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A boost for diversity
Law Society Gazette – 12 September 2003

As the Law Society backs the Black Solicitors Network, other groups are battling to end discrimination against ethnic minority solicitors in law firms, reports Mark Smulian

Do black solicitors need their own network? Do they have distinct interests? Or are they simply solicitors who happen to be black?

Questions such as these have been around for several years, and the Law Society has now answered the first two in the affirmative by granting official recognition to the Black Solicitors Network, a status that means the organisation can gain funding and administrative support from Chancery Lane.

This puts network members on the same footing as groups such as the Young Solicitors Group, Association of Women Solicitors and the Group for Solicitors with Disabilities.

The Society's statistics show that some 7% of practising solicitors are from ethnic minorities, up from 6.6% the previous year, most of them women.

But the fact that ethnic minority students made up 25% of those doing law degrees, 22.3% of those on the legal practice course (LPC), 18% of those in training contracts and 16.4% of those admitted to the roll, suggests that their presence in the profession will increase rapidly in the next few years.

The network was set up in 1995 by a group consisting largely of legal aid solicitors based in London, although there is also a Birmingham group.

Its chairwoman, London sole practitioner Yvonne Brown, says the Society's funding, the exact amount of which is yet to be agreed, will be used to launch a Web site, offer advice to students, and hold seminars and conferences.

Activities such as these should help the network to boost its current 150-strong membership to its target of 500 in two years. Its status means that black solicitors have to opt into membership and will not be automatically placed there.

'We came together to share information and support each other,' explains Ms Brown. 'People talk about the old-boy network, and that works for public school-educated white men. This will be our network to share information.'

Not only does the network, unlike other ethnic minority lawyer groups, exclude barristers as an essential condition of being part of the Society, it also has a specific definition of 'black': those of Afro-Caribbean or African backgrounds.

Ms Brown explains: 'If you look at the statistics, solicitors from Afro-Caribbean and African backgrounds have the most problems in entry to the profession and in career progression.

'They have unique needs that others such as Asians do not. In terms of finance, for example, lenders are more familiar with the idea of Asian-owned businesses, and so they have less difficulty in securing finance.'

As well as the network, there are the Society of Black Lawyers, Society of Asian Lawyers (SAL) and the Association of Muslim Lawyers, all of which cover the whole legal profession.

For a while, the African, Caribbean and Asian Lawyers Association attempted to bridge these various ethnic and professional interests, but it has now become defunct.

This multiplicity of bodies may appear unnecessarily divisive to some, but Ms Brown sees crucial distinctions, such as the financing issue, between the needs of the 1,300 or so solicitors from Afro-Caribbean and African backgrounds and those from other ethnic minorities.

However, all four organisations have friendly relations and co-operate on matters of common interest.

Law Society statistics also show that ethnic minority solicitors in private practice are 'significantly over-represented' in the smaller high street firms when compared to white Europeans, and that 23.9% are partners, compared to 43% of white Europeans. Almost one in ten ethnic minority solicitors is a sole practitioner, compared to just one in 20 white Europeans.

Ms Brown says black members of the profession still face considerable prejudice that hampers their career progression, even though both the law and professional policies ban overt racial discrimination.

'Sadly we have to recognise that there is an issue of colour,' she says. 'Even if our names sound English, discrimination is still pervasive.'

This can sometimes be a case of young people from inner cities lacking the networks that others take for granted.

Ms Brown did voluntary work in a law centre as a student to widen her experience and found this was a big help in gaining knowledge of the profession, but says some young members of ethnic minorities may be simply unaware that this option exists.

These views are echoed by Caroline Herbert, who represents ethnic minority solicitors on the Law Society Council.

Ms Herbert has made a successful career in the City - she recently left SJ Berwin and is negotiating to join another major City firm. But she too says that other ethnic minority solicitors have struggled to progress.

'It was definitely time that the Law Society funded a group which represents those who are under-represented in the profession, and who suffer discrimination at every point of entry and in career progression. I am delighted by it.'

She says the network's volunteers have done 'an amazing job' and should now be able to do more.

Ms Herbert maintains that one potent source of discrimination is the policy of large City firms to block-book places for postgraduate training, leaving few places for those not employed by them.

'The large firms discriminate against black and Asian students because they look for people from Oxbridge and a few other top universities. The effect is to discriminate,' says Ms Herbert.

This means that ethnic minority trainees work disproportionately in legal aid and in the public sector or in small firms, 'where career progressions are quite different from large firms', she says.

'In theory, the training given by large firms is better, and black and Asian solicitors lose out from that.'

However, the SAL has taken a different approach to promoting its members' interests. Chairman Ali Zaidi, a partner at central London firm Edwin Coe, says: 'I don't dispute that discrimination is an issue, and ten years ago there was more of that. But people coming in to the legal profession now are much more savvy about what they need on their CV.'

He says that discrimination is more an issue at senior levels where Asian lawyers may find difficulties in securing partnerships or work commensurate to their experience.

But Mr Zaidi contends: 'Banging the drum about racism and discrimination will not help. Personal and career development will.'

To that end, the SAL offers networking events, personal development opportunities - such as mentoring schemes for young people - and career development.

The latter is focused on supplying suitably qualified members as non-executive directors, members of public bodies, quangos, housing association boards and the like.

There are some 1,000 SAL members, and far from members facing financing problems, 'banks are queuing up to sponsor our activities', Mr Zaidi says. As an indication of the breadth of this sector's appeal, next month's Minority Lawyers Conference in London is co-sponsored by T-Mobile.

The SAL has decided not to seek Law Society recognition because it was reluctant to jettison its barrister members and, as it saw it, to compromise its independence. Mr Zaidi says he is unaware of any Asian solicitors' group seeking recognition.

One opportunity for all four bodies to come together is the conference, which will be held at the Law Society's Chancery Lane headquarters on 18 October, with Ms Herbert in the chair.

Before that, the Society is expected to launch its diversity access scheme at its annual conference later this month.

This is designed to provide work placements for undergraduates, mentoring for LPC students and scholarships for those taking legal qualification courses. To qualify for help, young people will have to demonstrate the potential to make an exceptional contribution to the profession, and that they lack both close family ties with it and access to strong educational opportunities.

A Chancery Lane spokesman said: 'The Law Society is committed to helping under-represented groups overcome obstacles to entry into the solicitors' profession. The diversity access scheme will aim to help exceptionally talented, committed people enter the solicitors' profession. The obstacles may relate to a disability of some kind, or to social, educational, financial or family circumstances.'

He added: 'The Law Society is delighted to welcome the Black Solicitors Network as one of its recognised groups. The Society will be working with the group to help it achieve a target of 500 members over its first two years.' This is an active area of the profession, pushed by the combined efforts of all the groups and the Law Society, together with pressure from the sheer demographics of many more ethnic minority solicitors.

They are all working towards the day when discrimination is a thing of the past- and ethnic minority solicitors can rise to senior positions and are increasingly able to shape decisions about the profession.

Mark Smulian is a freelance journalist