Wednesday 11 April 2012 by Jonathan Rayner

The legal profession's culture of 'casual sexism' and high levels of drinking has led women and ethnic minority solicitors to adopt special strategies to overcome institutional discrimination in law firms, researchers funded by the Legal Services Board claim today.

Some Asian women solicitors choose to wear western clothes to the office rather than risk looking 'too ethnic', and it was 'perfectly acceptable' for older barristers to 'hit on' women barristers, it was claimed.

A Muslim lawyer avoids networking with colleagues because he is 'reluctant to go to an event which is alcohol dominated', while a white colleague 'joked' to a black solicitor that, with his ethnicity, he must be a cleaner, it was also claimed.

The claims appear in Legal Services Board (LSB) research released today at the British Sociological Association's annual conference in Leeds. Researchers found that one strategy adopted by women and ethnic minority lawyers was to assimilate into the 'dominant, white, masculine' culture, by 'taking up the hobbies, customs and dress of the dominant work group' or by compromising on their values and their aspirations for family life.

For white female respondents, assimilation involved minimising the visibility and impact of family life, by concealing family pictures in their offices, returning to work quickly after maternity and generally subscribing to stereotypically masculine career trajectories, or 'managing like a man'.

One female interviewee said: 'I did not take time off to go to school sports days. You sort of felt that if a bloke took time off to go to school sports day everybody would be saying what a good father he is.'

The conference was told that Law Society surveys have revealed that lawyers from ethnic minorities were over-represented in the legal aid sector, and were more likely to work in small high-street firms or as sole practitioners, while barristers from ethnic minorities were heavily concentrated in a few chambers, drawing much of their work from their own communities and specialising in criminal defence and immigration rather than more lucrative commercial work.

A speaker said that there was 'extensive evidence that while overtly discriminatory practices have largely been dismantled, the top echelons of the legal profession remain not only dominated by white, upper-middle class men, but as sites of subtle institutional discrimination.'

Another strategy, the conference was told, was to reform the system, though this was only possible for those who had climbed to positions of power. Examples of reforms included campaigning to make a barristers' chambers develop maternity support policies, changing and making more transparent partnership promotion criteria, lobbying for diversity and equal opportunities issues within professional associations, and engaging in outreach activities to mentor and recruit disadvantaged groups.

Dr Jennifer Tomlinson, University of Leeds, and Professor Daniel Muzio, University of Manchester, interviewed 32 white women, and 27 women and nine men from ethnic minorities, in firms in London, the south-east and north-east of England. Twelve were partners in solicitors firms, 29 were non-partners, 10 were trainees, seven were barristers and the 10 others were academics, executives and paralegals.

The LSB funded the research which was directed by Professor Hilary Sommerlad of Leicester University, with Professor Lisa Webley and Liz Duff of the University of Westminster.

Read the full report from the research.

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