Fieldfisher with the University of Law, and Withers and Addleshaw Goddard with BPP University Law School. It remains to be seen how successful such bids will be in the long run for widening access to the legal sector, but there are causes for optimism.

To download the report, please click here.