WHEN it was founded in 2017 the Scottish Ethnic Minority Lawyers' Association (Semla) had one main aim: to improve the representation of people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds in the legal profession.

Two years on and it is beginning to make some headway after partnering with firms including Burness Paull, Harper Macleod and MacRoberts to come up with ways of breaking down the barriers that prevent BAME candidates from pursuing a career in law.

Having held numerous networking events designed to show that the profession is open to people from all backgrounds, Semla has now secured a commitment from Burness Paull and a number of in-house legal departments that they will create places on their summer work-experience programmes specifically for ethnic minority students.

READ MORE: Ethnic minority lawyers group puts diversity at heart of profession

Ampersand Stable advocate and Semla co-founder Usman Tariq said this is a key first step in ensuring firms and legal departments have a more diverse pool of talent from which to choose their future trainees.

“The most common feedback we were getting was that there’s an over-representation of ethnic minority law students at universities but that they are not making their way into the profession,” he said.

“I was speaking to some of the largest law firms in Scotland and they were telling me that they weren’t getting the applications yet when talking to students they said they were struggling to get a training contract.”

While these two factors appear to be contradictory, Mr Tariq said the paucity of ethnic minority role models in the profession is feeding into perceptions that training contracts are hard to secure, which in turn is preventing students from applying for them in the first place.

“If you’re a student applying to a large commercial firm and you’re going onto their website to do some research if you don’t see anyone from an ethnic minority background you might think that you won’t fit in. That feeds into students not applying,” he said.

READ MORE: Visibility is key to LGBT equality in the legal profession

“There are also some intersectional issues with social mobility and ethnicity. Many students don’t have connections to the profession and so they don’t have access to work-experience opportunities, which the bigger firms are increasingly placing an emphasis on [when recruiting].

“Law firms also need to be more open minded about the recruitment process because there might be a good reason why a student doesn’t have that work experience. They might have had to work their summer to pay for their education and can’t afford to take time off - some schemes are unpaid.”

Rob Marrs, head of education at the Law Society of Scotland, noted that Semla’s work guiding ethnic minority law students towards traineeships is vital for driving better representation at the higher levels of the profession because “you can’t become a partner if you’re not an associate first and you can’t become an associate if you’re not a trainee first”.

Yet for Meena Bahanda of recruitment consultancy HRC Recruitment, while the partnerships being forged by Semla are invaluable for the individuals looking to pursue a career in law, there is still a lot that firms need to do to ensure everyone competing for a place is doing so on a level playing field.

“Unconscious bias remains a challenge and it’s up to everyone associated with the profession to continue addressing it in different ways,” she said.

“From a recruitment perspective, firms can commit to blind reviewing CVs, where the names and educational establishments are removed from candidates’ applications. Another step that can be taken is to ensure standardisation of interview questions across all candidates.”

READ MORE: Scottish legal profession urged to tackle bullying and diversity

Ultimately, Mr Marrs believes it is the firms that make these types of changes that stand to benefit the most.

“It’s really simple for me - if you try to solve the problems of today with the people who have always been there solving the problems you’ll just get the same solutions,” he said.

“You’re not going to get innovation if you have the same sorts of people from the same sorts of backgrounds looking at the same sorts of problems.

"Combined histories and experiences and viewpoints will, on the whole, spark ideas. I think that’s a no-brainer.”