Inequalities in the legal profession

Shilan Ucak – Career Ready Intern

As society further evolves, one’s initial thought would be that the inequalities are becoming less of a problem, however that is not the case. Features of yourself that should not make you different from others in the way you get treated, for example gender, ethnicity, and a disability are still a cause of inequality, particularly, in the legal profession.  

When looking at research on gender inequality in the legal profession, at first it may seem like it is progressing however that is not the case. Currently, the number of lawyers who are female is increasing, 49% of lawyers are female, but they are still not able to reach for top positions in a firm. This effect is called the ’glass ceiling effect’ and it is when woman are prevented from gaining promotions within their firm, and it is an invisible barrier that woman come up against within their legal career. An argument against women being in top positions is that women do not want senior roles however, that is proven incorrect by research across FTSE 100 companies. Women do want more senior roles within their law firm as it allows them to build a long-term career for themselves where they can actively participate in important decisions. Therefore, we can conclude that there is a clear gender inequality within the legal profession, although more women than previous years are hired for positions within a law firm, they are not progressing as successfully into top positions, generally due to the glass ceiling effect.  

Disabled lawyers are facing an immense amount of discrimination as they are not provided with the support they need, and this is happening across within many law firms in the UK. Sadly, many disabled lawyers are facing extensive unfairness within their law firm as they are not provided with the support that they require to carry out their work. The firms are using dated work practices which ultimately is putting disabled lawyers into a position where they are struggling to carry out their work. As well as not providing efficient support, the pay gap for disabled lawyers is widening. For example, the current disability pay gap for employees in the UK stands at 15.5%, according to research by the Trades Union Congress (TUC). Therefore, not only are disabled lawyers being not offered the support they require, but they are also receiving a much smaller paycheck than what they deserve. We can clearly see that this inequality against disabled lawyers is an increasing issue as they cannot participate within society as successfully if inequality is affecting them to this extent, leaving them feeling socially excluded. 

Within the legal profession, inequality also exists between different ethnic groups. Many BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) lawyers find themselves being discriminated against simply because of their background. There has been research that has found that BAME lawyers are more likely to be a subject to investigations and severe sanctions. For insistence, an analysis of 72 judgments passed by the SDT, 40 cases involving white respondents and 32 involving BAME, found that 28% of BAME cases ended in the suspension of the respondent compared with 17.5% in cases where the respondent was white. Therefore, we can gather that lawyers that are part of BAME are a larger subject to discrimination within their workplace. 

Although law firms are lacking diversity, they have started to discover the benefits of having a more diverse firm. Sometimes due to unconscious bias, firms end up influencing their decision whilst recruiting and promoting. Unconscious bias can become discriminatory when it effects the protected characteristics. It has been discovered that lacking diversity causes ‘group thinking,’ this is where people have an absence of understanding others. Allowing different people to be part of a team which influences decisions, helps exclude this unconscious bias. Having a more diverse law firm strengthens law firms’ reputation and promote inclusivism, show’s commitment to diversity and helps the firm identify discrimination early on. 

Inequalities are complex and often they overlap which puts many into a position where they are impacted financially or emotionally. Inequalities put people into a position of where they may feel unwanted as they are being excluded from society, when in reality having someone with different qualities on a team will make them perform better. We can now understand that the legal profession is far from being perfect and has many issues which needs to be addressed to prevent further inequality and discrimination.  


Image: (2020). How diverse is the legal profession? 

(2020). How diverse is the legal profession?  

Holmes, K (2019). How to progress as a woman in law | AllAboutLaw

Gilbert, J (2019). Disability pay gap in the UK stands at 15.5% for 2019  

Bishi, F (2014). The importance of diversity in law…  

Baksi, C (2014). BME solicitors more harshly treated – but SRA cleared of racism  

Shilan Ucak is a Career Ready intern employed by the Centre for Research on Employment, Work and the Professions at Edinburgh Business School

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