How the legal industry is tackling its diversity issue head-on

How the legal industry is tackling its diversity issue head-on

Once upon a time, the majority of people you’d find working in legal practice would be upper/middle-class, Oxbridge-educated white males. Women: hardly seen. Working-class individuals: forget it. Ethnic minorities: a scarce group. But things have been changing for the better, and in 2018 the legal industry is thankfully at its most diverse.

Many law firms have been making a conscious effort to diversify their workforce and foster an inclusive environment. Why? Well, if you’re a little sceptical about it being out of pure altruism, you’d be right. Whilst many of the decision makers in law firms do have a moral impetus for championing diversity and genuinely want to make the workplace inclusive, there’s also a business case for having a diverse and inclusive workspace. ‘A more diverse workforce makes us a better service provider because we’ll bring people with different backgrounds and viewpoints on life to our teams, and that can make us more effective and valuable to our clients’ explains Matthew Evans, a partner and member of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee at Jones Day. Uzma Hamid-Dizier, head of inclusion and corporate responsibility at Slaughter and May echoed this sentiment saying: ‘For us, our people are central to the service we provide and we need to draw upon diverse perspectives and viewpoints in order to provide the very best service to our clients. As such, diversity and inclusion is not just a “nice to do” but a business imperative.’ CMS is also benefitting from backing a diversity and inclusion (D&I) agenda: ‘We have won work as clients value D&I and we have also had many opportunities to collaborate with them on the D&I agenda, adding value to our client relationships.’ It’s pretty clear that it’s in the interest of law firms to show clients (and job applicants!) that they’re committed to D&I, but how do they tackle such a big issue? In this feature we’ll be exploring how the legal industry is dealing with its diversity challenge with regard to socio-economic background, gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and neurological differences.

Socio-economic background
Traditionally speaking commercial law has been the domain of the wealthy. Those practising in the often high-paying industry have themselves come from affluent families and consequently benefitted from greater access to things like university, work experience and industry connections. To diversify the industry on a socio-economic level and improve social mobility, firms have partnered with various organisations to help bring those from disadvantaged communities into the legal industry. One such organisation is Aspiring Solicitors who work with a host of firms including Baker McKenzie and White & Case to provide events, mentoring, competitions and employability assistance to their diverse members. Jones Day, in collaboration with the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF), helps students from under-represented and low income backgrounds who want professional careers gain access to leading universities and enter careers in global professional businesses. Slaughter and May and CMS work with PRIME, a sector-wide initiative that works to provide access to work experience to students from less privileged backgrounds. ‘A number of students still have preconceptions or concerns about working in a corporate law firm’ explains Hamid-Dizier, ‘[so] our focus recently has been to challenge these preconceptions and invite students in to the firm to give them the opportunity to experience our inclusive culture for themselves. The students who attended have told us that they’re now seriously considering applying to the firm when they previously felt like it wasn’t an option.’

Other ways in which firms have been working to widen access to the industry is through improving their recruitment practices. We all know the deal when it comes to applying for positions in commercial law firms; for insight days, vacation schemes or training contracts, achieving solid grades is a must, attendance at a top university desirable, and work experience a definite bonus. What happens though if you haven’t gone to a “good school” and perhaps as a consequence didn’t get the entry grades for a top university? What if you were unable to complete work experience because you care for a family member? Firms are trying to address such scenarios as they recognise that an individual’s potential is an important factor to consider, not just academic achievements. To offset the limitations of recruiting primarily on the basis of academic achievements firms are incorporating contextual analysis into their recruitment practices. Jones Day, Slaughter and May and White & Case are three firms who have partnered with Rare – an organisation dedicated to sourcing exceptional people from diverse backgrounds for some of the world’s top organisations – to help their graduate recruiters identify candidates with true potential regardless of circumstance. Firms who have signed up to the contextual recruitment system (CRS) use big data to put candidates’ academic achievements in the context of their social and educational background. For example, at first glance an applicant with ABC at A-Level might not seem to be a good fit for an elite firm, but upon learning that these grades have been achieved by a student who lives in a severely deprived area and attends a school where pupils typically achieve CCD, this applicant’s achievements suddenly become rather impressive. In an interview with GC Magazine, Rare founder Raphael Mokades explained further that: ‘The CRS takes into account things like free school meals, whether someone is also working [in addition to studying], social background – the stuff you wouldn’t get from a standard CV. This information is fed into an algorithm that is completely integrated into the recruitment system of our clients.’ Recruiters who use the CRS are better equipped to identify a candidate’s potential and ensure that they don’t miss out on top talent; it ‘helps us paint a more holistic picture of someone’s application and be able to make more informed decisions’ says White and Case graduate resourcing and development advisor Yohanna Wilson. The system has made a significant difference to many firms’ graduate intake; for example, Jones Day has recruited several Rare CRS candidates onto its placement schemes (and from there) as future trainees. ‘Previously, on grades alone, we might not have invited as many of these candidates to interview’ said Evans. This innovative approach to recruitment is clearly making a difference in widening access to the industry and improving diversity levels.

Widening the university pool from which trainees are recruited is another method used by law firms to diversify their workforce. Jones Day for example, has significantly expanded the universities it reaches out to and recruits from. ‘Once upon a time it was frankly Oxbridge and Russell Group – now, although there’s still work to do, our trainees come from a much wider range of universities and include career switchers’, says Evans. The adoption of CV blind recruitment (which White & Case will be implementing this year) is also a strategy used to diversify teams. At CMS unconscious bias training is used to curb discrimination and affinity bias. The recruitment team and hiring partners ‘receive a brief about unconscious bias and tips on how to mitigate their impact’ says CMS graduate recruitment manager, Katherine Sharp. 

Things seem to be improving on a socio-economic level, but how are things when it comes to gender? Well, diversity levels are improving in this area too. In fact, one could argue that gender diversity is the area that’s seen the most overall improvement in commercial law as male-dominated offices become a thing of the past. Gender diversity is at its best at trainee level; a number of firms report a near-equal split between men and women. However, as we head higher up the corporate ladder the number of women in senior/leadership positions dwindles – and quite significantly too. Whereas at trainee level the number of women can, on average, be between 50 and 60 per cent, at senior/partnership level, it lowers to 30 percent and under, a figure one can argue is a consequence of the multiple barriers women face when pursuing senior-level positions. Encouragingly, a number of firms are working to level the gender balance and promote equality in the industry. CMS, for example, have ‘introduced blind work allocation in some areas of the business to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities to progress and thrive.’ Since women lawyers can sometimes be denied access to top work – thereby limiting their progression opportunities – practices such as work blind allocation help to address the issue and reduce gender discrimination. ‘Bespoke D&I training and inclusive leadership best practice training also help team leaders and managers to make unbiased decisions when it comes to promotion and bonus allocation’ explained Sharp.

Affinity groups are a means through which law firms support the advancement of underrepresented groups in the workplace. Individuals can come together to encourage each other, share common grievances and work towards solutions that better the work environment. The women’s affinity group at Jones Day, for example, is a place for women to discuss what they want to get out of their career, how to progress in the firm and address any work/life balance concerns. For CMS and Slaughter and May, the 30% cross-company mentoring scheme is how they push their gender equality agenda. Women at the firm are matched with a senior business leader mentor from a different organisation to gain impartial, confidential advice. ‘We know that mentoring is a highly personal and effective form of career development and, if it is provided equally, it can further diversify at all levels of an organisation’ says Hamid-Dizier. ‘We’re confident these mentoring schemes will support the development and progression of underrepresented talent at all levels in the firm’ added Sharp.

Race and Ethnicity
When it comes to the ethnic makeup of commercial law firms, the industry isn’t as representative of contemporary society as it could be. Firms are replete with white men and women, but individuals from ethnic minority backgrounds can, at some firms, be few and far between. Where, I hear you ask, are the Black rainmakers? Where are the Asian legal eagles? Where are the mixed-race Alicia Florricks and Middle Eastern Harvey Specters of the industry? Many firms realise they need to address the lack of ethnic minorities in their offices and have taken steps to address the issue by broadening their university outreach, partnering with organisations that champion diversity, and fostering relationships with individuals from ethnic minority groups. For example, the team at White & Case have done some targeted work with university Afro-Caribbean societies to try and improve connections with them, and have also just become platinum sponsors of the Women in the City Afro-Caribbean Network (WCAN) who the firm will host for their legal conference this year.

Achieving racial diversity, especially in senior/leadership positions, is a challenge many firms face. Slaughter and May have ‘set up a BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) cross-company mentoring programme in partnership with EMpower…which provide[s] a space outside of the firm for confidential career discussions and access to high-profile diverse role models in the wider business community’. Within the firm itself, role model partners from ethnic minorities are made visible so as to encourage juniors to develop their career and consider the partnership as a career prospect. ‘Seeing people from similar backgrounds succeed can send a strong signal that your background or difference is not a barrier to progressing your career’ says Hamid-Dizier. Addleshaw Goddard has similarly established an internal BAME Sponsorship Programme led by senior partners across the firm, the aim of which is to identify and raise the profile of reputable diverse role models, sponsors and mentors within the firm and the wider community.

Sexual Orientation
As far as sexual orientation goes, firms have definitely amped up their inclusivity endeavours. Slaughter and May, CMS and Jones Day have dedicated LGBT networks or affinity groups which help bring to light the unique experiences of individuals who fall within this group and provide a space in which to address any concerns. In addition to this, Slaughter and May ‘provide[s] mentoring opportunities to LGBT employees through OUTstanding.’ To support the LGBTQ+ community, Jones Day created a global online guide to same-sex relationship laws. ‘There wasn’t a one-stop shop to find out whether your same-sex relationship is recognised in the jurisdiction you’re moving to, and so we thought, we’re a global firm, why don’t we put a guide together?’ said Evans of how the idea for the pro bono project came about. Over the course of one year, over 200 of the firm’s employees from around the globe conducted research into same-sex relationships in a multitude of countries. The guide is a useful resource that helps to answer questions regarding whether particular jurisdictions throughout the world afford legal recognition to same-sex couples, and if so, provides answers to follow-up questions such as whether marriage or some other status is afforded to same-sex couples, whether foreign same-sex marriages are recognised in the jurisdiction, and the manner in which same-sex couples may dissolve their relationships. This D&I initiative, Evans explained, was ‘a really good way of engaging lots of people across the firm, not just in the LGBTQ+ community.’ The project is constantly under review by the team and undergoes an annual reassessment showing just how committed the firm is to the LGBTQ+ community, and to fostering an inclusive workspace.

Neurological differences
Law firms are also working to be more inclusive of neurodivergent individuals – that is, those with autism, dyslexia, ADHD or bipolarity for example. Many firms are eager to emphasise that having such conditions isn’t a barrier to securing a vacation scheme placement, training contract or any other position at the firm, should the candidate be qualified and brimming with potential. Slaughter and May have ‘rolled out a series of workshops which are aimed at building disability confidence within [their] recruitment process and supports interviewers to feel comfortable with disclosures of disability.’ It’s a legal obligation for employers to make reasonable adjustments for individuals with a neurological difference or disability, and at CMS extra time for psychometric tests and at assessment centres is given to candidates with dyslexia, and a telephone interview rather than a video interview is available for candidates with body dysmorphia: ‘we want candidates to feel able to apply to us’ explained Sharp.

It’s clear that D&I efforts are aplenty at commercial law firms, and though things are not yet perfect, we’re certainly on the way to diverse and inclusive workforces which is something to celebrate.