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Opening up or shutting out? New report assesses social mobility in the legal sector


13 OCTOBER 2015

Opening up or shutting out? New report assesses social mobility in the legal sector

Over 80 per cent of legal trainees are from Russell Group universities with female and BME representation dropping by over 50 per cent at partner level

Leading legal communications agency Byfield Consultancy today publishes an important and timely new report on social mobility and diversity in the British legal industry. “Opening up or shutting out? Social mobility in the legal profession ”, a joint effort between Byfield Consultancy and diversity champion and award winning lawyer leading the legal team at Roche UK, Funke Abimbola, includes the results of a survey of the top 50 UK law firms and their approach to social mobility and diversity.

The survey highlights the persistence of gender and social imbalances in leadership positions across private practice firms. For example, the majority (58%) of trainees in the firms surveyed are female, but the figure drops to 24% at partner level. 10% of trainees are Black and Minority Ethnic but the percentage drops to 4% at partner level. Education is still a main hurdle for wider access to the profession, with just 19% of surveyed trainees holding a degree from a university outside of the Russell Group.

Encouraging signs come from wide-spread awareness of the challenges law firms are facing on the social mobility and diversity arenas. 95% of the top 50 City law firms surveyed have a formal diversity and inclusion policy in place and the vast majority (86%) carry out unconscious bias training. Quantitative measures remain a divisive tool to achieve more balanced representation, with only 19% of firms setting diversity targets or quotas. The survey suggests that clients are driving more tangible measures, with more and more companies questioning diversity when assessing their external law firm panels. However, results show that while gender, race and LGBT levels are still high on the agenda, disability and background comes lower down in the pecking order for law firms and businesses looking at diversity measures.

Written by award-winning journalist Jon Robins, the report also includes case studies and interviews with distinguished figures in the sector, including Lady Justice Hallett, who sits in the Court of Appeal. She commented: “Judges can only come from the legal profession, where the proportion of women at the top is disappointingly small. This picture sadly is not unique to the law – there are too few women newspaper editors, too few MPs and Cabinet Ministers and not enough directors of FTSE 100 companies.” Interviews also highlighted the vital role of publicly funded law in allowing access to the profession to a diverse talent pool.

Gus Sellitto, Managing Director of Byfield Consultancy, commented: “The aim of this research was to determine to what extent the law has become a more inclusive profession in the three years since the Milburn Report and provide proposals for best practice to percolate through the legal sector.”

The key recommendations on the report for the profession are:

  • Agree and maintain a set of key diversity data;
  • Commit to being transparent about such data;
  • Agree to the adoption of social mobility targets rather than quotas;
  • Promote recruitment practices to broaden intake;
  • Broaden access at entry level with apprenticeships, early outreach programmes, mentoring and sponsoring;
  • Promote unconscious bias training.

Funke Abimbola, Managing Counsel of Roche Products Limited, commented: “Social mobility challenges and lack of diversity are some of the biggest issues facing the legal sector. From the most senior judiciary – there are no Black, Asian or Minority ethnic judges in the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court – to high street firms and universities, more needs to be done to push for access to this profession for all who are able. Our report offers a fresh and frank dialogue on what the legal world of Britain looks like in 2015. We hope it can lead to new initiatives and help to change the profession in years to come.”

Gus Sellitto, Managing Director of Byfield Consultancy, added: “This piece of research is a very meaningful addition to the social mobility debate in the UK legal landscape. It demonstrates law firms understand the importance of diversity and are experimenting with measures to bring about change. Not only do they use CSR initiatives to support diversity, some also venture into unconscious bias training and blind CV recruitment processes. The message is getting through but there needs to be more support at every level of the profession.”


Notes on the research

  • The report draws on questionnaires sent to HR departments of the top 50 UK law firms.
  • The survey was designed to measure whether the legal sector is driving activity to change access to the legal profession.
  • Over half (26) of these firms responded to the anonymous survey.
  • A number of individuals were subsequently interviewed in-depth about the themes that emerged from the analysis.
  • A copy of the full report is available at

For further information, please contact:

Valentina Moressa, Byfield Consultancy, 020 7092 3981, or

Natalie Cush, Byfield Consultancy, 020 7092 3985 or

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