Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Discrimination widespread among lawyers but rising standards make the grade

Who would have thought there was discrimination among Scotland's legal profession ?

Well, as luck would have it, recent reseatch by the Law Society of Scotland, has alleged that 20% of Scottish solicitors have suffered discrimination at one time or another in their careers.

The solution to this ? Maybe following the advice given to clients when they suffer discrimination from lawyers .. see a lawyer ! .. oh right, that one doesn't work now does it ?

Don't worry solicitors of Scotland .. you can always turn to "Law Care", the slightly dodgy entity run by James Ness of the Cherbi Executry case fame .. not as good as watching Frasier perhaps .. but there's still four legs around somewhere ...

Following piece from the Scotsman - you will have to ignore the delusional chant of "Rising Standards" - that's been on the go since 1949 and in 2007 we have the worst public perception of solicitors since records began - mostly due to the policies of the current leadership of the Law Society of Scotland who may have been at the helm for far too long.

Rising standards, but some issues remain barriers

ONE in five Scottish solicitors has suffered from discrimination at some point during their careers, according to a major new profile of the profession.

A survey of more than 3,000 solicitors has revealed that 22 per cent had experienced discrimination - with almost four times as many female victims as male.

The Law Society of Scotland, which commissioned the research, has described the findings as "a real concern" - particularly as a third of respondents were aged under 35, suggesting that discrimination remains a current issue for the profession.

Partners and line managers were the most likely source of discrimination, which ranged from issues surrounding communication and allocation of work to bullying and harassment.

The survey results also indicate discrimination may be a significant barrier for young lawyers who are seeking a traineeship or are in training. This is an issue that the society now plans to urgently address during its ongoing review of education and training.

The society is also preparing free continuing professional development (CPD) resources to ensure both private sector firms and public sector bodies are sufficiently aware of the problem and their responsibilities to promote diversity in the workplace.

Male solicitors may even be specifically targeted in future to ensure they are sufficiently aware of diversity issues after the survey indicated a mismatch in their perceptions of the scale of problems, such as the negative impact of maternity leave, compared to women's views.

Neil Stevenson, the society's head of diversity, says that while the rate of reported discrimination appears to be in line with the rest of society, there is no room for complacency. He adds that the fact that only 9 per cent of discrimination victims said they had reported the problem was a particular area of concern.

The survey also revealed 171 solicitors had been the victims of active bullying, and Stevenson says that even this relatively low number is "unacceptable".

"That is disappointing and there is no place for that in a profession," he says. "That was a result we didn't want to see but we have and we need to find ways to try and tackle it. We have strengthened the rule in the code of conduct on discrimination and we are also going to promote the independent helpline (LawCare) funded by the society, which can help to tackle bullying and harassment.

"Overall, we are seeing a more positive picture but there is this small percentage of cases and it is unacceptable. People who feel they are the victim need to come forward."

Stevenson says the society is particularly keen to address any barriers that may prevent people from gaining access to a traineeship after successfully completing a law degree (LLB) and diploma in legal practice.

"We looked at what stage discrimination happened at, and it was really coming up in terms of getting a traineeship and during the traineeship. That obviously gives us food for thought for the future.

"That has to be a key issue for us because it's a stage you have to get past, and everyone has to have confidence that it's fair."

Stevenson adds that as the survey is based on perception of why someone was not offered a traineeship, or not kept on at the end of their training, for example, the results cannot represent an wholly accurate picture.

But since a third of the survey respondents were under the age of 35 he says the society will want to ensure firms are taking action to break down such barriers.

"As part of the education consultation, it is likely that in the future training firms will be accredited and will have to meet minimum standards," he says.

This could include ensuring firms are not collecting data about ethnic origin or religious background on the application form itself, but on a separate sheet, he adds.

In 2005, the society's study of women in the legal profession revealed evidence of discrimination in pay disparities and barriers to promotion.

This latest profile of the profession suggests that men may be underestimating how serious this issue is. For example, far fewer men than women perceive maternity leave as a barrier to career progression.

"This is telling us, on the basis of the women's study and this study, that it probably does affect your career," Stevenson says. "We might need to think about educating male solicitors - we know that there is a gap between what they think and the reality."

However, the society is also keen to emphasise that there are reasons for the profession to take some encouragement.

Stevenson says the results should help to explode the myth that lawyers are grey-suited middle aged men from "legal dynasties", as fewer than six per cent of those surveyed say their father had worked in the legal profession.

"The perception of lawyers as men in grey suits is a caricature and they are a dying breed," says Stevenson.

The profession is on course to have 50 per cent women within the next five years and this shift in gender balance may go a long way towards convincing firms that they need to adapt to a more diverse profession, he says: "Firms will find that, in order to recruit and retain the best staff, they will have to offer flexible working."

The survey results provide the most detailed profile of the profession ever conducted in Scotland. The questionnaire covered four areas: demographics, including gender, race, sexual orientation and religious background; qualifications and background; current career details; and attitudes and experiences.

The society intends to repeat the research every three years in order to track any trends and gauge whether action to promote diversity and tackle discrimination is having a positive effect.

Firms and other employers will be encouraged to share best practice, and to use special continuing professional development resources based on the results of the survey.

Stevenson adds that it had been mooted that each firm should designate a partner to take the lead on diversity issues, but that this idea was rejected.

"It is the responsibility of all the partners," he explains. "It really needs to be something shared in common and they all need to take it onboard."

While it might be assumed that there would be a difference between large and small firms, or between the private and public sectors. Stevenson says this was not supported by the evidence.

"The in-house and the private sector seem to be about the same, and that shows us that these are challenges all organisations need to think about."

• The LawCare helpline is 0800 279 6869. More details at

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