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Published on March 3, 2021 by Content admin

Law firms and chambers are increasingly making an effort to improve the diversity of their workforces. Schemes such as ‘Bridging the Bar’, and the use of RARE Recruitment’s Contextual Recruitment System by around fifty law firms, intend to bring those who may not fit the traditional image of a lawyer into the profession.

However, recent statistics from the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Standards Board suggest that though the numbers of lawyers from underrepresented groups are rising steadily, there is still much work to be done:

  • Women make up only 34% of partners in firms and 38% of the practising bar.
  • Lawyers from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are considerably underrepresented in larger firms. Moreover, it appears lawyers from BAME backgrounds are likely to stay with firms for less time than their white counterparts.
  • In comparison to 13% of the general population, only 3% of solicitors and 6% of barristers declare they have a disability.

Adopting working practices to provide greater recognition and support for these groups would ensure that the most talented legal professionals, regardless of background, could flourish. Research suggests that the professional performance, not to mention wellbeing, of members of the LGBT+ community and those with disabilities for example, is considerably improved when staff feel they can be open about these identities in the workplace.

As a lawyer’s weapon of choice is their words, adapting the language used in legal documents and communications can help reflect and accommodate a more inclusive approach to practicing the law.

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What Does Inclusive Language Look Like?

  1. Gender-Neutral

In a truly inclusive legal workplace, ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Sir or Madam’, should be phrases confined to archived documents. Both make an assumption about the gender of the communication’s recipient. Instead, consider addressing your communications to the firm, organisation or team itself – i.e. ‘Dear The Lawyer Portal’, or ‘Dear Whomever it May Concern’. You may feel as though this looks a little long, or lacks personalisation, but be aware that addressing someone with a pronoun or title which they do not use could be much more off-putting. Where an individual’s name is known, address communications to them specifically.

In legal documents, wherever possible remove pronouns (‘he or she’) and replace them with the position of the person being referred to, such as ‘the supplier’. If pronouns are still required, the terms ‘they’ or ‘the person’ can also be used.

For further information on the above, please refer to the Guide to Gender Neutral Drafting, created by the Interlaw Diversity Forum, Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and the Government Legal Department.

  1. Ensures an individual is not defined by one identity feature

As modern lawyers, it will often be necessary to address or represent groups that have traditionally been discriminated against or are considered a minority within the wider population. When doing so, it is important to use terms that do not contribute towards the oppression of individuals within that group.

In general, a good rule to follow is putting the person before the group or identity. For example ‘person/people of colour’, or ‘person/people with a disability’. This prioritises the individual, rather than suggesting that a specific identity trait defines them.

Your language can also help challenge some of the negative stigmas associated with identity traits. For example, using ‘people placed in a vulnerable situation’ as opposed to ‘vulnerable people’. This acknowledges that people who live in a position of vulnerability are not inherently vulnerable, rather their social circumstances have placed them in such.

Note that people who share identity traits are not a homogenous group, and so some individuals may prefer different terms. If writing about/addressing someone specifically, and you are aware of their preferred term, use this. Similarly, terms such as ‘People of Colour’ describe a vastly diverse group, and so it may be appropriate to use a more specific term.

Preferred language evolves over time, and so to ensure you are being as inclusive as possible, check the language used by organisations that represent the people you wish to refer to. You could look at terms suggested by Stonewall, Black British Academics, or The National Disability Authority.

  1. Uses Plain English

Though the legal profession demands a strong command of the written and spoken word, the words themselves should not be complex. In fact, over-complicating the language in communications and legal documents may mean a client is left uncertain about what they are agreeing to.

At a minimum, in producing written work lawyers should:

  • Remove or define legal jargon
  • Keep sentences short
  • Expand any acronyms
  • Use plain English terms wherever possible.

Plain English is also key to providing an inclusive and accessible working atmosphere. Documents written in plain English allow clients and colleagues with a disability, such as blindness or dyslexia, to engage more effectively with the law. Further, such documents are easier to translate into other languages, which is advantageous to international firms.

Lawyers embracing inclusive language will help ensure that the law can be understood and interacted with by anyone. Using terms that acknowledge and support those traditionally excluded from the legal profession, is a small but significant step in consolidating efforts to diversify the sector.

Words: Katie McLean

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