Fix law firm culture to keep people of colour

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The writer is a senior associate at an international law firm. These are personal views based on her experiences and those of peers.

To address the lack of ethnic diversity in the legal industry, it is not enough to focus only on recruitment. We also need to ensure that ethnic minority lawyers are being retained or promoted by their firms. Lack of access is one part of problem, but the bigger challenge is retention. We need to be honest about why the culture in many firms is not inclusive.

I am a proud member of the first corporate law scheme run by the non-profit body Sponsors for Educational Opportunity London. It was instrumental in helping me obtain a training contract in my second year of university.

When I joined SEO London in 2008, I made a commitment to help other ethnic minority students gain access to the legal industry. I have designed and participated in many programmes focused on providing information, mentorship and application support for people of colour.

But I have become uncomfortable at encouraging people of colour to enter a professional environment that, despite actively recruiting these candidates, is not doing enough to help them build longstanding careers.

In the UK Law Society’s 2020 Race for Inclusion report, ethnic minority lawyers reported lower levels of workplace wellbeing compared with their white counterparts, which has led to many taking a break from the profession.

After seeing several of my black colleagues leave the law, it became clear to me that focusing on graduate recruitment alone to improve diversity in law firms was equivalent to filling up a bucket with holes in it.

A law firm increasing its intake of “diverse” trainees is not evidence that a law firm is inclusive. If anything, these schemes are simply sending more ethnic minority trainees into an unwelcoming culture.

As a black woman who has practised in more than one firm in the City of London, I see a clear disconnect between management and teams about the importance of diversity. There is often no clear guidance on what changes firms need to make at a department level.

Interest in programmes such as reverse mentoring and unconscious bias training, and support for employee-led networks, seems to wane once we get down to a team level.

It is extremely difficult for individuals to raise concerns about microaggressions, tokenism or favouritism, particularly in situations where there are no other senior lawyers — whom they trust — to step in to help.

Raising a discrimination concern can be career-limiting or worse, career-ending — especially if concerns involve a high-performing fee earner.

Law firms have a responsibility to establish safe, confidential processes to allow instances of discrimination to be handled without fear of isolation or retaliation. And department leaders should be held to account if ethnic minority lawyers in their teams keep leaving to go in-house, or to other firms, or into other industries. Firms must do more to understand the experiences of ethnic minority lawyers and to recognise the barriers holding them back.

The Law Society report states that, between 2015 and 2020, some 42 per cent of white males who became partners stayed in the same firm, but only 20 per cent of ethnic minority males were promoted internally.

I have served on many hiring panels in my career and have seen black applicants not progressed because they were not deemed a “good fit”, even with the right qualifications, while some white male applicants, similarly qualified, made it through as they were seen as a “good fit”.

In an environment where your progression relies on the allocation of good work and internal relationships, it is crucial that law firms educate their workforces about racial discrimination and microaggressions and ensure work is allocated fairly.

While participating in diversity initiatives and paying consultants to facilitate them can be helpful, involving associates from diverse backgrounds in the conception of these schemes would make the exercise more effective. The success of these initiatives should be regularly assessed.

In 2014, the Black Solicitors Network set up Creating Pathways, a programme providing soft skill workshops and cross-firm mentoring between junior and senior ethnic minority lawyers. The support I received from other senior black lawyers through this scheme is one of the main reasons I was able to continue practising when I lacked support in the team I was in.

The programme’s success is down to the fact that it is run by senior black lawyers. However, schemes such as this teach us only how to cope; law firms should ask themselves why they are still necessary.

As clients grow more specific in demands for diverse counsel, this conversation will continue. Firms must reflect on the culture of their departments and design strategies to support and retain ethnic minority lawyers. Success will depend on tracking progress and holding leaders to account.


Case studies in best practice

Researched, compiled and ranked by RSGi. ‘Winner’ indicates the organisation won an FT Innovative Lawyers 2021 award

Diversity and inclusion

© Getty Images/iStockphoto

Pressure to have more diverse representation is driving change.

WINNER: Browne Jacobson
The firm has introduced initiatives to help improve social mobility in the legal profession. Most notably, it removed academic grade requirements for training contracts and for vacation schemes in 2016, long before other UK firms undertook similar moves. The change allowed the firm to identify “exceptional talent”, with about a third of training contract offers going to candidates who would have previously been ineligible.

The firm’s junior ranks are evenly split between elite university Russell Group and non-Russell Group graduates, compared with a legal industry average of 84 per cent Russell Group. The change also increased ethnic minority representation in the firm’s intake.

Addleshaw Goddard
Addleshaw Goddard was the first law firm to partner with the BBC on its 50:50 equality project aimed at featuring more female voices in the media. The initiative involved counting how many men and women from the firm were put forward for media opportunities. Since reporting 57 per cent male and 42 per cent female voices in late 2020, the firm has improved the statistics by providing media training and putting more women to the fore in campaigns and pitches.

Herbert Smith Freehills
The firm launched a global strategy called 10 Actions for Change to improve racial and ethnic diversity. These actions include improving recruitment, retention, promotion and representation of people from diverse backgrounds across the firm. The strategy extends to scrutiny of the firm’s supply chain and supporting minority ethnic-owned businesses. All employee processes involve ethnicity data to try to detect and address biases.

© Getty Images/iStockphoto

Simmons & Simmons
The firm provided 150 hours of legal advice to help hedge fund Capstone Investment Advisors in the launch of the 10,000 Black Interns programme in the UK, involving more than 700 organisations that will offer paid work experience to a total of 10,000 black interns over five years. The project builds on the 100 Black Interns project for investment management firms. The scheme addresses underrepresentation of black employees, which can be hidden when the focus is on all non-white groups, while also ensuring the strategy does not fall foul of anti-discrimination legislation.

Allen & Overy
The magic circle firm was the first law firm to publish an ethnicity “stay gap” report, which shows the difference in retention for Bame (black, Asian and minority ethnic) employees compared with white colleagues. The firm found Asian and minority ethnic colleagues leave the firm an average seven months earlier than white counterparts, with black colleagues leaving two years and five months earlier. The firm will report the stay gap annually.

DWF
Seema Bains, head of diversity and inclusion at DWF, has ensured female representation on every client-facing team and is working to improve other areas of inclusion. The firm offered 12 paid internships via its ethnic minority access scheme and published its first ethnicity pay gap report. It was one of the first firms accredited by the UK government-backed “disability confidence” scheme, which tackles barriers to employment.

Hogan Lovells
As well as internal initiatives, the firm has taken on a consulting role advising several clients on diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies alongside the firm’s employment, investigations and privacy practice areas. In Europe, the firm has introduced billable hours credits for time spent on diversity, equity and inclusion projects.

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