David Lammy Speech to the Black Solicitors Network


Is the magic circle of large commercial law firms largely closed to black and ethnic minority lawyers? Can the Government dismantle barriers to a more diverse and representative judiciary and legal profession?

These were the key messages in a speech by Minister David Lammy to the Black Solicitors’ Network this evening at the Law Society.

“You probably know all there is to know about diversity in the legal professions.

And that means, unfortunately, you know all about the barriers. Glass ceilings. Glass corridors. Titanium ceilings. Dead-ends. These are just some of the ways that the obstacles facing black lawyers have been described in the press. Call them what you will. Barriers still exist and they still obstruct talented black solicitors from reaching the height of their profession.

True, according to Law Society figures in 2003, there are more black or minority ethnic solicitors than ever. But let’s not get over-excited. Change is coming very slowly. Just under 8% of solicitors with practising certificates in 2003 were from an ethnic minority background. In 1998, the number of ethnic minorities with a practising certificate was just under 5%. only 3% in six years

The truth is Black lawyers have to fight as hard as ever to become part of the profession. And once part of the profession they have to battle even harder to reach its heights.

I am tremendously proud to be a lawyer. I fought hard to get here.

I have no regrets about entering the legal profession, and I have no doubts that other young black lawyers like myself can contribute greatly to our society.

Unfortunately, some sections of our community don’t see the situation in such simple terms.

You may or may not have read the article that appeared in the Daily Mail last Thursday with the headline – ‘Race Quota Scheme to Appoint More Black Judges’.

It was about my Department’s Minority Report, in which we set out our commitment to increasing diversity throughout the judiciary and the professions. This report was the result of months of work, talking to all our stakeholders and it is a fundamental plank of programmatic change for the department. Many of you will have seen the advertisement for Director of Diversity that came out of that process – an extremely high level appointment, reflecting our commitment to put money and effort where our mouth is.

The Shadow Secretary for Constitutional Affairs was quoted as saying that our commitment to increasing diversity was ‘sanctimonious nauseating nonsense’. And that is what we are up against. The words ‘diversity’ and ‘representative’ appeared in inverted commas. Clearly, such issues are still too hot for some sections of our society to touch.

Sadly, some people still seem to think that there is some sort of dividing line between race and merit. Suspicions are always aroused if you mention diversity. Merit will always be the first basis of appointing judges. Because the people of this country want and need a judiciary that they can trust.

But merit and diversity don’t have to sit at opposite ends of the bench. We can have a strong, independent, judiciary, which is also diverse.

Let’s think about this logically. Are we really to believe that, in the past eighty years, there has been only one woman, and not a single black or minority ethnic candidate of sufficient merit to become a law lord? Does anyone really believe that?

It is truly astonishing that in the 21st Century, in a country as proudly diverse as Britain, there are no black High Court Judges. No black Justices of Appeal. No black heads of Division. No black Law Lords. In fact, no black representation in the upper reaches of the judiciary whatsoever.

Diversity and the Legal Professions

And it’s not just in the judiciary that there’s a problem.

It is evident throughout the professions. Ethnic minority students are winning places in top law firms only to be channelled into less commercial areas of law. They work hard to qualify. They work hard to get training contracts. Just like all law students do. Only to find themselves caught in the centre of a corporate maze, where all the exit routes are career dead ends. They have neither the contacts nor the networks that other lawyers have. Groups like the Black Solicitors Network are helping to change that. And they have an important role to play.

Over the past ten years there has been an increase in the number of people from ethnic minorities qualifying as solicitors. But we know that they tend to be concentrated in the less commercial areas of law, such as community law, family law and immigration. Not nearly enough succeed in commercial firms. So, where are the black and other ethnic minority partners in the magic circle and City firms?

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.

So for those people who say the barriers don’t exist, let’s imagine a young black man, from an inner city area. None of his family or friends are lawyers. But he wants to be one. He works hard. But he can’t get any work placements because he doesn’t have any contacts in the profession. So he doesn’t get a city contract because of his lack of experience. What are these big law firms doing to ensure they have a more diverse partnership? It is not enough to import diversity from overseas.

And of course, these sorts of diversity questions don’t only apply to the solicitors’ profession. Currently 20% of Bar pupils are from an ethnic minority. And 19.5% of pupillages go to ethnic minorities. Not a bad figure. But it decreases as we look at the number of barristers at the self-employed Bar. Just 10% are from an ethnic minority background.

And let’s imagine a young black barrister with aspirations to become a judge? How will she rate her chances? If she takes a look at the current make-up of the judiciary, probably pretty badly. The statistics are against her successfully reaching the heights of the judiciary. What role models does she have to aspire to? Does she have enough support in achieving her ambition?

These scenarios are not imaginary.

So what are we doing about it?

The Law Society has given its commitment to increasing diversity in the professions and this is welcomed. The Diversity Access Scheme, launched last September, aims to help talented, committed people overcome obstacles to becoming a solicitor.

The Scheme provides work placements for undergraduates, mentoring for legal practice course students and scholarships to pay the fees of people taking legal qualification courses. I understand that the Law Society aims to raise £150,000 pounds in the first year to fund a small number of scholarships and is also asking law firms to support the mentoring and work placement elements of the scheme. This is a good start. We welcome the initiative.

But I have to say, as a Minister, that £150,000 when students have debts of £35,000 to £40,000, is not going to reach the sorts of numbers that we need.

We need to do more. The Government needs to do more. Starting with our own Legal Service. According to government legal service figures, the government has already exceeded its 2005 target for representation at senior civil service level, with 4% from an ethnic minority background. Approximately 10% of the GLS are from an ethnic minority background, which is slightly more than the average for solicitors.

But we cannot rest there. We are opening up a number of different routes that those from non-traditional backgrounds can take in order to work in the legal profession. It is recognised that most city firms have a fairly limited pool of universities that they will recruit from. Candidates from non-traditional backgrounds can struggle to find a way in to the profession. But Legal graduate, non-legal graduate or non-graduate routes do exist.

On 5 May I met with the Solicitor General to find out more about the work the CPS are doing to encourage BME and those from non-traditional backgrounds into the legal profession. We talked about the CPS Law Scholarship Scheme.

The Scheme represents a £1.4 million investment per year.

It offers a bursary towards a range of legal qualifications. Clerical and administrative employees of the CPS can apply for sponsorship towards any of the qualifications based on their prior experience and existing level of qualification.

Students can apply to study part-time or by distance-learning. They can combine study with work. It means that those who would traditionally not be able to apply to study law, can find a way in to the profession.

And the statistics speak for themselves. Approximately 30% of those studying on the Scheme are of ethnic minority origin and nearly three-quarters are women.

I have asked the Legal Services Consultative Panel to consider what barriers, financial and non-financial, affect those from non-traditional backgrounds entering the legal profession. More importantly, I have asked them to advise Ministers as to what can be done to overcome those barriers. Their recommendations will assist in the development of policies that ensure that a diverse profession becomes a reality.

The Black Solicitors’ Network’s Role

I want to end by talking a bit about you. In July last year the Law Society approved your application for recognition as a group of the Law Society. It has been a long journey since your inception in 1995. And an important one. Your official status means that you will now be eligible for financial and administrative support from the Law Society. But more significantly, it means that black solicitors have a voice through the Network. They have people to share their concerns with. And they have a platform to make those concerns known.

And I have been listening to your concerns about the allocation of legal aid contracts. I have been in touch with Yvonne and spoken to her about your views on this front. I am deeply concerned about the suggestion that BME firms are missing out on legal aid contracts. And you can be sure that I will be taking this forward with the Legal Services Commission on your behalf. I have asked the Chief Executive of the LSC for an urgent report. I will get back to you.

Thank you for asking me to speak this evening. What you are doing is very important. I wish you success.”


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