Progress to celebrate? How far we have come with diversity in the legal profession

We often talk of the challenges and obstacles that stand in the way of diversity and equal opportunities in the legal profession, so it is worthwhile to approach from a different perspective once in awhile, to look at the achievements and positive trends to inform and inspire future progress within the industry. Encouraging more diversity in recruitment is just one aspect of this progress – alternative business structures and a culture rethink is required to retain diverse legal talent. Here at Obelisk we work to lead by example and change the culture of the legal services industry to create a flexible working model accessible to all.

In June, there were some encouraging trends coming out of the UK Law Society’s annual statistic report, showing that the number of BAME and women solicitors is on the rise. Solicitors coming from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds now make up 16% of the profession, and 57% of these are women, in contrast to 48% of white solicitors who are women. Overall for 2015-16, 62% of admissions were female, up from 53% 15 years ago.

What firms are doing to address a lack of diversity

Any private practice or other public company who is actively working to tackle the complex issue of diversity is to be celebrated. Working to minimise recruitment bias, tapping latent and underused talent and incentivising company diversity are just some of the key areas of focus for diversity programmes and innovations. Some specific, high profile examples that have been particular talking points in the legal profession include HP’s diversity mandate that withholds a percentage of fees from firms who do not meet their set diversity requirements, previously discussed here in the Attic.

Another example is Nixon Peabody, which has adapted its approach to recruitment – ensuring that 20% of candidates called are diverse (the definition of a diverse workforce for Nixon Peabody CEO and managing partner Andrew Glincher includes all – BAME, women, LGBTQ) and first candidate called for leadership position is diverse if equally qualified for the position. The firm has earned a 100% ranking from the Human Rights Campaign in its Corporate Equality Index for ten consecutive years.

Talent retention

Of course, it’s not just about attracting talent to create a more diverse workforce, but also to maintain a culture that retains such talent. In fact, it can be detrimental to the success of a diversity programme if the focus is too much on recruitment and hiring. Firms need to look at the whole picture and focus on changing the mindset in recruitment, investing in people who want to build their careers and develop with a company long term.

Work that works for everyone

The profession needs to acknowledge individual difference and recognise that people’s needs will change over time. They need to work closely with those talented individuals and use their experience to inform company decisions, recruitment and training in future. Rather than expecting individuals to come in and adapt to an existing culture they should have a role in shaping it for the better. There are signs that this concept of a total change in culture and working patterns is becoming more popular, with the Law Society survey reporting that 475 alternative business structures (ABSs) were in operation: 116 more than a year earlier making up 5% of all firms.

Adapt or be gone

When it comes to diversity measures conversations often turn to criticism of so-called positive discrimination. It’s important to be clear that levelling a playing field and creating a working culture that allows everyone to progress in their career no matter what their background or personal situations. Nobody loses out if more people are more meaningfully able to compete and challenge one another – we all do better when the game is fair, and more of society is reflected in institutions that represent them. As Law Society president Roberts Bourns puts it: “Firms with good diversity, inclusion and social mobility policies have a competitive advantage… Not only do solicitors themselves come from an ever widening pool – reflecting the diverse society of which we are part and which we serve – but new business models are flourishing, allowing us to provide an ever more tailored service to our clients.”

The progress we’ve seen shows there are many steps in the right direction. But the rise is diversity in the industry globally is slow, and it is important to remember that law remains the least diverse profession in many countries, including the US. It is vital to see more leaders actively tackling the issue, and championing alternative ways of working to retain talent and create a more open and accessible industry.