neuberger_185x185_591822aOn 12 March 2014 Lord Neuberger gave a speech to the House of Commons (titled the Rainbow Lecture 2014), the purpose of which was to address the issues of minority representation in the legal sphere.

Lord Neuberger acknowledged that “it is much, much easier to talk, write, compile statistics and pontificate about the important issues than it is actually to do something about them”, but highlighted that there have been improvements in the area. He mentioned steps that had been taken to rectify the under-representation of some of the country’s social groups, but advised that everyone must do more.

Whilst reiterating the usual concerns regarding inequality and the unjust effects of it, Lord Neuberger also tackled issues of majority under-representation and indirect discrimination.  He stated that under-representation didn’t simply concern minorities in terms of race or sexuality, but also technical majorities such as women (who outnumber men) and those from less privileged social, educational and economic backgrounds (who despite being in the majority of the population are “grossly under-represented” in certain professional areas).

He cited the statistic that women now account for more than 20% of FTSE 100 boards, but revealed that if you “drill a little deeper” you find that 92% of those women are non-executives.

He attributed the under-representation of women in the legal sphere largely to the “24/7” culture in City law firms, where “solicitors with family responsibilities almost inevitably work fewer hours, and therefore do not carry the same heft as those sad people who have no life but their work“.  He said that the situation was a symptom of chargeable hours targets and the fact that, for non-partners, solicitors’ costs in terms of salary and overheads is fixed meaning that their value is “ultimately down to the number of chargeable hours clocked up, rather than the quality of work“.  As women are more often bound by family commitments, Lord Neuberger explained that they all too often fell victim to a preference for “obsessive, testosterone-driven men” who will work all night, despite the fact that women were “balanced“, “sensible” and often “more effective advisers and advocates“.

Lord Neuberger suggested that creative ways of tackling the problem were needed.  For example he said that “the judiciary’s diversity potential is being increased by more part-time judges being appointed” and that future steps should include changing the working culture in City firms to step away from the limiting 24/7 commitment requirements (a move which would allow women to progress to the higher level positions within law firms, but also within chambers where women are suffering by proxy due to the need for barristers to be available when solicitors call at increasingly anti-social hours).

Nonetheless, Lord Neuberger emphasised that he would “warn against unthinking attacks on the professions…for not doing more to promote diversity“, stating that “it is as much a reflection on the failing of our society generally, including parents and schools as well as government, that we are as imbalanced as we are“.

Indirect discrimination was shown throughout the speech to have arisen from a range of social practices and constructs. Disabled people, for example, were shown to be limited by the fact that designers of offices and court buildings hadn’t taken them into account.  Those from underprivileged backgrounds were shown to suffer on the basis that “the opportunities that their more fortunate peers have been afforded over time places them at a considerable disadvantage” long before they even come to think about applying to law firms or chambers.  Whilst those from ethnic minorities may be hindered and distracted by racism (whether intentional or unconscious) experienced across institutions (in this regard Lord Neuberger shows that his finger is on the pulse and cites Buzzfeed and an article therein regarding the experience of minority students at Oxford University).

In summary Lord Neuberger – in an insightful and informed speech – demonstrated that inequality was not only unjust, but also inefficient. He said that “if the most important jobs are, in practice, open to only a small proportion of the population, it is statistically inevitable that many of those top jobs do not go to the best people” (such as “balanced“, “sensible” women). He said that without change the UK would not “flourish” and suggested that change was needed across the whole of society, not just in what we think, but in how we practically ensure that access is not being blocked to those who could potentially be the best people for the job.

The speech can be found here and is a recommended read.