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Diversity, Inclusion & Law: Legal leaders who are making meaningful change

Blog: Latest Legal Trends

The ground breakers who are making D&I a top priority

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is on everyone’s mind lately. We’ve all felt the shift in focus. Especially over the past year. In the last three months alone, searches for ‘diversity’ on Google have doubled, with the UK in the top five countries globally with the most interest in the topic.

Alongside the damage to the health and economies of countries around the world, the global pandemic has shone a spotlight on inequalities. Atop of the pandemic, social movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have prompted urgency in discussions surrounding gender and racial bias in the workplace and have pushed equality, diversity and inclusion to the top of agendas everywhere. Everyone wants to do better.

This leads to the question of “how”? One of the key challenges organisations have faced has been finding ways to move beyond the legal compliance, tickbox approach to equality – to a workplace that is truly inclusive. What we’ve learnt is that only when organisations really focus on inclusivity – when they call for systemic organisational change from the inside out, can we begin to have true diversity.

Fortunately, this is an approach we’ve been seeing more and more of in the legal industry.


improvement in performance with diversive teams

Source: Gartner


higher cash flow per employee at diverse companies

Source: Deloitte


increase in profits in diverse companies

Source: McKinsey

The legal industry’s role in impacting change

Social justice has long been a legal concern, so it’s no surprise that the legal community is driving the organisational changes in the DEI space.

Diversity and inclusion strategies have become an important focus of conversations amongst legal leaders, and more and more law firms and in-house teams are becoming leaders in the space. The role that legal leaders have played can’t be overstated – using their privileged positions of power to accelerate progress. This is leading to promising policies, procedures and mandates being implemented across the board to create meaningful change that we hope will make a lasting impact.

To celebrate these fantastic developments, we’ve compiled a list of the organisations and their legal teams who have emerged as leaders in the DEI space – those who haven’t only been talking the talk but who have walked the walk, forging ahead with their initiatives to make a real impact.

DEI Index 2021

Leaders calling for change


After years of being frustrated by the lack of diversity in the legal sphere, Turo’s chief legal officer, Michelle Fang decided it was time to take action. And that came in the form of an open letter that called on GCs and corporate legal officers to step up and start making D&I a priority in their firms. The letter was met with open arms and was immediately signed by over 240 legal leaders across the US.

Though female representation played a role in inspiring the letter, after her fellow lawyers in the Women’s General Counsel Network shared their concerns, Chambers Gender Diversity Lawyer of the Year Fang said, ‘This is a much broader issue than a woman’s issue. It’s a race, sexual orientation, and disability issue.’

The letter was only the beginning though. Since its successful signing in 2019, Fang helped launch the Diversity Lab, which includes a list of actionable tactics that lawyers can use to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace. Next on her list is a tool to measure its progress and effectiveness.

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Dentsu Aegis Network

In September 2020, Dentsu Aegis Network created waves in the legal world by launching a ‘General Counsel Oath’. This ground-breaking oath, led by general counsel Simon Zinger, calls on legal and compliance leaders globally to commit to supporting social justice by driving positive change across the profession, their organisations and society.

From general advice, to a list of firm rules, this impressive oath covers a wide range of important topics, including leadership, D&I, social impact and pro bono, internal clients, external parties, and personal behaviour, making it a fantastic baseline for general counsel to begin fixing organisational issues.

‘My goal is to raise awareness about the Oath so that general counsel and other legal and compliance leaders, no matter where they are in the world, commit to the oath and translate that commitment into action,’ Zinger said in a recent article.


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Aviva attracted national attention in 2017 when it sent a warning letter to a number of subcontractors, including recruitment firms, catering suppliers and specialist suppliers of insurance services, threatening to terminate contracts with suppliers that fail to promote women to senior roles. The letter urged companies to sign up to gender equality initiatives such as the 30% Club and the Women in Finance charter. 

Aviva has placed diversity and inclusion at its heart and Kirsty Cooper, group general counsel, is the driving force behind the company’s D&I efforts. Working closely with department leaders, she has made sure that the tone is set at the top and that it flows down into every corner of the organisation.

In day-to-day life at Aviva, there are a wide variety of initiatives ranging from unconscious bias training, to female leadership workshops, to their unique ‘Health Hero’ program that focuses on mental health. Most recently, Aviva has pledged to review its recruitment and promotion processes and have at least one board member from an ethnic minority by the end of 2021. The company is also taking part in the #10000 Black Interns initiative, set up to help Black students across the UK kickstart their career in investment management.

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Like many other organisations, D&I is on the agenda for Barclays. Barclays has made diversity a top priority for its legal panel – requiring firms to demonstrate diversity and inclusivity in every engagement it had with the bank. It is also helping to make the legal profession more accessible for young professionals from underprivileged backgrounds, providing 60 Aspiring Solicitors members with a one week work placement with Barclays through the BLEW initiative.

While these are already fantastic steps to have taken, Barclays stands out for its commitment to mental health. In a world where nobody ‘switches off’, mental health and wellbeing has increasingly become a top priority, and Barclays is leading the way. 

In 2018, the organisation launched the Mindful Business Charter alongside law firms Addleshaw Goddard and Pinsent Masons. The basis of the charter is a set of principles representing a collective commitment that aims to combat workplace practices that contribute to poor mental health among lawyers. In short, they want to rehumanise the way that the legal community does work. The four key pillars are: openness and respect; smart meetings and emails; respecting rest periods; and mindful delegation.

The charter has been very successful, with over sixty signatories committing to following the guidelines, in what is a first for banks and their legal services providers in coming together to reach a shared agenda for supporting mental health and wellbeing.

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Leaders making the legal profession accessible to all

Goldman Sachs

Goldman Sachs is a diversity powerhouse. Over many years and many initiatives, they’ve successfully helped tens of thousands of underrepresented men and women reach their full potential. Back in 2000, they launched their Vendor Diversity initiative, a program designed to break down barriers by committing to select vendors that reflect the diversity of their communities and their clients. Now in place across the globe, they’ve spent over £300m with minority businesses, a spend they aim to double by 2025.

Goldman Sachs is also a firm believer that investing in female entrepreneurs leads to economic growth and stronger communities. Sachs developed the 10,000 Women innovative, a free-to-access online program covering everything from marketing, to leadership, operations and financing, designed to help women across the globe grow their business skills through practical education and training.

To add to this, Sachs has been a long-time supporter of The First 100 Years, a project founded by Obelisk CEO Dana Denis-Smith and supported by the Law Society, the Bar Council and CILEx, celebrating the progress of women in law since 1919.

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When it comes to addressing diversity, ITV has a long history of taking action. Under the leadership of Barry Matthews, who started there as Head of Legal Affairs in 2009, ITV initiated an award winning training programme with panel firms for their lawyers. Matthews also spearheaded the network’s extensive corporate social responsibility initiatives which were recognised at the Legal Business Awards and he was the driving force behind the Legal Social Mobility Partnership, a charity uniting law firms, in-house legal teams and commercial partners to provide work experience opportunities for school-aged students from less privileged backgrounds. 

Now, with Sarah Davis as Director Group Legal Affairs, ITV’s diversity initiatives continue to pave the way for inclusivity in the legal sector. Davis is on a mission to make the legal sector more accessible and to open up opportunities to those in less fortunate positions. She says, “My driver for wanting D&I is about fairness, removing the advantage from attributes you did nothing to achieve. I want to support all capable people being able to have the same opportunities.”

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Leaders changing the legal industry from the inside out

Man Group

In the world of investment, alternative London-based firm Man Group, are committed to making D&I an integral fixture across every level of the business. Starting with the pipeline, their Paving The Way campaign supports and encourages diverse talent to enter the industry, and backs amazing initiatives such as #100BlackInterns and Girls Who Invest. Man Group has also created key initiatives such as returner programmes – bringing in experienced high calibre females who can come into senior/mid-level roles, and has a vested commitment to targets such as the Women in Finance Charter and 30% Club membership.

In terms of their legal partnership, diversity is also a top priority, and something that GC Robyn Grew keeps a close eye on. With a focus on identifying and supporting promising, diverse junior lawyers early in their careers, Grew states, ‘When we look at firms, we tend to create partnerships over a long period of time. It allows us to see how the law firms are recruiting and how they’re promoting’.

That’s not all. Grew is also heavily involved in D&I in many other capacities such as, chair of Man Group’s Drive (Diversity and Inclusion) Steering Committee, senior sponsor of Pride@man and BEAM (Black Employee and Allies at Man) employee networks, a speaker at Speakers4Schools programme and chair to the AIMA diversity and inclusion working group. An impressive list.

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Shell is another global company who takes their D&I very seriously. So much so, the company has been collecting and analysing D&I data for years through an annual ‘Shell People Survey’. This employee engagement survey contains 52 questions and competencies and is used to measure and improve the inclusion of all employees.

Under the leadership of legal director Donny Ching, Shell strives to be just as transparent as it is inclusive and regularly releases the data in a bid to constantly revise and find new practices. In an interview, Ching explained how the leadership at Shell all have KPIs regarding D&I and D&I goals and activities are tracked. This focus goes all the way up to the board, and is embedded in the key attributes the company looks for from its senior leaders. 

On the ground, they offer a wide range of D&I activities for employees, which are led by the business leaders, external parties and the employees themselves. Covering everything from awareness-raising sessions to mentoring to ‘deep dive’ learning, Shells wants to make sure that everyone feels heard and that the right support systems are in place. 10,000 of their employees have been involved in D&I activities so far.

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Unilever is innovative in everything it does, so it’s no surprise that its D&I programme is the same. Back in 2010, Unilever created a ‘Gender Balance Plan’ with the mission to achieve a 50/50 gender balance in managerial positions across the business globally. A milestone that was hit in 2020. The company firmly believes that as women are their main consumers, they need to be represented from the top-down.

For Ritva Sotamaa, chief legal officer, this was a no-brainer and instrumental in retaining top talent, ‘We really make sure we promote diversity from the top. It gives us a great platform. We track our metrics and how we do quite carefully throughout the company.’ 

What’s even more inspiring is that this philosophy extends beyond the corporate side of the business and into the communities in which Unilever serves. A perfect example being Project Shakti, a programme that empowers and supports women in rural, developing communities in creating their own microenterprises, selling Unilever products door-to-door. Since 2003, over 70,000 women have benefited from this.

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At BHP, chief of legal Caroline Cox has made it her mission to level the playing field when it comes to D&I. And that started with tackling unconscious biases. Not only was she instrumental in adopting company-wide training on the topic, she has made it a key part of the entire hiring process. A ‘competency framework’ was introduced to ensure all prospective candidates were viewed fairly, and an unconscious bias officer was appointed to sit in the legal leadership team’s talent discussions.

Next on the list for BHP was the gender pay gap. To ensure parity, they brought in an automated remuneration system to alert them when a female of a similar grade is not receiving the same salary as her male counterpart. In 2018, over 1,000 pay equity issues were discovered and resolved using this programme, helping the company to close that gender pay gap.

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Anglo American

When Richard Price joined Anglo American in 2017 as GC, it struck him that D&I at the global mining company wasn’t as strong as it could be, so he took it upon himself to turn that around.

First on his agenda was gender equality, which he pushed by ensuring his panel of advisors put at least one female relationship partner during the company’s first-ever legal roster tender. Next up was the gender pay gap. A firm believer that all team members should be paid fairly for their work, he elevated the conversation, calling on other firms to make the same changes and close the gap.

D&I is also at the front of his mind when he’s hiring. When it comes to candidates, he has a rule for head-hunters that the options must be varied. “From our perspective, we do believe that diverse teams are better and that we’ll actually get a better team,” Price told the International Bar Association.

The initiatives have been paying off with Anglo American making it on to Bloomberg’s Gender-Equality Index (GEI) for the first time in 2019.

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Leaders leveraging their legal panels


Next on the list we have another telecoms giant, BT. BT was one of the first companies in the UK to set up an employee network for racially diverse colleagues, establishing the Ethnic Diversity Network in 1992, and has been one step ahead since. 

Signatory to the General Counsel Statement in Support of Diversity and Inclusion, as well as the Law Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Charter, BT’s most recent move has seen the introduction of a new initiative rewarding its panel law firms for their diversity and inclusion credentials. Those on the legal panel, comprising fifteen firms, who successfully demonstrate their commitment to D&I – covering everything from expertise, experience, culture and approach to innovation – will be guaranteed their contract renewal.

To keep tabs on the progress and processes BT will conduct regular reviews on each firm and provide annual reports.

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Vodafone has always been a driver for equality, with Rosemary Martin, Group general counsel and company secretary, leading the way. Back in 2015, the company introduced a global mandatory minimum maternity benefits standard, the first multinational to do so. Vodafone ReConnect Programme followed in 2017 in a bid to bring those on career breaks between one and ten years back into the workplace on permanent roles.

Most recently, Martin has taken steps to shake up the telecoms giant’s global legal advice panel, revealing that 20% of supplier selection criteria will now be based on commitments to diversity and the environment. With the goal of strengthening and refocusing their D&I agenda, Vodafone will ask suppliers to demonstrate policies and procedures that support diversity in the workplace, including gender, ethnicity, LGBT+, age and disability criteria for new tenders. This will include policies on equal pay, and whether suppliers have publicly reported targets in relation to the percentage of female employees company-wide and at senior management levels.

Martin stated, ‘Our panel legal service providers have signed up to an ambitious set of commitments to share best practice and collaborate on Diversity & Inclusion and ESG topics, including working together to develop the principles championed by the General Counsel for Diversity and Inclusion initiative.’

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The diversity and inclusion agenda is nothing new to Walmart, who have been launching successful initiatives for years. So much so, one of their core values is to always ensure that a space is created where everyone feels like they belong across everything they do.

One of their earliest legal initiatives back in 2005 was to bridge the diversity gap in terms of external partners. They did this by focusing on firms who could demonstrate their diverseness and awarding them contracts. This commitment is still as strong today as it was back then, with over 200 female diverse attorneys serving as relationship partners at outside counsel firms – a fact that GC Karen Roberts and her legal team are very proud of. An extension of this is ‘Walmart Ready’, an external onboarding program that educates women and diverse outside counsel about Walmart’s business, legal operations and unique corporate culture while ensuring that their teams are fully utilizing the diverse pool of available talent.

The company has most recently turned its focus to accessibility, creating law camps and other programs that introduce diverse student populations to the legal profession and showing the doors it can open.

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Another organisation holding their panel firms accountable to their D&I commitments is HP. Much to the surprise of the legal world in 2017, the US tech giant introduced a 10% ‘diversity holdback’ clause to their contracts in a bid to transform diversity from a ‘bonus’ to a mandatory. 

Under this initiative, launched by chief legal officer Kim Rivera, each firm must guarantee that 10% of billable hours are performed by a female and a racially diverse solicitor or they will deduct 10% of costs. HP has a tool in place to keep track of hours, so there’s no hiding from this one. 

The result? It’s no surprise that the incentive worked. HP revealed that the percentage of firms meeting the requirements has doubled, inspiring another 170 GCs to insist that their firms show their diversity progress or miss out on millions of dollars of legal fees.

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What’s next?

At Obelisk Support we believe in creating as many opportunities as possible for people to participate in meaningful legal work, regardless of their identity, background or circumstances. We have been championing new ways of working for the past decade and we’re excited to see so many law firms and legal teams joining us in breaking down the barriers of diversity and inclusion in work.

We have a “once in a lifetime” chance to change the structures and attitudes that have shut too many people out of the profession for too long. We celebrate all the organisations and individuals who are doing great work to make this happen – thank you. However there is still a long way to go and we must work together to keep up the momentum as we build a more representative profession. 

We hope that the ideas and initiatives we’ve showcased in this article act as inspiration for others to take action today for a better and fairer tomorrow.

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