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Why Oxford and Cambridge universities should not be the only routes to becoming a high-flying lawyer


By Trevor Phillips


People struggling to improve ethnic minority representation in the upper echelons of their organisations often tell me that there just aren't enough ethnic minorities to draw on in the lower ranks.


When it comes to the legal profession, however, this just doesn't hold water. The Black Solicitors Network recently claimed that paralegals are - anecdotally - a more diverse bunch than solicitors (at present, just under eight per cent of practising solicitors are from an ethnic minority background). So, if more is done to nurture this existing pool of talent, we could have a quick win on our hands.


Of course, tracking progress is pretty difficult when we don't have a clear picture of the ethnic make up of individual law firms and chambers at present.


Ethnic monitoring, enabling analysis of figures over time, is the only way to identify unwitting discrimination and put a stop to it.


Yes, there's been some progress - a lot of the leading law firms now have statements on their websites, outlining their commitment to diversity and the benefits it brings.


But the question is, are they mere words? Are they there to tick the diversity box? Or to woo ethnic minority recruits and global clients?


Ethnic monitoring is key to breaking down the barriers that prevent ethnic minorities from entering the legal profession. It is also essential practice if law firms and chambers want to keep the custom of public authorities and big business like Barclays Bank.


The legal requirement on the former to make sure that those they instruct employ staff who reflect the wider population, can, and must, be a catalyst for change.


As more and more firms watch these crucial contracts disappear, they'll soon realise that they have to open up the doors, stop recruiting purely from Oxbridge, and give paralegals a chance to move on up. And when that happens the paralegal profession needs to be ready to grasp the nettle. You will have to be well respected, well regulated and well-trained.



                           Summer Graduation 2005, Courtenay Griffiths QC addresses the audience

Courtenay Griffiths, QC, one of the very few Black lawyers to have reached the upper echelon of the legal profession


The CRE is working in partnership with the Institute of Paralegals to help create a legal profession that is representative of people it serves, and is a co-sponsor of the awards which will include a diversity award in each category.


We know from experience that awards schemes which recognise good work on equality and diversity can help to bring about real change. By celebrating best practice, you also indirectly illuminate the worst, raising awareness of the need take action and sparking competition between rival firms, each desperate to win.


These awards will go a long way towards increasing diversity among paralegals. Nine out of ten paralegals currently work outside the legal profession itself, but some may well harbour a desire to become solicitors or barristers.


Although not a traditional route into the legal profession, we know that many ethnic minorities, who might not have the opportunity to study law at Oxbridge, might consider a paralegal career as a way of getting a foot in the door.


Trevor Phillips is the chair of Commission for Racial Equality, Britain's race watchdog.


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