Ashurst has the highest percentage of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) UK partners of the country’s 10 largest law firms, according to new research, which also reveals that those firms have an average of just 7% of UK partners from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Figures provided to Legal Week by nine of the UK top 10 place Ashurst ahead of its peers on partner diversity, with 11% of the firm’s UK partners identifying as BAME in 2017.

At all of the other eight firms to have provided figures*, the percentage stands at less than 10%, with Allen & Overy (A&O) second on 9% and Linklaters third with 8.9%.

The figures compare unfavourably with the UK-wide BAME proportion of 13% of the general population recorded in the last census in 2011, a figure that rises to about 40% in London, where the majority of partners at major UK law firms are based.

The latest figures from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) show 16% of UK solicitors identified as BAME when research was carried out in 2016.

Legal Week’s data shows firms are making progress in improving diversity lower down their ranks, even if their partnerships have yet to catch up.

Clifford Chance has the highest proportion of BAME non-partner lawyers among the UK top 10, with just under 30% of the firm’s UK lawyers identifying as BAME in 2017. However, this figure falls to 5.1% for its partnership.

Closely behind, 28% of A&O’s trainees and 23% of its associates are BAME, while 24% of Ashurst’s associates are from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Within the top 10, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has the lowest proportion of UK BAME partners at 3.4%, with the equivalent figure for associates standing at 13.5%.

Ashurst London private equity partner David Carter said: “I think law firms generally have sensible processes to ensure they get access to all available talent. If you go further [and tell HR], ‘we want you to go out and get black lawyers’, I don’t think that will be received well. I don’t think black lawyers want that. We just want the same level playing field at the outset to get that interview.

“Law firms understand that. Progress is slow; it takes time to build a law firm into a shape that is attractive to more diverse candidates as well as educating people  about those opportunities.”

The lack of BAME representation at the largest UK firms is also an issue in the wider legal sector, according to a study released yesterday (31 October) by the SRA. This found that career progression remains an issue both for ethnic minority lawyers and women in the UK. White male solicitors are six times more likely to make partner than ethnic minority women and three times more likely than white women.

It also found that there has been a significant increase in the number of BAME lawyers entering the profession in the last three decades, with the percentage of solicitors identifying as BAME standing at just 0.25% in 1982, compared to the latest figure of 16%.

The independent research was carried out by the University of Leeds and Newcastle University Business School, which analysed data for more than 194,000 solicitors between 1970 and 2016.

Raph Mokades, managing director of the Rare specialist recruitment agency, said: “Whether or not a formal target is set is not the most important question [when it comes to boosting diversity]. The key thing is that the number of BAME partners is regularly reviewed and compared to industry and population norms. Regular measurement ensures that partner diversity stays a key focus.

“Secondly, firms need to make proactive efforts to ensure diversity in their trainee and associate hiring, in order to have a diverse pipeline. And thirdly, just looking at the numbers and hiring diversity lower down won’t on their own produce more diverse partnerships. The final piece of the puzzle is ensuring that the partner identification and promotion process is bias-free.”

Percentage of BAME partners at the UK top 10 firms:

  • Ashurst: 11%
  • Allen & Overy: 9%
  • Linklaters: 8.9%
  • Norton Rose Fulbright: 8%
  • DLA Piper: 7%
  • Clifford Chance: 5.1%
  • Herbert Smith Freehills: 5%
  • CMS UK: 5%
  • Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer: 3.4%

*Both Linklaters and Freshfields have yet to report 2017 figures so the data for these firms is for 2016. Hogan Lovells was the only UK top 10 firm that declined to provide ethnicity data.