Structure, agency and career strategies of white women and black and minority ethnic individuals in the legal profession

Jennifer Tomlinson*, Daniel Muzio, Hilary Sommerlad, Lisa Webley, Liz Duff

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The legal profession in England and Wales is becoming more diverse. However, while white women and black and minority ethnic (BME) individuals now enter the profession in larger numbers, inequalities remain. This article explores the career strategies of 68 white women and BME legal professionals to understand more about their experiences in the profession. Archer's work on structure and agency informs the analysis, as does Emirbayer and Mische's (1998) 'temporally embedded' conceptualization of agency as having past, current and future elements. We identify six career strategies, which relate to different career points. They are assimilation, compromise, playing the game, reforming the system, location/relocation and withdrawal. We find that five of the six strategies tend to reproduce rather than transform opportunity structures in the legal profession. The overall picture is one of structural reproduction (rather than transformation) of traditional organizational structure and practice. The theoretical frame and empirical data analysis presented in this article accounts for the rarity of structural reform and goes some way towards explaining why, even in contexts populated by highly skilled, knowledgeable agents and where organizations appear committed to equal opportunities, old opportunity structures and inequalities often endure.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)245-269
Number of pages25
JournalHuman Relations
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2013


  • agency
  • black and minority ethnic individuals
  • career strategy
  • legal profession
  • structure
  • women

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