Diana Bentley looks at how law firms have been working to improve the record of the legal profession on diversity and inclusion, and the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement


The shocking images of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020 ignited a global firestorm of outrage. Now, the product of Floyd’s death, a new wave of protests spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement (which originally started in 2013) has galvanised the commitment of businesses to eradicate racism and inequality in their organisations. Much of the legal profession has been quick to react. As Chris Edwards, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and diversity director of Travers Smith, says: “BLM has really bought to the fore the disproportionate outcomes for people from different backgrounds in the law.”

Law firm managers will be aware as never before that the spotlight will be on the makeup of their workforces and leadership teams, and on their own resolve.

“The business case for diversity has long been acknowledged, but there’s been real inertia at the top of organisations on ethnic minority representation. Now, warm words won’t cut it; change must come about through careful and considered action, and must be driven from the top,” says Jill Miller, a diversity adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

The facts and figures

The demographics of firms demonstrate the need for change. Recent investigative work by the Law Society has been timely but concerning. In February this year, it commissioned research into the experiences of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) solicitors, to update its last examination of the subject in 2009. The results of the first phase of the research, in which information and data were gathered, have been disheartening.

“If anything, the ability of members of the BAME community to gain access to the profession and to find mentors and network has deteriorated,” says Jerry Garvey, an adviser in diversity and inclusion (D&I) at the Law Society. In 2017, 16.5% of solicitors identified as being from the BAME community, while in 2019, 17% did. While this latter percentage stands above that of the BAME working population in England and Wales (14%), these solicitors are not evenly distributed within the profession.

Black Lives Matter in law - three black hands, one holding a heart

© omadoig@btinternet.com

“The majority work in small practices, often in areas like family law and immigration, which are not so highly remunerated. We’re keen to understand why this is,” Garvey says.

Elitism and nepotism are still prevalent among certain groups, such as middle- and upper-class white people, while black students struggle to get training contracts. Firms remain fixated upon A-level results and Russell Group universities, and some stereotyping is also present. “Chinese lawyers are a smaller group, but more likely to be recruited and promoted, as they’re seen as very academically minded and good for business,” Garvey points out.

While larger firms have introduced initiatives to boost the number of their BAME lawyers, few proceed to senior roles. “The firms haven’t understood the extent and gravity of the issue, but now they want to do more, and many have approached us for guidance,” he says.


Firms focusing on recruiting more BAME talent have turned to organisations with particular expertise, Rare Recruitment being among the leaders in the field.

“We’ve had years of experience in cultivating sixth form and undergraduate students who are black and high achievers, giving them individual coaching to help them with their work applications. We work with law firms, too, to help them eliminate bias,” says Rare Recruitment’s managing director, Raphael Mokades.

Firms must be more critical of their appraisal processes, Mokades insists. “One candidate may have no legal work experience due to a lack of opportunity, while another may have because they’re well connected. Attitudes to matters like shaking hands and eye contact can vary between cultures. Many factors like this can contribute to inequalities and racism in organisations. Even simple measures like ensuring that interviewers get the candidate’s name right, and paying for work experience, make a difference, too.” Rare Recruitment also produces software which helps put candidates’ achievements – including their school grades – in context, to help firms achieve a wider range of applications. Firms pay an annual subscription for its services, rather than specific recruitment fees.

Even simple measures like ensuring that interviewers get the candidate’s name right, and paying for work experience, make a difference

Raphael Mokades, Rare Recruitment

One firm using Rare Recruitment software is Kingsley Napley, the highest-rated law firm in the Sunday Times list of the Best 100 Companies to Work For 2020.

“Recently, we concluded that the proportion of BAME candidates was lower than it should be and that our recruitment process was often focused towards a particular type of candidate. We found that a higher proportion of our BAME applicants were being eliminated at the first stage,” says Shannett Thompson, chair of Kingsley Napley’s BAME and Allies Network, and a partner. The firm introduced contextualised recruitment with Rare Recruitment’s assistance, and targeted a greater variety of recruitment fairs, including those focused on alternative routes into the law. It has worked to make its trainee assessment days as inclusive as possible, including tasks that detect aptitude rather than experience, and refashioned its trainee work experience placement programmes to be merit-based rather than reliant on internal referrals. The firm has already noticed a big difference in its trainee applications, Thompson reveals. “This year we’ve had 501 applications, more than double those of last year. Of these, 34% were BAME candidates, up from 29% last year.” The firm is also providing part funding for candidates undertaking their Legal Practice Course ahead of joining the firm in September 2021.

Hogan Lovells started concentrating on racial equality in its workforce a number of years ago. “In about 2010, we saw that black and ethnic minority trainees made up about 9% of our intake, and we realised we needed to build on that,” says UK managing partner, Susan Bright.

By 2015, that figure had risen to 30%, and it has remained above that since. “We really broadened our range of recruits, with the help of organisations like Rare Recruitment, Aspiring Solicitors and the Sutton Trust. The recruitment agencies we use also know we expect to receive candidates from diverse backgrounds,” she says.

Retention and progression

Firms report that retention and progression remain serious challenges, even when recruitment of BAME candidates improves.

Travers Smith senior partner, Kathleen Russ, explains that achieving diversity in the firm has been easier than attaining inclusion. “The balance in our demographics at the junior end of our workforce has improved through working with organisations like Rare Recruitment. In our latest summer vacation, nearly 50% of our attendees were BAME students. The difficulty is that we can achieve greater diversity by specifically recruiting black lawyers, but the more complex challenge to tackle is inclusiveness, and to ensure that everyone can progress to senior leadership.”

Numerous measures are being used by firms to address their retention and promotion issues, and many firms are boosting these in the face of the BLM movement. Travers Smiths’ Edwards says: “We run events on racial bias for everyone in the firm, and there are tailored sessions for our different practice groups, run by experts on inclusion and racism. A dedicated BAME networking group has been formed, so BAME employees can support each other and gain external mentoring. Soon the firm will have sessions on effective allyship.” These sessions will consider what racism looks like, recognise the privileged status of allies, and look at how they can use their influence to help others and intervene to curtail racism, Edwards explains. The firm is providing wellbeing services for BAME people, and creating online groups to create safe spaces for people to talk about race at work. Among the positive steps that Russ will be taking is ensuring that the firm considers a diverse pool of candidates for promotions.

People are generally worried about saying the wrong thing, but this is the time to push past that fear and have conversations

Leana Coopoosamy, Clifford Chance

Hogan Lovells has turned to Frank Douglas, whose organisation, Caerus Executive, helps develop senior executives to better understand how they can retain and promote their BAME lawyers.

“We understand that minority ethnic communities differ, and each may need specific support,” says Bright. Late last year, the firm established a Race and Ethnicity Network, which is open to everyone, but the death of George Floyd has given it further impetus, she explains. “We’ve got used to talking about things like gender and mental health – now we’re helping people talk about race.” A recent Zoom meeting of the network saw 280 people participating. A suggestion from the network led to the introduction of a reciprocal mentoring scheme under which people of different ethnicities help each other.

“Our board has had in-depth training on unconscious bias and micro-aggressions. There’s a huge momentum now about advancing more quickly. We’ll set goals and measure our progress, and we’re doing engagement surveys to discover how people feel,” Bright adds. Recently, Hogan Lovells acquired two ethnic minority partners laterally, and Bright is confident that more BAME lawyers will be attracted to the firm.

For two years, data analysis firm Pirical has been collecting data for Clifford Chance to identify areas where it can introduce strategies to retain and promote its ethnic minority lawyers. “If you don’t invest in data, you’re campaigning on hunches,” says Tiernan Brady, Clifford Chance’s global director of inclusion. While the retention rate of its East Asian lawyers nearly matches that of white lawyers, that of other groups, including black lawyers, is an issue. “We can’t promote people we don’t have,” says Brady. The firm will be establishing a series of focus groups which will examine the lived experiences of people from ethnic minorities, to provide another level of insight into the challenges they face.

A range of initiatives on racism and ethnicity have been introduced at Clifford Chance, but BLM has amplified the need for change, says Leana Coopoosamy, a D&I specialist at the firm. Reverse mentoring started before the death of George Floyd, but there is increased interest in it now, she says. “People are generally worried about saying the wrong thing, but this is the time to push past that fear and have conversations.”

Under the ethnicity reverse mentoring programme, senior white people are mentored by junior people from ethnic minorities for 12 months. The firm has a book club which is open to everyone and focuses on books relevant to ethnicity. The most recent was The Good Immigrant, and the firm invited the author, Nikesh Shukla, to join them for the conversation. Its Race Equality and Celebrating Heritage (REACH) network provides a forum for discussion on race. Since May, REACH has worked with trainees from Accelerate>>>, the firm’s gender parity affinity group, to create a racial justice resource to educate people about racism and provide an extensive resources list. “In conjunction with Smart About Health, we hosted an interactive, exploratory session speaking about the impact of recent events and circumstances for ethnic minorities in the workplace,” adds Coopoosamy.

Discussions between BAME solicitors and those responsible for recruitment and progression in firms will help people explore racial prejudice and the individual experiences of solicitors

Sarah Alonge, The Law Society 

Importantly, resource managers in various practice areas supervise the allocation of work across Clifford Chance. “The best strategies focus on areas and groups, and are tailored to specific needs. One practice area may need to focus on recruitment; another may need to focus on the tenure of ethnic minority lawyers,” says Brady. Recently, the firm announced its first ethnic minority targets: 15% of new partners and 30% of senior associates and business professionals for the UK and the US by 2025.

Kingsley Napley also has a range of in-house programmes to address racism and inequality, including compulsory e-learning training for everyone in the firm. It has a BAME allies group, and will keep a weather eye on its progress. “We’re in the process of collating and drafting an annual report on our programmes, which will help us measure the success of our policies and initiatives,” says Thompson. As of 1 September, the group will have six BAME partners, three of whom are black (including Thompson). The firm has keenly embraced transparency, and its website contains a section on D&I, with full information on the makeup of its workforce – a useful resource for potential employees and clients.

External help and clients

Professional organisations are also working hard to provide support. In July, the Law Society launched a series of virtual roundtables. “There’s still some discomfort about discussing racism and bias in the profession. These discussions between BAME solicitors and those responsible for recruitment and progression in firms will help people explore racial prejudice and the individual experiences of solicitors, and provide insight on how to further inclusiveness in the profession,” says Law Society D&I adviser, Sarah Alonge. Phase two of the Society’s research project is considering recruitment, retention and progression of BAME solicitors, and final recommendations may be published this month.

“We want to provide good practical recommendations and resources like case studies and webinars in the key areas of recruitment, retention and progression,” says Garvey. “We hope things like pay gap reporting and reverse mentoring will become good practice procedures.”

Meanwhile, in July, the Solicitors Regulation Authority announced its new equality, diversity and inclusion mentoring scheme, which gives small and medium-sized firms 12 months of mentoring with law firms which are recognised leaders in the field. Mentored firms will get around two hours of guidance each month. Such support should be embraced, says the CIPD’s Miller. “Many smaller organisations will have good intentions, but may not have the resources or tools to make change happen. But helping effect change in a meaningful way with few resources is part of the work of professional bodies like ours and the Law Society.”

The CIPD has a range of resources in the “tacking racism in the workplace” space on its website, including webinars, podcasts and guides – all freely available to non-members. Small businesses can also do things like pool their resources to hold events on race equality, and scale the initiatives of larger firms to their own needs, she suggests. Private organisations, too, are offering guidance which can be widely accessed. Rare Recruitment recently released its race fairness commitment, which sets out the aims and undertakings of employers in relation to their BAME workforces: it has already been signed by 27 law firms, Mokades reports.

Firms are already aware that as a result of BLM, they may face greater scrutiny from clients on their D&I policies. “Clients have increased their focus on diversity and CSR, and we get a lot of questions in pitches about this, particularly with new clients,” reports Russ of Travers Smith. For some time, large organisations like Microsoft have had structured policies on what is expected of their panel firms on D&I.

But another aspect of the relationship with clients on this matter is the mutual support firms and clients can provide each other. “Clients ask about inclusion in terms of what we’re doing, but also how they can improve on this,” says Clifford Chance’s Brady. “There’s a huge opportunity to work collectively on this now. Some of our clients’ senior managers are reverse mentored by young lawyers here. If the law is about equality, law firms need to be the ‘go-to’ people for their clients on this.”

Pro bono

BLM has also prompted a renewed sense of purpose in the pro bono work of firms. The next round of donations from the Travers Smith Foundation will be to BAME charities. Director of pro bono, Sam Cottman, says that the firm has supported numerous projects that promote diversity in the fields of justice, entrepreneurship and economic empowerment, usually by providing legal advice. One of these is Your StartUp Your Story, which connects people from diverse backgrounds to help them develop their technology projects; Underexposed Arts, a social enterprise that supports BAME arts initiatives, is another. Travers Smith is a corporate sponsor for Justice, a law reform and human rights organisation that currently has a working party considering racial disparity in youth justice. It’s also a founding member of the new Law Firm Antiracism Alliance, established in the USA after BLM erupted this year. “This is based in America, but we want to see if any actions taken there could be followed here,” says Cottman.

Hogan Lovells is now fundraising to support charities focused on helping advance racial justice, one of which is the Amos Bursary, which helps men of Afro-Caribbean descent in their education and work life. “In addition to the work we’ve been doing, we’re now specifically dedicating at least 65,000 pro bono hours through to 2023 to break down systemic barriers in society that impact people of colour,” says Bright. Meanwhile, Kingsley Napley has held a virtual fundraiser to raise money for the charity Show Racism the Red Card, and has become an inaugural donor to the Jack Leslie Campaign – a crowdfunding drive raising funds for a statue of footballer Jack Leslie, who was denied a cap to play for England due to race. It would be one of the first BAME statues in the country.

Whatever the challenges, law firms should take heart. “In the last few years, there have been enormous changes in the legal profession on combating inequalities and racism,” says Rare Recruitment’s Mokades. With the attention racism and inequality is now commanding, more may be expected.