A key purpose of the Law Society in the UK is to drive excellence in the profession, which includes working to ensure that the best talent from diverse backgrounds can join the profession and we are effectively retaining and developing that talent and working in an inclusive way to deliver high quality legal services.
I. Stephanie Boyce is the 177th President of the Law Society, but only the sixth President who is a woman, and the first President of colour.
A key priority of her presidency is to make the legal profession more reflective of the society it serves. This is not just a moral necessity, but a recognition that our legal system’s reputation rests on ensuring that our profession is representative, and includes more people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. We cannot claim that our legal system is the best it can be when we know that many talented people are held back by their financial, personal or social circumstances from entering and advancing in the profession.
Increasing the diversity in socio-economic background for solicitors, barristers and judges won’t be a quick fix, and although we know a lot of progress has been made, there’s more that we can do.
Our latest statistics suggest that just over half of practising solicitors are the first generation in their family to attend university. Despite the increase in diversity in the profession, challenges remain in ensuring equal opportunities and progression and a culture of inclusivity. For example, 23% of practising solicitors attended independent or private schools, compared to only around 7% of the population of England and Wales.
There are also external factors that make it more difficult for aspiring solicitors from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds to enter the profession, such as difficulties in getting access to work experience, and lack of finance or guidance from social or family connections. There is clearly still room for improvement.
The Law Society is committed to ensuring that anyone with the necessary skills, knowledge and commitment to become a solicitor is supported, enabled and empowered throughout their career. We will support and challenge our members to have the hard conversations and take the difficult but necessary action to accelerate change across the profession.
In the last year, we continued to encourage our member organisations to improve their practices around recruitment, retention and progression. We’ve also worked to keep the issue high up the national agenda, with our President sitting on the City of London Corporation taskforce to boost socio-economic diversity in UK financial and professional services, which was commissioned by the UK Government. We have also campaigned for Government-backed loans for the newly introduced Solicitors Qualifying Exam fees, which could be a financial barrier for many aspiring to a career in law.
We run a Social Mobility Ambassadors scheme which spotlights solicitors from non-traditional backgrounds who are willing to act as role models and mentors for aspiring solicitors from similar backgrounds. In 2021, 13 solicitors became our Social Mobility Ambassadors, who actively promote improving social mobility through sharing their experience of entering the profession, including the challenges they faced and how they overcame them.
Over the next year, we will continue to raise the profile of our Ambassadors, campaign on social mobility and represent the profession at national level, as well as grow our Diversity Access Scheme, which provides scholarships, work experience and mentors to talented individuals who face exceptional social, educational, financial or personal obstacles to qualify as a solicitor. To date, the scheme has helped nearly 250 aspiring solicitors kickstart their legal career, many of whom may not have been able to pursue their ambitions otherwise due to financial hardship. In February 2022, we will open the scheme again and hope to support at least 15 applicants next year.
Aspiring solicitors want a more diverse sector, clients want a more diverse sector, most of the profession wants a more diverse sector – now we must deliver. After a much-needed rest over the Christmas break, we look forward to learning and sharing best practice with our European partners, and working with the profession to secure further real change.