Diversity: anti-bias training not whole solution to law’s diversity issue

Joanne HarrisWednesday 11 November 2020

In late September, junior barrister Alexandra Wilson hit the headlines after tweeting about her experience of being mistaken as a defendant by court staff not once, but three times in a single day. ‘I don’t expect to have to constantly justify my existence at work,’ she concluded.

Wilson is mixed-race, and her account was met with a flood of similar stories from other Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) lawyers. Her Twitter thread led to an apology by HM Courts and Tribunals Service Acting Chief Executive Officer Kevin Sadler.

Wilson went on to call for anti-bias training to help people recognise systemic racism.

Training is often the first thing to which an organisation will turn when an issue with diversity or representation is identified. Sasha Scott, CEO of consultancy the Inclusive Group, says unconscious bias training has become increasingly popular as firms and companies seek to hold on to business.

Policies and procedures are ineffective if they lack aspiration and if they’re just there for the sake of having a tick-box experience. They have to be meaningful

I. Stephanie Boyce
Vice President of the Law Society of England and Wales

‘Unconscious bias training is absolutely helpful if it’s delivered in a way that helps people understand “if I’m human I’m riddled with bias”,’ Scott says.

‘Very often the effectiveness of training is mixed. It’s good at raising awareness but without further action it may have a limited short-term impact,’ says I. Stephanie Boyce, Vice President of the Law Society of England and Wales.

Firms and chambers in the United Kingdom have been struggling for years to improve their diversity statistics. The latest Bar Standards Board statistical report – published in January – shows that in 2019, 13.6 per cent of barristers identified as BAME. However only 8.1 per cent of Queen’s Counsel were BAME.

Solicitors Regulation Authority data shows that 21 per cent of lawyers in the firms it regulates are BAME, with almost three-quarters of these being Asian and three per cent Black. A similar proportion of partners are BAME, but the proportion of BAME partners in the largest firms drops to eight per cent.

‘Far too many people look at the legal profession and think it’s an elitist profession, a profession they don’t belong in and shouldn’t join,’ says Boyce, who next year will become the Law Society’s first ever BAME president in 180 years.

The importance of role models is key, and Wilson has both become one and is promoting leading BAME lawyers on her social media platform.

While acknowledging that anti-bias training may have its role to play in improving diversity, neither Boyce nor Fudia Smartt, an employment partner at Spencer West and associate at training provider Byrne Dean, think this should be the place to start when addressing what they see as a fundamental problem within the legal sector.

‘Policies and procedures are ineffective if they lack aspiration and if they’re just there for the sake of having a tick-box experience. They have to be meaningful,’ Boyce says.

Instead, she advocates tackling the issue of representation at a much earlier age, to give young people thinking about going into law the tools they need to get them there.

‘Education is a key issue and when you look at the issues affecting law firms, people always start looking at it too late,’ Smartt agrees. She says the profession needs to examine the way it recruits to rid itself of bias.

‘We all tend to like people who remind us of ourselves,’ Smartt adds. ‘You won’t get a diverse talent pool if you don’t carefully consider your selection criteria, and also increase awareness to different groups on how to pursue a career in law from an early age.’

Those working within professional education say tackling the issue of representation early is important, and is something which today’s law students are increasingly concerned about.

‘Many institutions are requiring staff to undertake unconscious bias training as a starting point,’ says Chris Howard, Co-Vice Chair of the IBA Academic and Professional Development Committee and Director of Professional Legal Education at King’s College London.

‘Equally, all institutions need to examine their admissions procedures and outreach programmes to encourage and support a diverse range of applicants for law programmes,’ Howard adds.

Scott says many firms have tightened up recruitment policies in recent years, to reduce nepotism and introduce contextual recruitment. Moves such as magic circle firm Linklaters’ decision to introduce a target of 35 per cent BAME trainees, starting from the current hiring cycle, are welcomed.

‘In my personal view, the approach taken by Linklaters is the kind of specific, targeted action which is required to enable real change in the short term, given that measures used to date have not had the impact which is needed,’ Howard says.

Boyce says the use of data is critical to improve representation in the profession, adding: ‘Data is a huge driver of change and allows us to see where the gaps are.’

She explains that the Law Society of England and Wales is working with the other UK legal sector representation and regulatory bodies to share information and produce long-term, sustainable change. The Law Society of Scotland has also launched a racial inclusion group to better understand the experience of BAME members.

Smartt calls for top-down leadership, to help the profession create a space to talk about diversity and representation issues. ‘It’s because people don’t have these discussions that misunderstandings fester,’ she adds.

But anti-bias training can still have a place in the debate.

‘I absolutely believe it has a place in increasing representation, but it isn’t the silver bullet. It has to be part of a cohesive strategy looking at how people are viewed. Some organisations get it right because they understand inclusion is about behaviours,’ Scott says.

Boyce says she is determined to leave the profession more diverse and inclusive than when she joined it. ‘Hopefully in generations to come we’re no longer talking about this as we’re so good at this, [that] the playing field has been levelled', she concludes.