A Bleak Picture: Black lawyers in UK firms are four times more likely to leave than other ethnicities

December 12, 2021

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

Mid-ranking black lawyers in the largest UK law firms are four times more likely to leave than their white and other minority-ethnic peers.

What does this mean?

35 firms were surveyed to derive data on diversity at top UK law firms. Rare Recruitment, the diversity recruitment company that analyzed the data, found that the rate of attrition is significantly higher for black lawyers at qualification stage, as well as at the level of third- and seventh-year associates, in turn leading to very low numbers of black lawyers at partner level. There were fewer than 10 black lawyers with more than 10 years of experience. Surveys also showed that US-headquartered firms did consistently better than UK firms in maintaining black lawyers at partner level, with Vinson & Elkins and Morrison & Foerster beating the 3% figure (the proportion of black people in the wider population).

What's the big picture effect?

Firms are diversifying at the most junior end of the profession; 32% of firm intakes qualify as black and minority ethnic whilst firms’ clients are recruiting ethnically diverse graduate classes that reflect the general population. The problem, however, lies in the retention of these ethnic minorities, specifically black minorities. It is the swathe of middle-management associates, senior associates and partners that have the biggest impact on the careers of young people. A survey by Thomson Reuters found that black lawyers are more likely to say that racial injustice has held them back in their careers in comparison to lawyers of other ethnicities.

Such statistics do not discount the fact that firms have indeed been taking steps towards achieving greater black representation in their offices. The UK’s five Magic Circle law firms, along with Herbert Smith Freehills, Macfarlanes and Norton Rose Fulbright, have teamed up to launch Legal CORE (Collaboration On Race & Ethnicity). Ten leading law firms are also participating in the Mansfield Rule Certification for the first time in which firms are obliged to report that they have affirmatively considered at least 30% women, lawyers from underrepresented racial groups, lawyers with disabilities and LGBTQ+ lawyers for top leadership and management roles. While the Mansfield Rule is succeeding elsewhere, its performance remains to be seen in the UK.

However, these figures reflect a clear gap between communication and action in the UK. Since George Floyd’s murder in 2020, law firms have clambered to denounce racism in all firms, using terms such as “diversity committee”, and “quota targets” regularly. Clients have also increased pressure on law firms to increase their diversity, such as Novartis which introduced a diversity focus to its legal panel. This has led firms to simply use the names and faces of black lawyers on deals that have nothing to do with their area of work. This has led many lawyers feeling exploited by law firms that are more interested in presenting themselves as diverse than changing attitudes of racism, or feeling like “diversity props” while being kept aside when it comes to actual work allocation. It is likely that such experiences have led many black lawyers to leave their place of work, resulting in low retention rates.

On a practical level, the task is for partners outside of the BAME community to step up to champion diversity and create an all-welcoming environment. This is especially important considering the lack of role models in senior positions for young BAME lawyers. Many BAME lawyers also feel that it is not necessary for a mentor to be from a similar background, as long as they are open-minded, tolerant, and more interested in the mentee’s abilities as a lawyer. The Magic Circle firms have also implemented reverse mentoring schemes in which senior members of staff are paired with younger BAME lawyers to be educated about the issues of diversity. The Mansfield Rule could also assist in bringing more diverse lawyers to senior management levels. This could create a sense of belonging at the firm for BAME junior lawyers by remoulding the conventional assumption of what a partner looks like. Ultimately, as Toby Rufus, executive director at Goldman Sachs, said, “diversity is not optional – it is what we must be”.

Report written by Roshni Suresh Babu

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