Society diversity

The President of the Bar on the promotion of diversity in an elite profession

When Stephanie Boyce worked as a postwoman in Buckinghamshire, she often saw commuter trains heading for London. “I looked up and thought, ‘I’ll be on that train someday,'” she says of that time in her late teens when she “got by”, trying to work and study.

His efforts paid off. Boyce, 49, became the first president of color in the nearly 200-year history of the Law Society of England and Wales, which represents 200,000 lawyers. She is the sixth female president.

She plans to be a force for change at the Bar. Sitting in one of his oak-paneled rooms in Chancery Lane, Boyce says, “I have talked about the fact for a long time. . . that I would like to leave a more diverse and inclusive profession than the one I started.

“There are absolute and growing social opportunities in this profession, but we are fully aware that more needs to be done. We can’t just have diversity – we also have to have inclusion. There’s no point in giving someone a seat at the table if you don’t allow their voice to be heard.

Women now make up 31 percent of partners in large private practice law firms, and black, Asian and ethnic minority lawyers make up 7 percent of partners while they make up 21 percent of the profession.

Last year, the Legal Services Board, the industry regulator, concluded in a impactful report that a “gradual change” was needed to facilitate entry into law. He said the profession had a persistent lack of diversity in hiring, retention and career progression, with a preference for “elite” educational institutions that hampered people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Boyce, the child of a single parent from a working African-Caribbean family, grew up in an estate in Buckinghamshire. At age 12, she emigrated to live on a military base in upstate New York because her stepfather was in the US Air Force. She was struck by inequality and poverty in the United States: “I would just be overwhelmed by injustices as I saw them. . . Have little or no rights due to your low socioeconomic status or the color of your skin.

Upon returning to the UK at 19, his high school diploma was not recognized by UK universities. She worked as a postman and later in a railway ticket office while studying at a local college, then graduated in law and politics from London Guildhall University.

In a profession where personal relationships are influential, getting a job was difficult. “I did not have access to these networks. . . where information, sponsors, mentors and work experience come from.

She submitted many applications and her biological father, who worked at the local district court, handed over her CV to local lawyers. She eventually got a job at a Buckinghamshire law firm, where she graduated in 2002.

Since then she has worked primarily as an in-house legal advisor in organizations such as the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants.

“Social mobility is an absolute must,” she says. “I have spoken for a long time about my own situation. Some people ask me why I am talking about it. I am not embarrassed. It is important that people appreciate and realize that coming from a non-traditional background, from a low socio-economic starting position, you can still reach the top of your profession and you can, after reaching it, do a difference. “

In 1990, there were 709 lawyers from ethnic minorities in England and Wales, up from 20,675 in 2019. In 1978, 2,988 women held a practicing lawyer certificate, up from 75,764 in 2019.

Since 1990, women have made up over 60 percent of new arrivals as lawyers, but career progression is a challenge. “These numbers do not translate into leadership positions,” she said.

She also emphasizes Bar search on the experience of Bame lawyers who identified issues regarding law firm recruitment practices, work distribution and inclusive culture. “If you come from a black, Asian and minority ethnic origin, you earn less per hour than your white colleagues, leave the profession two years earlier than your white colleagues and you are more likely to be the victim of harassment,” intimidation and discrimination. . . So there are real problems there. “

The UK legal profession has been criticized for its lack of diversity and social mobility

The UK legal profession has been criticized for its lack of diversity and social mobility © Dan Kitwood / Getty

She had to fight against negative perceptions. “A recruiting agent told me that I would never go to the City because I had not been trained in the City, I had not worked in the City. . . She told me that my salary expectations were unrealistic and that would never happen. Well I gave her up and got a new one [headhunter] and I ended up getting my first job at the City, ”she laughs.

Boyce ran for vice-president of the Bar four times until she was elected. “Some people have said to me, ‘Stephanie, you embarrass yourself, go home and rest.’ But I would have continued a fifth or sixth time if that was what was needed because that was my belief in my ability to play the part and I was just as capable and just as qualified, ”she said. .

The profession of lawyer is evolving. Elite City Linklaters, Herbert Smith Freehills and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer have elected women leaders. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, many law firms have made diversity and inclusion a priority.

Magic Circle companies like Clifford Chance – which has 26% female partners and 8% Bame partners in its London office – have set new goals. Clifford Chance has committed to at least 40% female partners by 2030 and has adopted minority ethnic goals for the US and UK for 15% of new partners by 2025.

Internal teams at large companies such as Coca-Cola and NatWest set minimum diversity requirements for the panels of the external law firms they use.

In addition to improving diversity and inclusion, Boyce’s priorities include helping the legal profession recover from the pandemic. Lawyers who rely on legal aid to represent defendants have seen their incomes shrink after the number of crown court trials fell last year over Covid-19.

Another goal is mental well-being. She points out that lawyers, especially young lawyers, have been under added pressure on their mental health during the pandemic and have lacked vital supervision and training.

She also wants to send a message that there are more and more opportunities: “Determination and resilience has been the absolute driving force for me. The ability to keep going when people have told me no or told me I can’t, to keep going because I absolutely believe all doors are open if you push, ”she says.