These schemes “should be supported by regulation or formal procedures including mechanisms to monitor their efficacy”.

The report, “Diversity in the legal profession in England and Wales,” published in October, looks at the career patterns of women and black and minority ethnic (“BME”) legal professionals.

Several practitioners, particularly in the north where there are few senior barristers and partners who are either women or BME, said they favoured mentoring and spoke of the importance of visible role models.

The legal profession has become increasingly diverse in recent years. In 2008-09, women made up 46 per cent of solicitors and 34 per cent of barristers, while BME professionals made up 13 per cent of solicitors and 16 per cent of barristers.

However, the report found that opportunities for lawyers are “not equally distributed”. White graduates from higher socio-economic groups are over-represented in City firms and at the Bar, while BME women from lower socio-economic groups are concentrated in small high street practices.

Individual choices accounted for some of these outcomes, but there were also other factors at play. Despite there being formal processes in most offices, work was often allocated unfairly so the careers of some were fostered at the expense of others. Networking events often involved “predominantly male” activities. Some women barristers commented on the fact their self-employed status meant there were few diversity initiatives available to them.

Informal mentoring through which “powerful senior figures (generally white men) tended to foster the careers of young white men” was present in most workplaces and was a “major obstacle” to diversity, the report found.

The report’s recommendations included: supporting outreach programmes; offering bursaries for the LPC and BPTC and for trainees and pupil barristers; encouraging the development of formal support networks and mentoring schemes and supporting role models; and ensuring work allocation and promotion procedures are transparent.