In May 2023, the Legal Service Board (LSB) published a new study entitled, ‘The lived experiences of legal professionals: Barriers to getting in, being in and getting on – Qualitative Research Debrief’. The purpose of the research was to gain a better understanding of the barriers to inclusivity that exist within the legal sector; “The aim is to better understand the nature and impact of counter-inclusive practices on legal professionals to inform future research and policy activity on equality, diversity and inclusion”. In this article, we will look further at the research carried out by the LSB and the key findings.
LSB Study Objectives And Methodology
The study had three objectives. The first was to understand the real-life experiences of participants when it comes to counter-inclusive practices in the workplace in the last three years. The second was to look at how these practices have impacted the work, career and personal lives of participants. And the third objective was to gain a better understanding of how to address counter-inclusive practices.
Researchers conducted interviews with 30 legal professionals between October 2022 and January 2023. Participants included trainees, practising solicitors, barristers, and other legal professionals and represented “a mix of gender identity, sexuality, ethnic background, religious beliefs, socioeconomic background, presence of health condition, neurodiversity and disability”. Crucially, all 30 participants had experienced some form of counter-inclusive practice in the last 3 years. The study also focused on three career phases – “getting (back) in” (i.e. applying for jobs), “being in” (i.e. company policies and culture), and “getting on” (i.e. pay, rewards, and progression).
LSB Study’s Main Findings
Some of the key findings of the study suggest that the legal industry needs to do more to move beyond the traditional law firm culture. When it comes to entering (or re-entering the legal profession), participants spoke of feeling hindered in their job applications if they did not have the necessary contacts, attend certain universities, or they were joining from another profession. In part, this was attributed to the existence of company policies and processes that do not provide adequate support to applicants from under-represented groups within the profession. One participant raised concerns regarding the outmoded use of exam results over experience; “Some Chambers you don’t qualify if not AAA or A in certain subjects. If you are 10 years on from A-levels, then that is a nonsense. By the time I applied, I had spent time as a paralegal and practiced law in two countries. If you have done a non-traditional route there are lots of positives they could leverage, but they don’t see that.”
Some participants reported “surviving” but not “thriving” within the legal sector due to the lack of inclusivity. This meant they tended to move sideways within their career rather than upwards, and some left altogether; “Participants typically opted to leave jobs where they had negative experiences to make a sideways move, and some found themselves caught in a loop of tackling counter-inclusive workplaces”.
Participants with health conditions reported that some employers still do not offer flexible home working. The requirement to return to a traditional office workplace post-COVID-19 has left many with long-term health conditions feeling overwhelmed and under-supported. One ‘neurodivergent’ participant told the researchers, “I started to notice issues when we went from home working to working in the office. The big open-plan office was way too much. There aren’t facilities there, no soundproofed side rooms. In a review, my supervisor said everyone was struggling to change and that my issues were not specific and discounted my needs”.
The study highlighted that many law firms are “set in their ways” and that more needs to be done to encourage more open and enquiring conversations about inclusion and diversity. This includes the acceptance “that equity of opportunity means there will be differences in experiences of support”. One participant with a disability told the study, “There has to be an appetite for change within the profession and a willingness to accept that different people are going to require different levels of assistance to succeed”. Another person with a disability said, “I didn’t want to be treated differently. But in the end I had to accept that was what needed to happen”.
The study found that counter-inclusive practices have negative impacts on workers’ well-being, productivity, and career development. And unfortunately, many people are reluctant to speak out about their counter-inclusive experiences out of fear of damaging their career opportunities. Participants highlighted the need for a “mindset and culture shift” within the legal sector to ensure that “difference is valued and is seen as valuable to attract and retain a diverse range of talent”.
While many law firms across the UK have put in place policies for greater inclusivity, more needs to be done. The study highlights that in some law firms, the old ways persist. As one participant explained, “Anything which strayed outside the rigid way of doing things was a problem. It was definitely an age and gender issue, was run by men, and anything that took time away from billable hours made you a liability.”
Matthew Hill, Chief Executive of the LSB, said about the study, “The insights provided by this study highlight enormous opportunities to make things better by changing the way the sector does business. We hope anyone serious about inclusion in the legal services sector will use the research to tackle the barriers that lawyers face every day”.
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