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Black lawyers failing to get the top jobs

MAKING A CHANGE: Cordella Bart-Stewart, founder and executive director of the Black Solicitors Network

THE DIRECTOR of the Black Solicitors Network (BSN) is calling on law regulators to introduce employment and progression targets after their recent diversity league table showed “shockingly” low representation of black lawyers in senior positions.

Cordella Bart-Stewart, founder and executive director of the 6,000-member organisation, set up the BSN Diversity League Table in 2006 amid concerns that African and Caribbean solicitors were not getting equal access to advancement opportunities.

The table measures and tracks employment trends within the legal profession. This year 42 firms with an average of 454 paid employees took part in the study.

It was found that, despite overall improvements in black and minority ethnic (BME) intakes, and the fact that approximately 33 per cent of students starting a first degree in law hailed from a BME background, only 0.6 per cent of black solicitors make partner.

Bart-Stewart described the results as “sadly not surprising.”  She said: “The problem is a lack of progression and low retention rates.  Firms are not interested in creating an environment where diversity is encouraged.
“The result is that people become disillusioned and leave.  Because if you can’t see anyone who looks like you at the top, you conclude that the glass ceiling is impenetrable.”

Bart-Stewart also pointed out that fewer senior BME lawyers had an impact on the larger community.

She said: “If we do not have enough senior lawyers we will not have a large enough pool to recruit judges. There should be diversity in the judiciary if everyone is to get a fair hearing.”

Writing in the report, Chuka Umunna - shadow business secretary and former employment lawyer at Herbert Smith - stressed that more should be done to encourage the advancement of BME lawyers.

Solicitor Angela Jackman, a partner at Maxwell Gillott, agreed. She said: “Taking steps to reach out to communities which do not have easy access to the profession is key.

“The Black Lawyers Directory is one organisation with which firms can join forces to increase opportunities and start addressing the current imbalances by offering mentoring and placements to BME students.”

Guyanese-born lawyer, Bibi Gadwah, who founded and heads one of the UK’s leading family law practices, said the only solution for BME lawyers is to set up their own businesses.

She said: “There is no point battering at the door and not getting anywhere. We have to do it for ourselves.”

Despite the revelation of low BME representation, African Caribbean postgraduate law student, Alia Campbell, said she was not discouraged by the figures and fully intends to join a reputable firm and ultimately attain partner status.

The 23-year-old said: “I don’t agree with saturating the market with a lot of small firms. The idea is to have integration and diversity in the bigger firms.”

Bart-Stewart said regulators such as the Law Society should use positive discrimination to address the problem.

She said: “They need to create targets. We are not saying firms should have 50 per cent of their chambers occupied by black people, but the numbers that are there ought to reflect the numbers in the population.”

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