Women and ethnic minorities must be better represented within the legal profession, the Lord Chancellor claimed last night.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton spoke out during an event staged by law firm Wragge & Co in Birmingham, stating that the law needs to attract people from a broader spectrum to represent British society.
He had previously ruled out introducing diversity quotas, asserting that appointments to the bench or as QCs should be made solely on merit.
"By expanding the spectrum of people within the legal profession it should follow that it will become more representative," said Lord Falconer. "If we don’t attract people from a broader social background into the law at a younger age, we won’t get a more diverse judiciary."
Lord Falconer added: "We need to make a career in law a possibility for those who maybe hadn't considered it before, to get them thinking about it while they're still in school. Law firms should think about operating outreach programmes to 15 and 16-year-olds, because they may not be aware what options are open."
Research published by the Sutton Trust in 2005 revealed the number of independently educated partners in law firms was growing.
In 2004, 71 per cent of partners aged under 40 were independently educated, compared with 59 per cent in 1988.
Lord Falconer also pointed out that a system which only selects judges from certain backgrounds misses out on a wide pool of people with the necessary talent and skills.
He added: "The Sutton Trust and the College of Law are putting together a scheme which will make work experience places and mentoring arrangements to those who wouldn't normally benefit from them.
"But I'm not sure 'golden hellos' are the way forward, but the law must be seen as an option open to all.
"Increasing the number of women and ethnic minorities would not only result in a better mix on the bench, but their wider experience would give it a different perspective." The Lord Chancellor also disregarded a report by BDO Stoy Hayward, published yesterday, that 15 per cent of Britain's 9,000 law firms will have to merge or face insolvency within the next few years.
New reforms, including the Carter and Clementi reviews, could result in banks tightening their strategy for lending to law firms. This could have serious implications for legal practices based in Birmingham, the largest legal centre outside London.
Lord Falconer said: "I would be amazed if that was right. I think the right approach will allow law firms to change their structure.
"I think we will see a higher element of competition in this sector, with companies like Co-op and the AA being able to offer legal services.
"The legal profession needs a major shake-up, to make it more competitive and more representative of British society."