IN ITS most recent study on the demographics of the legal profession the Law Society of Scotland found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that ethnic minorities are under-represented.

The figures, which were last collated in 2013, show that while those from a black background make up one per cent of the population they account for less than one per cent of solicitors. Those from Asian backgrounds, meanwhile, make up three per cent of the population at large but just one per cent of the solicitors roll.

Not only that but, despite diversity becoming more of a focus across all facets of the profession, the proportions remained unaltered between 2006 and 2013.

Loading article content

A small band of solicitors and advocates aims to change that.

Led by Usman Tariq, an advocate at Ampersand Stable, the Scottish Ethnic Minority Lawyers Association (Semla) is setting out to shatter perceptions that the law is closed off to people from non-white backgrounds.

Speaking about why he decided such an organisation was needed, Mr Tariq said: “I had been mentoring students at Glasgow University and I also go to meet lots of ethnic minority lawyers and there is a constant theme of a lack of knowledge about the profession. There is also a perception that there is a lack of opportunities.”

While the preponderance of white faces in the profession is partly to blame for what Mr Tariq wants to prove is a misperception, Omar Ali, a partner at Harper Macleod and member of the Semla steering group, said it has also been self-perpetuating within ethnic minority communities.

“The legal profession has been an area that ethnic minorities haven’t delved into,” Mr Ali said. “In the Indian subcontinent medicine has always been seen as the gold standard and law hasn’t really featured. That’s why you find a lot of ethnic minorities will gravitate towards medicine and dentistry.

“Law has traditionally been seen as a difficult area to get into because of the lack of ethnic minorities there.

“If you look back to when I started doing law there weren’t that many. I was at Glasgow graduate school of law in 1999 and in that class there was me, [Crown Office procurator fiscal and Semla steering group member] Imran Bashir, [human rights lawyer and Glasgow University rector] Aamer Anwar and [Comhairle nan Eilean Siar solicitor and Semla member] Sheekha Saha.

“It’s taken us that length of time to get to a stage where there are more ethnic minorities getting involved in the profession and we’re a bit more senior.”

This, said fellow Semla member and Aberdein Considine partner Naeema Sajid, is the crux.

“It’s about positive role models – ultimately that’s what this group is about and it goes back to why we’ve not been getting into the profession,” she said.

“Ethnic minorities have not had family members or friends who are lawyers and that’s traditionally been one of the routes into the profession.

“I found my own way into the profession but we want to try to make it easier. It’s so competitive for traineeships if you haven’t had guidance from the outset.”

Semla will have its official launch in July at an event whose bill includes high-profile speakers such as Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC, Faculty of Advocates dean Gordon Jackson QC and incoming Law Society of Scotland president Graham Matthews.

Ms Sajid and Mr Tariq said having such support is vital because it sends a strong message that those at the top of the profession want it to open up too. “Having people from the top level shows we have the profession behind us. It shows that the buy-in exists across the board,” Mr Tariq said.

“It’s so important for ethnic minority lawyers starting off in their careers to see that support,” Ms Sajid added.

Ultimately, while Semla’s initial focus is on helping junior lawyers start their career in the law, if it is successful it should help make legal businesses more competitive too. “What some firms have recognised is that they are not getting the same level of interest or applications from ethnic minority lawyers,” Mr Tariq said.

“The problem they are having is that when they look at their employee base is it is not representative of the community they are in. Firms are now having those conversations and asking why they aren’t as diverse.”

Mr Ali continued: “Because diversity has become such a big issue firms are looking at it but some might not know what to do about it.

“It’s quite a delicate subject. If you don’t have people from an ethnic minority background it can be difficult knowing what to say. If you have an association they can just come to us.”

Or, as Ms Sajid put it: “We [lawyers] are regulating other businesses and telling them what to do. Firms want this awareness because it can affect their client relationships.”