The theory that diversity increases the bottom line and is vital for commercial success is now widely accepted, leading to notable progression in terms of gender.

The majority of law firms now accept they need to do more to recruit and retain women at senior level. According to statistics released by the SRA in 2017, women make up 48% of lawyers in law firms, falling to around 33% at partner level. This is broadly in line with the voluntary target of achieving the 33% target for women on boards and in leadership teams of FTSE 350 companies by 2020 as set out in the Hampton-Alexander Review” in respect of gender balance.

So often though addressing diversity and inclusion seems to stop after consideration of gender. Less frequently are other kinds of diversity considered, despite the fact that measurements for considering diversity of law firms includes age, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, transgender, school/university education (social mobility), religion and caring responsibilities.

Law firms have also suffered from traditionally looking in isolation at individual strands of diversity rather than considering the impact of their policies in terms of how these elements intersect.

Black History Month

Black History Month is the annual commemoration of the history, achievements and contributions of black people in the UK, with events occurring throughout October. It means different things to different people, and not everyone is a fan of celebrations only in one specific month. It does, however, bring focus to the issue of race in law firms.

In 2017, the CIPD reported that Britain could add £24 billion to GDP if full representation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) in the labour market was achieved. The report found that one in eight of the working-age population is from a BAME background, yet they occupy only one in sixteen of top management positions.The Law Society has been celebrating Black History Month since 2009 and reports that in that time the percentage of BAME solicitors working in the UK has increased from 12% in 2009 to 16.9% in 2019.

Interestingly, “unlike the profile for women, there is very little difference by seniority among BAME lawyers, 21% of solicitors are BAME compared to 20% of partners” the SRA concluded in its findings on diversity in law firms in its 2017 report. The differences are in size of law firm, with the largest firms (defined in the data as 50 plus partners) have the lowest proportion of BAME partners at only 8% – risen only by 1% since 2014. In contrast, 34% of sole practitioners are from a BAME background.As Farmida Bi, EMEA chair at Norton Rose Fulbright said in 2018 to The Law Society, “addressing the issue of colour is not enough without also understanding and addressing the effect of social class on how many large law firms operate”.

Creating inclusive cultures

In a global world, legal teams need to be able to draw on the widest possible pool of thought, views and experience, with staff representing both background and ethnicity of clients and customers. This means particularly that the larger firms need to consider how to retain more BAME senior staff.

The 2019 Race at Work Report was published in October 2019 by Business in the Community (BITC), The Prince’s Responsible Business Network. It found that while many UK businesses are increasingly starting to measure and monitor some of the key indicators that mark progress towards racial equality, one in four BAME employees in the UK are still experiencing bullying and harassment.

Sandra Kerr CBE, race campaign director at BITC, said:

“The goal for employers needs to be creating inclusive organisational cultures where people can feel valued for their contributions and where differences are acknowledged as strengths rather than something that holds them back. Measurement is such an important lever for change and targets must be set at every stage, from recruitment through to retention and progression at all levels.”

Practical tips to encourage more diversity and inclusion:

Sign up to the Business in the Community Race At Work Charter or if that is not possible, consider committing to its five principles, or at least applying some of the ideas to your own legal team to encourage diversity and inclusion.

Focus as much on supporting those who come from non-traditional backgrounds as ensuring that there is not a bias against the promotion of women in general, or by putting people into the same group based just on skin colour. Background and privilege, or lack thereof, bring different issues than can simply be allocated to gender or race.

Appoint an Executive Sponsor for Race

  • Provide visible leadership on race and ethnicity
  • Set targets to increase the racial diversity of board/management and senior executive teams
  • Create a Diversity Allies programme
  • Organise talks and workshops which encourage conversation
  • Race Awareness campaigns

Capture ethnicity data and publicise progress

  • Measure baseline figures to assess progress
  • Use data on disparities to launch internal campaigns to make the case for changing stereotypes on race, ethnicity, religion and language
  • Publish ethnicity pay data alongside gender pay report
  • Share and amplify best practice

Commit at board level to zero tolerance of harassment and bullying

  • Encourage employees to call out bullying and harassment if it is observed in the workplace, and make it possible to do this safely
  • Introduce a BAME allies programme for white colleagues to support the work of employee resource/network groups and actively take steps to increase diversity and inclusion
  • Create guidance and principles to establish the right tone – ensure it is written into the code of conduct

Make clear that supporting equality in the workplace is the responsibility of all leaders and managers

  • Mandatory training on equality and diversity
  • Personal performance objectives on diversity that include action on race
  • Create leadership programmes that are inclusive

Take action that supports ethnic minority career progression

  • Racial diversity on interview panels
  • Request recruiters and head-hunters to produce an ethnically diverse shortlists
  • Offer BAME law students paid work placements
  • Check for ethnic minority talent in senior succession planning lists

As Seema Bains, Partner and Head of the Diversity & Inclusion Leadership Group at DWF, said:

“Becoming diverse rarely happens by accident. Real diversity and inclusion requires change and commitment.”

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