Inclusion in legal sector hampered by bias and slow progress, report finds

Inclusion in legal sector hampered by bias and slow progress, report finds
The report includes 60 recommendations to help improve inclusion within the Scottish legal profession.

Increasing diversity and inclusivity in the Scottish legal profession continues to be hampered by bias and poor representation of people from different backgrounds, it can be revealed.

The Law Society of Scotland’s Racial Inclusion Group, which was established last year, surveyed black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) members as part of a new report into racial inclusion in the Scottish legal sector.

A quarter of the society’s BAME members responded, of which three in five said they have experienced racism while qualifying and during their careers.

Of those people, more than three-quarters said this was within the last two years, from overt acts such as inappropriate use of language and physical contact, to omissions, such as inconsiderate practices.

The new report, published on Wednesday, aims to better understand the experiences of the society’s BAME members.

It found while the sector is showing a trend of increased diversity, it is “hampered by slow progress, lack of visible minority role models and experiences of bias”.

“Our data suggests, and discussions with early career professionals suggest, that the legal profession is not attracting people from all of Scotland’s communities proportionately,” it said.

The document has been published with an action plan, and includes 60 recommendations to help improve inclusion within the Scottish legal profession.

It said access to minority role models, mentoring networks and funding opportunities are key issues that need to be addressed in order to achieve more diversity throughout the profession.

One of the concerns raised pointed to a “persistent absence” of senior BAME staff in the profession.

“In their absence, there is no-one to nurture new talent with the reinforcing comfort of identity and belonging that white staff can take for granted,” the report said.

“The lack of visible ethnic minority role models within the legal sector not only deters new ethnic minority entrants to the profession, but places an undue pressure and burden on existing ethnic minority members to act as mentors and representatives in addition to their legal careers.”

The report also found nearly half of those who took part in its survey said they experienced some form of bias in relation to their race at university.

It also said students reported that they were rarely taught by people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

One of the recommendations said qualification providers, such as the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (DPLP), should ensure that those tutoring on their courses are from a diverse range of backgrounds.

A more positive finding in the report was the seemingly encouraging impact of contextualised recruitment – essentially taking a job applicant’s unique personal circumstances into account when looking at their application – and blind recruitment, a process where an individual’s name, and sometimes other potentially identifying information, is removed from an application process.

“Taking this approach puts to bed the falsehood that lawyers and potential lawyers can be judged by the results that they achieve, which is the common approach,” the report said.

“Understanding context helps employers to evaluate their candidates’ strength more robustly.

“Ethnic minorities, for example, are less likely to be able to afford unpaid internships and the associated costs that accompany them.”

The report found while removing names may reduce the risk of stereotyping, it does not mean the rest of the hiring process is free of bias.

“It is likely name-blind recruitment is a necessary step but not a sufficient one as the Society’s guidance notes ‘blind recruitment is only a positive step up to a point’,” it said.

It cannot be up to BAME members alone to fix things

Law Society of Scotland report

Other recommendations included encouraging businesses to publish ethnicity targets to ensure that “proportionate action is being taken”.

It also spoke about the benefits of “reverse mentoring”- where a senior member is mentored by a more junior employee.

“It cannot be up to BAME members alone to fix things,” the report said.

“White colleagues should educate themselves on anti-racism and their own biases, should take part in reverse mentoring, and the Society – and others – should consider how it can promote a multi-pronged approach to improve racial inclusion.”

Tatora Mukushi, a solicitor and convener of the Racial Inclusion Group, said while the profession is enthusiastic about improving inclusivity, the report is an “established truth that ethnic minorities face structural disadvantage throughout society”.

He added: “The foundational work that the profession has carried out to enhance the inclusion of women has delivered a stronger sector and exhibits the truth that we were all disadvantaged by past failures.

“We make no bolder claim than that a decisive and determined profession can open their own narrative to achieve greater inclusion and better outcomes.

“Our hope is that this report makes it clear to the profession that our business thrives on meaningful inclusion, and to all else, that we intend to achieve it.”

Ken Dalling, president of the Law Society of Scotland, said the report should be read by all in the profession.

He said: “There is good news within the report, including that the diversification of the profession appears to be quickening, although not at senior levels yet.

“However, there are parts of the report that will shock and upset many members, particularly the personal experiences of ethnic minority members and the many indignities they face at work.

“That shock must turn to action for all in the justice sector, including ourselves at the society.”