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Diversity in family law

As Black History Month ended yesterday I have been reflecting on my experience as a young Asian female generally, diversity in family law and whether I feel that my ethnicity has had an impact on my career. 

I have previously written about my non-traditional background and upbringing and how I often felt slightly displaced in society because of not knowing where I fit in. What I have never personally experienced, however, is feeling disadvantaged in the legal sector as a result of the colour of my skin. My instinct says this is down to luck and the sector I chose to work in and sadly not because discrimination no longer exists. 

I sat on a panel event at the University of Law earlier this month in celebration of Black History Month. 

We were saddened to hear how disillusioned the young students were before their careers had even started. Many of them felt they were starting on the back foot in an already difficult sector to break into. 

At the end of the night, we spoke to some of the students and I was pleased to hear they were feeling more positive about moving forward with a legal career.

Seeing the students grow in confidence did make me wonder whether there was more to be done in the legal sector throughout the year to encourage young talent as opposed to confining it to one month. 

If the future of the legal sector is feeling despondent will this result in a reduction of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) candidates trying to forge careers in the legal sector? And how will this impact on diversity in family law?

Historical development of women and BAME lawyers

At the University of Law, I was on a predominantly female panel which made me extremely proud, although I believe that there is still a huge disparity in the legal sector in the representation of women and BAME lawyers. Many of the students commented that they felt there were not enough BAME role models in the legal sector.

I read a useful article online here recently that explores how diversity in law developed; charting it back to the Sex Disqualification Act of 1919 that allowed women to sit the exams that allowed them to practice law.

Following this, the progress of BAME lawyers in the sector remained very slow. In fact, it wasn’t until 1986 that the Law Society’s Race Relations Committee was created. However, it was only when the Equality Act 2010 came into force that the legal sector really started to take notice and change its practices in hiring. 

Now, 33 years after the inception of the Law Society’s Race Relations Committee or the Ethnic Minority Division Committee as it is known now, we have the Women Lawyers Division, Women in Leadership in Law and the Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division. 

Whilst historically progress has been slow, we are now seeing a real push for firms to make a conscious effort to have diverse workforces. 

Diversity in family law: Representation of BAME in law

I carried out some research and found that there has been an increase in the proportion of BAME lawyers working in law firms, although in my opinion there is still a long way to go. 

In 2014 only 14% of the workforce was BAME, at present it is 1 in 5. 

Asian lawyers increased from 9% in 2014 to 14% in 2017 

Black lawyers make up 3% which has risen by 1% since 2014. 

Unlike the profile for women, there is very little difference by seniority among BAME lawyers, 21% of solicitors are BAME compared to 20% of Partners. *

Diversity in family law: Size of law firm

However, differences become apparent when we look at the breakdown of partners in firms by size. 

The largest firms (50-plus partners) have the lowest proportion of BAME partners – only 8% which has risen by 1% since 2014. 

This contrasts with one partner firms, where just over a third (34%) of the partners are from a BAME background.

Diversity in family law: Type of legal work

There are differences in the proportion of BAME lawyers according to the type of legal work undertaken by firms. 

Firms mainly doing criminal work and those mainly doing private client work both have a higher proportion of BAME lawyers, 33 and 37% respectively.

Firms doing a mixed range of work and firms doing mainly corporate work both have the lowest proportion of BAME lawyers, 12 and 19% respectively.

Diversity in family law: Impact of LASPO on diversity in family law

Interestingly, the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) has hindered the progression of female and BAME lawyers in family law. 

The restrictions placed on legal aid in family cases resulted in many small to medium size high street firms, which tend to hire more BAME and female lawyers, losing their legal aid certificates and therefore being unable to continue to take on this type of work. 

Subsequently, those firms who increased diversity in the sector by hiring and promoting underrepresented lawyers were then unable to do so due to funding and budget cuts. Thus, halting progression in the sector.

Diversity in family law: My own experience 

When I thought about the above figures and my career I think my own experience has been steered by the fact I chose to specialise in a female-dominated sector. 

I work in a firm, where gender has absolutely no bearing on promotion or progression. 

Diversity in family law: At Stowe Family Law

61 out of 76 solicitors are female

11 out of 15 partners are female

13 out of 21 offices have female Managing Partners  

Diversity in family law: The relevance of Black History Month

During my reading and consideration of my own experiences, I came across lots of articles questioning whether there was still a place for Black History Month in modern society. 

Having considered arguments from both sides and sitting on the panel event earlier this month, my resounding view is yes. 

Black History Month is intended to be a celebration, but some feel it is exclusionary to people who are not black including Asians and other minorities. 

There are arguments as to why it is only confined to one month and not celebrated throughout the year. Some organisations feel they do not have enough black staff to support it or they simply do not have the funds or resources to do so. 

On the other hand, Black History Month gives black people the opportunity to celebrate their history. 

Having been in school in the late ’90s and ’00s, black history wasn’t part of our curriculum, even during Black History Month there was very little emphasis on teaching us a very integral part of history and I wish there had been. 

Whether that was because the school I went to wasn’t very diverse or just because of the climate in the ’90s generally, I don’t know. With modern technology it is easy for us to access information with a few taps of our phones, however, 20 years ago information wasn’t as readily available. 

When I was a child, it was hard to access history and role models that looked like me. It took until 2010 (by which point I was 20) for there to be a black Disney princess! It sounds trivial but as a child not to have many role models that you connect with and can relate to can dampen your drive. I can, therefore, sympathise with the students I spoke to earlier this month. If in the media there aren’t enough role models that will trickle down to society generally.

Black History Month encourages the younger generation to push forward with their dreams. It forces society and in particular employers to re-evaluate their inclusion policies and thus create a more diverse workforce which in turn can expand the business. 

So where does this leave me now… 

I will certainly be making promoting diversity in family law a priority of mine both in my own firm and in my role as a Director of the Leeds Law Society. 

I will start by placing more emphasis on Black History Month and also by placing more emphasis on ensuring diversity in the legal sector throughout the year. 

After sitting on the panel earlier this month I have realised that educating and celebrating black history shouldn’t be confined to four weeks of the year. This should be extended to all races and ethnicities. 

The legal sector has a long way to go and it starts with encouraging the young legal talent at the very start of their careers. If they are disillusioned at the very start of their careers, those of us who are now on our way, need to do more to address the disparity and ensure that progression continues. 

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If you would like any advice on divorce or other family law issues please do contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist divorce lawyers here. 

*Statistics sourced from Solicitors Regulation Authority 

Shanika Varga-Haynes is a Senior Associate based at Stowe Family Law's Leeds office. She has a particular interest in domestic abuse cases and children work and has also been involved in external and internal relocation cases. Shanika is part of the adoption team.

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