addressing unequal representation in the legal profession and the injustices it perpetuates
Around the world, the legal profession has historically been the domain of white, privileged males. Some conservative nations, such as Saudi Arabia, didn’t even allow women to practice law until recently. And in 2015, the Washington Post declared law to be the least diverse profession in the U.S., as a full 88% of the nation’s lawyers are white.
The issue of unequal representation is even more pervasive in leadership positions. According to the aforementioned article, although non-whites account for about one-fifth of law school graduates, fewer than 7% work as law firm partners or in a similar high-level position. Women are also vastly underrepresented among managing and equity partners in law firms of all sizes.
Unequal representation among lawyers is not only a problem on its own; it can also have a cascading effect on legal justice and communities. Laws that favour the privileged are just one example of how the lack of diversity in the profession, and the criminal justice system itself, serves to perpetuate injustice.
Within the legal profession, unequal representation encompasses various demographics including gender, race, and income level. The good news is that there is hope on the horizon. In Australia, women have been practising law for 100 years. However, less than 1% of practising lawyers in Australia are Indigenous.
Many legal experts believe that addressing these inequalities is of primary importance in the field and that expanding educational opportunities in underprivileged communities is a great place to start.
Minority Representation in the Legal Profession
In the U.S., minorities have long faced an uphill battle when pursuing a career in the legal field. Those who grow up in poor communities often lack educational resources, for starters, and the high cost of law school is prohibitive for countless would-be lawyers. Among minority cultures, stereotypes abound, often leading to misunderstandings and/or outright discrimination.
There’s also the issue of racial bias to consider. Along with being promoted at a significantly lower rate than their white male counterparts, non-white lawyers also earn less on average. A similar problem of diversity exists in the judicial realm of law, as nearly 80% of U.S. federal judges are white, and many states have never had a minority justice represent its citizens at the federal level.
That’s not to say that women and racial minorities aren’t making gains in the field. Quite the contrary. For example, 31% of practising lawyers in the U.S. were women as of 2010. Only a decade later, that number grew to 37.6%, and the upward trend is expected to continue. That’s because more women than ever before are enrolled in law school, representing a majority among students for the first time in modern history. By 2021 in Australia, there were more than 44,000 female lawyers to less than 40,000 male lawyers. This is likely because 67% of those entering the profession since 2011 are female, while less than 30% are male.
Fighting Common Workplace Grievances
Despite the gains made in recent years in terms of addressing unequal representation in the workplace, there’s still plenty of work to be done. In nearly every industry and situation in our modern world, discrimination is rampant. And discrimination can look quite different depending on context and setting, spanning from hate crimes to workplace harassment and beyond.
In some cases, discrimination from co-workers or peers can come in the form of microaggressions. A subtle form of discrimination, workplace microaggressions can be behavioural, environmental, or verbal, and can greatly impact one’s mental state over the long term. Although they can be difficult to identify, microaggressions may take the form of insensitive comments aimed at marginalised groups or an obvious lack of representation and diversity within the firm itself.
Those who are targets of microaggressions, in and out of the workplace, may ultimately feel invalidated, confused, and doubtful of personal abilities. For legal professionals, self-doubt can be detrimental to one’s ability to litigate effectively and honestly, undermining the integrity of an entire practice. Minorities in law must be particularly vigilant in terms of identifying microaggressions and actively working to reduce their harmful effects.
Solutions to Unequal Representation: Bridging the Gaps
Overcoming racial bias is far from an insurmountable task. By simply providing minority students with greater access to legal education and mentorships, the legal profession can become increasingly diverse to better reflect its client base. Achieving the goal of greater diversity and representation in law begins at the high school level and spans all the way to the bar.
In the bulk of U.S. states, law school graduates must pass their state’s bar exam to be admitted to practice. The bar exam is notoriously difficult, requiring countless hours of studying as well as support from friends and family, and consistent access to technology. Improving access to the bar exam can give minority students a leg up in a highly competitive industry.
Interestingly, the State Bar of California reported a 10.4% increase in bar passage rates after it moved the exam online in 2020 as a response to Covid. More than half of first-time applicants passed, a strong indication that increased access of the bar exam to a diverse applicant base can improve success rates.
In Australia, law students are often required to complete a practical stage of their education once they have completed their degrees. Called ‘articles of clerkship’ in some Australian states, this practical legal training occurs in the offices of licensed, practising lawyers. In many cases where professionals are required to complete this training, it can be who you are and who you know that determines your success.
Without equal representation among lawyers, judges, and juries, minority citizens face an uncertain future and continued injustice, in and out of the workplace. By working to increase diversity in the profession, legal professionals and everyday citizens alike can help foster a more tolerant, just world.
Charlie Fletcher is a freelance writer passionate about workplace equity, and whose published works cover sociology, politics, business, education, health, and more. You can see more of her work by visiting her portfolio.