The legal watchdog is to interrogate why it receives more complaints about black and Asian lawyers than their white peers amid concerns about racial bias.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has asked researchers from York, Cardiff, and Lancaster universities to investigate why it receives a disproportionate amount of complaints about black, Asian and other minority ethic lawyers, and why a greater proportion of these then lead to an investigation.
The watchdog’s chief executive Paul Philip said the current situation is “troubling”, with 25pc of those reported to the SRA last year from a black and Asian background, despite ethnic minority lawyers making up just 18pc of the practising population.
Mr Philip said: “There could be many factors affecting the troubling picture we are seeing, including wider societal issues or structural features in the legal sector, for example the different diversity profile of small firms compared to large firms.
“Having a better understanding of the causes will help us and others address these issues.”
The regulator raised concerns earlier this year after finding that 26pc of reports received about black, Asian and minority ethnic lawyers were taken forward for investigation compared to 17pc for white colleagues.
Although previous probes into the issue have found no evidence of discrimination, the SRA admitted that it still does not fully understand the “societal and sociological factors” driving the figures which is why it has asked researchers to step in.
Professor Claudia Gabbioneta, chairman of accounting and management at the University of York’s business school, said researchers will now “look at the wider landscape” and engage with solicitors about their experience in the sector over the coming months.
She said the review will explore what factors might make black and Asian lawyers “more vulnerable to complaints than white solicitors”. Ms Gabbioneta will also look into whether the cases that go forward for investigation are “specific to any particular type of complaint”.
Industry leaders have been calling for the legal profession to diversify for years, but top law firms have made negligible progress. Last year The Telegraph revealed that the five prestigious “magic circle” firms, which pay partners between £1.5m and £2.9m a year, collectively have just eight black partners.