Diversity in law firms – in terms of not only protected characteristics, but also experiences, attitudes and ways of thinking – can bring benefits in everything from financial performance to employee engagement. Lucy Trevelyan investigates.

Lucy Trevelyan

Earlier this year, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, used a blog to actively seek “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” to come in and help the new government. His unconventional job advert drew criticism from some quarters at the time, and since, but others praised it as an attempt – albeit arguably a clumsy one – to boost diversity at Number 10.

“This, of course, was a political comment from Mr Cummings intended to provoke a reaction. I do not like his use of language, but the principle of getting greater diversity is a positive one, and I agree with it,” says Vivienne Williams, managing partner at BLM.

Studies have shown that a diverse workforce can do everything from boost an organisation’s financial performance and increase profits, to improve decision-making and innovation. However, despite the overwhelming evidence of the benefits, it appears that many law firms are still failing to actively promote diversity among their ranks.

Women, disabled people, and those from black, Asian and minority-ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are all under-represented in law firms, particularly in large firms, Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) research shows. A third of all partners are women, for example, but in firms with five or more branches, this reduces to below 30%; and while 20% of partners are BAME across all firms, only 8% are BAME in large firms. Meanwhile, only 20% of firms had an action plan for disability inclusion, and only 3% had any disability initiatives.

Diversity - outlines of six faces in different neon colours

© omadoig@btinternet.com

“To be honest, I don’t think that law firms are great at it,” says Caroline Green, senior partner at Browne Jacobson LLP. “Having said this, we have come a very long way since I started out in the early 1980s. It is just that there is so much more to do. It helps that the Law Society is taking a lead and that clients are demanding more diverse legal teams. The fact that 170 general counsels wrote an open letter to law firms last year demanding greater diversity has put the topic high on the agenda of most firms.”

The issue has now also been prioritised by the SRA, with the regulator last year highlighting diversity as one of its risks for 2020. It also called for the profession to do more to improve the representation of all groups, especially in senior roles.

It is clear that the legal industry as a whole – particularly larger firms – faces a challenge around diversity at senior leadership level, says Pippa Marler, diversity and inclusion lead at Weightmans. “The challenge we face is the chicken and egg conundrum: we know that we need diverse senior role models to attract new diverse talent; but attracting, nurturing and promoting those senior role models in the first place is an issue without senior role models already in place.”

The pitfalls of not embracing diversity

According to the SRA, an unrepresentative legal profession can negatively affect:

  • the administration of justice (as a diversity of views and approaches supports an independent justice system and maintains the rule of law)
  • standards of service (as allowing the most talented people to become solicitors and progress in their careers helps to maintain high standards), and
  • access to services (as some people might feel the legal system is not accessible to them if solicitors do not share certain social or cultural characteristics with wider society).

It concludes: “Firms without workplace cultures that promote equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) have the highest risk of not treating staff and clients fairly, or not making the best decisions for their business or clients.”

Firms which don’t embrace diversity will also miss out on the best talent in the market now and into the future, as millennials and ‘Gen Zs’ choose organisations with outlooks similar to their own, says Arun Birla, chair of the London office of Paul Hastings LLP.

“Losing this talent to other industries such as financial services and the Big Four, for example, will be a huge loss to the legal profession. Firms which don’t embrace diversity will also miss out on the diverse thinking that leads to the best problem-solving and innovation, and therefore growth. They will also lose clients, as many organisations use diversity as an important lens for selecting the firms they work with.”

If you appoint the same people with the same experiences time and time again, you shouldn’t be surprised if you always get the same end result, says Williams.

“If you have a narrow perspective, it’s likely that you will have less engagement and connectivity with colleagues, clients and also the community in which you work. There have been many studies in how diversity across organisations can boost employee satisfaction levels.”

Clients, she adds, will take notice of the enthusiasm in your workforce, supporting business profitability and boosting client satisfaction. “Apple once said that ‘the most innovative company must also be the most diverse’ – a statement that has long resonated with me and something I totally agree with.”

Diversity should simply be “how we do things”, says Sarah Walker-Smith, CEO of Shakespeare Martineau. “It should be in our DNA and not a separate agenda item for a committee or sub-committee. I worry that firms which have set up many equality, diversity and inclusion committees are ticking boxes and, ironically, trying to create inclusion by segregation.”

Forms of diversity

Inclusion of diverse perspectives has to start with the leadership of a law firm, says Birla. “Ideally, law firm management should be reflective of the diverse client base and workforce it serves – bringing together different perspectives of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, age and social background.”

Green believes that although diversity in terms of protected characteristics is important, so too are diverse approaches and mindsets. “We need diversity of thought and experience. Research from Harvard talks about the benefits of ‘acquired diversity’, which is essentially diversity acquired from experience. If law firm leaders fall into only a few narrowly defined categories, they cannot hope to address 21st century challenges or recruit the people who can.”

And it isn’t just about lawyers. Most law firms have executive directors who are responsible for business operations, and this group also needs to be diverse in the broadest possible sense, she says. “It is important to hear a wide range of views before making significant leadership decisions. The more varied your leaders in terms of background, approach and mindset, the more likely you are to deliver something that stands out from the crowd. You cannot find creative solutions where everyone fits the same mould.”

Diversity of thinking and mindset in law firm management is paramount, agrees Walker-Smith. “This may come from more obvious sources like gender and ethnicity, but not always. True diversity comes from the things you can’t see, as well as those you can. Don’t confuse diversity with inclusion; they are different. Inclusion is ensuring everyone has the same equal opportunities to get to any level in the organisation – ie we have a level playing field. Diversity is ensuring that those people are varied and representative.”

Tom Forster QC, a silk at Red Lion Chambers, defines diversity as “about celebrating the individual in a truly diverse team”. He explains: “We recognise that our barristers succeed in different ways, bringing their own varied mindset and perspectives to solving legal problems in their own practices, and making important contributions to shaping and delivering our strategy, which they understand and buy into.”

Ensuring lawyers feel comfortable to work in this way promotes innovation and productivity, he adds. “Without it, the management team would not achieve its goals.”

How to boost diversity

Are quotas the answer? Green thinks not. “I find them patronising and not helpful, either to those who benefit or those following on behind. Targets are sensible, coupled with a requirement that any group which does not meet the target justifies why they have not done so.”

But targets aren’t going to help if you don’t know the barriers within your firm to diversity, she adds. “It could be the recruitment process, which has certainly often been identified as a particular issue for disabled lawyers. Or it could be that law firms don’t offer particular categories of lawyers the careers they want. You cannot devise solutions without understanding the reasons for diversity barriers.”

Williams adds that law firm managers intent on boosting diversity in their firms’ ranks need to first properly understand why they are addressing diversity in the first place. “Diversity isn’t a tick-box exercise. It’s not something that should be addressed because it’s what others are doing. It should be as a result of a deep-set commitment to building a diverse and equal workforce for the benefit of your colleagues. And that’s why it’s important that it doesn’t just remain purely a board-level matter. Having a diverse workforce – and true diversity and inclusion in your firm – can only really be achieved if everyone believes in its importance and if everyone, at all levels, gets behind it.”

Williams adds that when recruiting, firms should consider people with the right experience from a broad range of backgrounds when putting together the shortlist of candidates. “While we do not operate a positive discrimination approach, we always encourage our recruiters to cast a wide net in their search for the best candidate.”

If you want diverse leadership, says Marler, you need to work from the ground up.

“By encouraging inclusivity within the lower ranks of your organisation and creating an inclusive environment for progression, we can make employees from under-represented or under-resourced communities see a pathway before them. We need a ‘lowered-ladder’ attitude where our diverse leaders feel supported by the rest of the management team to help those following in their wake.”

Sponsorship and reverse mentoring are important in this regard, she adds. “Education is of primary importance; our managers need to understand the challenges faced by under-represented and under-resourced communities, and the value of diversity in the industry.”

Regulator role

It is often necessary for regulatory bodies to push the agenda forwards, says Marler, as illustrated by the gender pay gap reporting requirements. “While the campaign for ethnicity pay gap reporting is one way in which we can turn the spotlight onto diversity, it doesn’t, on its own, promote or offer solutions to the challenge faced by many in terms of diverse talent attraction – the aforementioned chicken and egg conundrum.

“The regulators should offer a more focused approached on getting law firms to properly appraise their inclusion and diversity objectives, with an accreditation scheme with focused goals to work towards. A proper set of toolkits should also be prepared for organisations, managers, diversity and inclusion teams, and employees alike, to help navigate the various pitfalls, policies, processes and procedures, and encourage more inclusive and diverse environments industry-wide.”

Diverse perspectives inevitably lead to better regulation and decision-making, so it is in the best interests of a regulator to do more to encourage diversity in law firm management, says Birla. “The form can be debated, but it could be a specific regulation and/or guidelines. The SRA principles already promote inclusiveness.”

Williams agrees that guidance from the regulator could make a difference. “Many firms recognise how important it is to have a diverse leadership team and the difference it can make, but need some extra guidance. Hands-on guidance from the regulator has the potential to really help them achieve it. For firms of our size, the SRA engages on a plethora of issues, diversity being just one, as well as promoting the right ethical behaviours.”

What are firms doing to promote diversity?

The Paul Hastings global diversity and inclusion council is co-chaired by its managing partner and comprises key firm partners, general counsel and heads of strategic business departments, including talent management, recruitment, marketing and business development, says Birla.

“Diversity council members work together regularly on recruiting, reviewing diversity scorecards, creating policy enhancements, and developing new programming. This approach ensures that diversity and inclusion remain a top priority and are embedded in our core business, which enables us to continue to move the needle,” he explains.

To promote inclusion and educate all its people on unconscious bias, the firm launched a multi-year inclusion campaign in January 2018, which focuses heavily on bias and the impact inclusion has on corporate culture.

Birla explains: “It began with our senior leadership team in order to build engagement at the highest level of the firm. Since then, we have rolled it out to all US- and London-based lawyers and professional staff via in-person training and ongoing communications. We repeat the in-person sessions quarterly, with the goal that all firm employees attend at least one session.”

This isn’t just about raising awareness of the importance of increasing diversity, it’s also about making a real difference to people’s experiences throughout their careers

Vivienne Williams, BLM

The firm also works on succession plans to increase diversity at its partner, counsel and associate levels. “Regularly reviewing diversity scorecards with leadership allows firms to implement new initiatives that will engage a broader group of lawyers across practices”, says Birla.

These initiatives include: a parental leave policy; permitting part-time partners; flexible working; billable credit for work on diversity efforts; tying a component of partner compensation to diversity efforts; affinity and employee resource groups for women and diverse professional staff; and business and professional development opportunities.

Green says her firm’s current focus is on ensuring more women move into leadership positions. “The Law Society report Influencing for impact: The need for gender equality in the legal profession: Women in Leadership in Law is hugely valuable as a starting point, but we are listening to our women solicitors to understand their challenges and devise personalised solutions. It is obviously early days, but we are determined to make a difference. We will then seek how we can address shortages of other protected characteristics.”

At present, Shakespeare Martineau has three boards, says Walker-Smith, which are all are very diverse – both in thinking and characteristics – and have equal gender representation. “The challenge for me as CEO is ensuring we have the right conditions and talent pipeline to keep it that way.”

It is essential, she says, to bring everyone in and listen deeply and broadly across the organisation. “Try to fill the business with positive, passionate people. Treat them as individuals and look past the boxes they tick to what’s on the inside. Playing to individuals’ strengths is crucial in unlocking potential at every level of the organisation.”

Weightmans has been running an inclusivity programme for the past 18 months, says Marler. The programme focuses on awareness-raising and education for the firm’s diversity champions and management teams, around key strands of LGBTQ+, BAME, disability and mental wellbeing, and gender. As part of that programme, the firm’s HR teams and team managers have all received (or are about to receive) broad diversity and inclusion training, along with specific, focused workshops such as trans and non-binary inclusion training.

She says: “We have been establishing a number of internal and external networks to support our various strands and to contribute to the inclusive environment of the firm. The next phase of our programme is to establish senior role models to sponsor our individual strands. We have reviewed our recruitment and promotion processes, and inclusivity and diversity are focal points for our selection and promotion processes. Education remains a key objective for all our leadership and senior management teams.”

At BLM, colleagues are promoted to various leadership teams based on their experiences, ideas and approach. Having this wide range of perspectives on its operations, executive and partnership boards is critical to helping the firm to effectively navigate the complex issues it faces every day, says Williams.

“Our EDI steering group is made up of representatives from our leadership boards. It’s accountable for directing the overall EDI strategy and measuring progress. From this, we’ve developed an EDI working group and we’ve experienced a great deal of appetite from colleagues around the firm to get more involved in all kinds of EDI initiatives, to encourage and celebrate a diverse workforce.”

For BLM, she says, diversity and inclusion is not just driven from the top. “We have lawyers and business support staff working together to develop initiatives around LGBTIQ+, social mobility, disability and other protected characteristics, that all staff can get involved in. This isn’t just about raising awareness of the importance of increasing diversity in addition to equality and inclusion, it’s also about making a real difference to people’s lives and their experiences throughout their careers.”