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Benchmark for practice

16 July 07

Legal firms and in-house employers alike can benefit from the new data, just published, arising from the Society's equality and diversity survey

by Neil Stevenson

A detailed profile of the legal profession, and its views and experiences of equality, gathered from data collected has put the Law Society of Scotland ahead of most sectors in building a picture of equality and diversity among its members.

The picture, derived from the questionnaire sent to all members last year, is of a profession drawn from a variety of backgrounds and broadly reflecting the Scottish population, albeit that some groups may be underrepresented.

We could not have anticipated the strength of response. The 3,017 questionnaires returned give an almost 28% response rate, extremely high for a postal questionnaire and meaning that even more members took part than in the “Women in the Legal Profession” project the previous year. At least as important was the fact that the first phase of analysis indicated that the responses were highly likely to be representative of the profession at large. For example, the age, gender, and private practice/in-house ratios could be compared to data held on the Society’s databases generated from practising certificate renewal, and these indicated a close correlation between the respondent figures and what we know of the profession as a whole.

Why does it matter?

The questionnaire design was assisted by the Society’s Equality and Diversity Committee. Incoming convener Farah Adams explains that the survey is important in taking the Society beyond its minimum legal obligations to devise and implement a Disability Equality Scheme and Gender Equality Scheme.

“This project is an example of the Society going beyond minimum compliance to follow, and indeed lead, best practice in the area. If our profession is to continue to attract and retain high quality graduates, improve accessibility for clients and those seeking to enter the profession, and retain the trust and confidence of those clients and civic Scotland, we quite rightly have to prove we are tackling these issues. This innovative and successful project should lead to clear benefits for the public, employing organisations, and individual members.”

So what do we now know? We would encourage you to look at the full study, available on the Society’s website, but what follows gives you a flavour of the information you can now access.

Basic profiles

The questionnaire was split into four areas. The first focused on a demographic profile on the “strands” of equality, such as race/ethnicity or sexual orientation. The second section looked at how people had qualified into the profession and from what background they came. Details of current career were then collected, before the final section examined experiences of discrimination, perceptions of what issues there might be, and solicitors’ expectations of the Society in this field.

The great majority of respondents (89%) classified themselves as being White Scottish. There was an equal male/female split. We know from the Society’s practising certificate database that around 56% of the profession is currently male, although the percentage is dropping year on year, so this corresponds well to existing data. Three per cent of respondents indicated that their sexual orientation is other than heterosexual, and around 2% indicated that they have a disability. These are arguably low compared to national averages in the population in general, although we also know from other studies that reporting of these issues tends to be low the first time an organisation goes through a monitoring process.

The broad age breakdown of respondents shows that 40% were aged 35 or under, 25% between 36 and 45, and 35% aged 46 and over, indicating an increasingly young profession. A majority (60%) indicated a Christian religion/faith; a further 36% indicated that they had no religion or faith.

The data in practice

Figures such as these are relevant to all law firms, and employing organisations, small and large, that are keen to attract and retain staff. They can use the data to examine job applications and check whether their advertising, job descriptions, and employment practices are helping them access the full range of the pool of talent. Moreover, large firms may well be asked when tendering for work from public sector or commercial organisations to comment on the equality profile of their firm or a specific team. The survey data will be vital in adding context to that, allowing firms to demonstrate how representative they are against the profession as a whole, as well as population norms. It also assists the profession in showing a more diverse picture than some may have guessed, and that it is actively trying to tackle equality issues.

The data also prove that it is simply an urban myth that to become a Scottish solicitor you have to have parents in the law. For example, only 6% of respondents aged up to 35 indicated that their father worked in the legal profession, compared with 7% of those aged 35 to 45 and 10% of those over 46, showing that this has not been a significant issue for some time. Again, the full report has further data, including mothers’ occupation and the route people took to qualifying (for example, whether they did law as a first degree, or later in life). Hopefully this will help encourage and continue the trends for a broad range of members of the public to consider a career in law.

A profile of solicitors’ current positions can also be seen, from the number of years’ post-qualification experience a solicitor has, through to some limited salary and earnings data. Again all of this is relevant to firms: for example, 13% of respondents work part-time, and any firm not offering this option to solicitors is instantly reducing the pool of staff it can recruit from. Over 24% of the profession have taken a career break; interestingly, looking at the first break of those individuals who had taken one, only 60% related to maternity leave, with 11% taking a sabbatical, 6% having taken long-term sick leave, and 23% stating other reasons.

Discrimination: still an issue

The final section provided data on people’s perceptions of equality issues, and their own experiences. Disappointingly, 22% of solicitors felt that at some time in their career they had suffered discrimination, although we note that this is not dramatically out of line with the figures other employers and organisations have found. It is a serious issue, as Bill Robertson (The Grange Group) points out: “Although we are relying on self-reporting here, and some of these data are historical, potentially this means that those employing solicitors, be that private practice or in-house, are leaving themselves open to the possibility of complaints and even employment tribunals”.

The Society’s newly enhanced Code of Conduct rule on discrimination also means that solicitors could face professional disciplinary action if evidence of discrimination comes to light.

Detailed information has been provided on the stages where people feel discrimination occurred (from gaining a traineeship to gaining a partnership), who they feel discriminated against them (from clients and colleagues to employing partners), and the form of discrimination that took place (from the allocation of work through to actual bullying). The Society views these as real issues for the profession to reflect and act on, and would encourage all firms to examine the data to make sure they could not fall foul of a discrimination claim. Now these data are in the public domain, firms and solicitors will be unable to claim they could not have known that such issues might at least be a possibility within their own workplaces. For its part, the Society’s Disability Equality Scheme and Gender Equality Scheme (both statutory requirements covering the organisation’s functions) set action plans to help tackle the issues raised, and a major review of its overall Equality Strategy next year will see further objectives in this area.

It is worth remembering that an increasing number of firms are realising the strong business case for ensuring they manage these issues. Whether it is reducing costs by reducing staff turnover, raising morale, or attracting clients, equality issues need to be considered.

As Farah Adams sums up: “This report is now a benchmark to measure change both for the profession and individual firms and organisations, a resource we can all use in planning and trying to improve. It helps challenge stereotypes of the profession and individuals, it stimulates debate, and it ensures the Society not only meets its legal commitments in the field but also leads in it.”

A pretty impressive set of outcomes for a single project.

 

Neil Alan Stevenson is Deputy Director Education and Training, and Head of Diversity, at the Law Society of Scotland.

A full copy of the report, including theoriginal questionnaire, can be downloaded from the Society’s website at www.lawscot.org.uk/diversity Further information is available by email (diversity@lawscot.org.uk) or by contacting the Society switchboard (0131 226 7411) and asking for Neil Stevenson.


DEVISING THE QUESTIONNAIRE

The study was based on a questionnaire format similar to that used for the “Women in the Legal Profession” project which the Society ran jointly with the Equal Opportunities Commission in 2005. This achieved an extremely high response rate and gained positive feedback from the profession on the approach adopted.

The Grange Group was successful in tendering for the work, and the Society is hugely grateful to Bill Robertson and Greg Robertson who managed the project and worked closely with the Society throughout. A questionnaire was developed, piloted with a small group of solicitors, approved by the President’s Committee of the Society, and then mailed out to all members of the profession.

The questions either followed recognised formats (such as the breakdown of race/ethnicity used in the last census) or were based on expert advice as to phrasing (for example, Stonewall assisted with the best way to ask about sexual orientation). The Society’s own Equality and Diversity Committee members also guided the design stage.

The Grange Group is a management, human resource and research consultancy with offices in Edinburgh, Manchester, Birmingham and London. It helps organisations to translate strategy into performance, and does so by developing and sustaining long-term business relationships with its clients across public and private sectors.

    t: 0845 230 1233; www.thegrangegroup.com


WAS IT GOOD FOR YOU?

Can your firm share their experiences of implementing part-time and flexible working arrangements for solicitors and partners? Do you have examples of starting to allow career breaks or enhanced maternity/paternity leave arrangements for solicitors and partners? How to you deal with allocation of work and promotion?

The Society is seeking experiences and examples from Scottish firms, to help promote best practice. We want to know what you have tried, what worked, what didn’t, what you would recommend to a colleague. Of particular interest are medium sized firms, and how they tackle these issues, although all responses will be gratefully received. This is an opportunity to promote your firm in the legal and general media. You might only be happy to provide a short quote on your experiences, or you might be willing to share policies and processes – either way we’d be grateful if you could contact, in confidence, Neil Stevenson at the Society (0131 476 8105 or diversity@lawscot.org.uk) to discuss how we might be able to work together.


DISCRIMINATION: HOW IT IS PERCEIVED

Of all those that responded to the survey, 22% said they had suffered discrimination of some form at some stage in their career.  The table reproduced examines the forms of discrimination experienced and the reasons why people felt they had been discriminated against.

The percentages shown ONLY relate to those who responded that they had suffered discrimination – for example a “2%” in the column means 2% of the number reporting that form of discrimination and NOT 2% of all respondents. It is also important to note that respondents often indicated multiple issues, so that the same respondent may have reported more than one occasion on which discrimination was experienced; or multiple causes of discrimination, for example, on the grounds of their sexual orientation and because they had a disability.

(Please see printed version or PDF download of the Journal for table.)